The Tour is here. Finally, all the melodrama about motorhomes, motorized bikes, and endless coverage of Sir Bradley Wiggins’ hour record bike can be brushed aside in favor of the main event. The way we see it, Contador and Froome cast long shadows over this year’s race, but Nibali, Quintana, and a few others may have something to say about that supposed dominance — provided they can survive the first, dangerous week.
The dearth of time trial kilometers and the overabundance of climbing mean that this year’s edition of the Tour is a fitting tribute to the KOM jersey’s 40th anniversary. The disparity between climbing and time trials also means that this edition will be won by the skinny guys when the race hits the mountains. With a turbulent opening week capped with a dangerously situated team time trial, though, the price to attend the high-altitude battleground with a shot at the overall is almost as steep as the climbs themselves. Whether it’s falling victim to wind-raked echelons on the Dutch coast, poor positioning on any one of the several punchy uphill finishes scattered throughout the race, or a disastrous jour sans in the high mountains, there are just too many opportunities for inattentive would-be champions to fall through the gaps after the Grand Départ in Utrecht.
While we aren’t particularly keen on the musical quartet monikers that have been adopted to describe this year’s favorites, we do agree that the top step in Paris will be occupied by one of a select group comprising Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, and Nairo Quintana. Outside of this basic assumption, any pre-race predictions that try to cover the top five spots — or even the final podium — are likely to fall flat over the course of the dangerous first week and the five mountain-top finishes to follow. There’s a good chance that at least one of these four won’t finish in the top five — or even finish at all.
With all due respect to the defending champion and the young Colombian, we suggest only two cyclists are capable of managing this Tour’s route well enough to win it: Froome and Contador. The Briton has shown some impressive form over the past month by winning the Critérium du Dauphiné, the Tour’s younger sister, but Contador has already proven that his engine is capable of almost single-handedly winning a grand tour this year by demolishing the competition at the Giro d’Italia. He may have surrendered time on the penultimate stage, but after he systematically unmanned his main rivals on the slopes of the Mortirolo, there is little doubt as to who is the most dominant grand tour rider of this generation.
In addition to those racing miles and his exceptional form, Contador also enjoys the likes of Michael Rogers and Matteo Tosatto to help shepherd him through what promises to be a chaotic first week. We question some of the roster choices Tinkoff-Saxo is making (No Robert Kišerlovski?), but few cyclists in the peloton today are as effective at managing a team from the saddle as Rogers, and with an impressive stable of proven climbers like Majka and Kreuziger, Contador will have plenty of support in the mountains, even if Basso continues to be a non-presence when the road turns up. Tosatto also contributes significantly to Contador’s support in that crucial first week, having earned his stripes by navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of the crash at the end of Giro stage 13 for a bike change that, by our count, left Contador out of the saddle for a mere 15 seconds while Sky’s captain stood fiddling with his bike, surrounded by teammates.
Given that level of on-the-road support for the dangerous first week, the superb form he’s already shown, his proven ability to push through adversity like crashes and bad days, and his ability to read — and violently dismantle — a race at times when others are content to sit in, we think that Contador is capable of overcoming the potential drawbacks of already having one grand tour in his legs this year. It may only be our inner romantic speaking, the one that appreciates the dream of a Giro/Tour double. Or it may be our love of aggressive, intuitive racing that doesn’t rely solely on carefully monitored power meters and superficialities like motorhomes. Whatever the case, Contador is our pick for the overall.
Despite what we see as a slight advantage for the Contador camp, Froome can’t be counted out. Anyone scanning this Tour’s jagged profile will see in it shades of the 2013 edition, which featured many of cycling’s most storied climbs in commemoration of the race’s 100th edition. Most notable of these was Ventoux, where Froome simply rode away from his rivals with what looked like relative ease. His superhuman, seated cadence made even Contador look sluggish as the Briton spun away, bottom bracket smoking, to win the stage and establish an unassailable advantage. We haven’t seen much to indicate that Froome is at that level this year; but if he is, then our prediction may prove to be wildly off the mark come July 26.
The Sky captain will also be riding the Tour with a strong cohort, including mountain goats Richie Porte and Wout Poels and the redoubtable Nicolas Roche as road captain. Had a rider of Roche’s savvy been present at the Giro, Team Sky may have avoided the two-minute penalty for an illegal wheel swap and the costly indecisiveness after the pile-up on stage 13. Not to harp on Sir Dave Brailsford’s latest “marginal gains” foolishness, but one Roche at the start line is worth any number of camper vans at the finish.
Even if something does go awry on the road, Froome’s dogged, measured performance in last year’s Vuelta suggests that the Briton may have developed the mental fortitude to match his physical strength. His build-up of form has also proven effective, culminating with two stage wins and the overall after he artfully controlled and dispatched the field at the Dauphiné. If he survives the first week intact, then we don’t doubt that the Briton’s myopic focus — comically epitomized by his tendency toward stem-gazing — will see him onto the podium.
Despite glimmers of form at the Dauphiné and the Italian nationals, defending champion Nibali hasn’t given us any reason to think of him as the favorite. In fact, given that he climbed the Poggio earlier this year in the less-than-impressive company of André Greipel, we’d suggest that he’s included in the top four favorites based solely on his dominant win last year and his uncanny ability to rapidly develop form. His win last year is certainly notable for the fact that Contador, Froome, and Quintana were all absent.
Still, Astana showed unbelievable strength by throttling the life out of every other team at the Giro, and we’re expecting Lo Squalo to ride an even stronger wave of teal come July. This has been the main focus of Nibali’s year, after all, and it’s obvious that Astana pushed so hard at the Giro in part to make Contador go too deep into the red. We’re expecting Astana to make the first week and the team time trial very, very hard in order to enter the mountains with fistfuls of time under Nibali’s belt, but we also expect it to ultimately come to naught.
Of the four pre-ordained favorites, Quintana is the great unknown quantity. He’s already podiumed the Tour between Froome and Contador, won the Giro against virtually the same competition that Contador faced this year, proven he has the legs to outpace the man with the hammer in the high mountains, and been tipped by Nibali himself as this year’s favorite.
While these credentials might normally qualify Quintana as the outright favorite, the diminutive Colombian climber has yet to prove that he can contain an in-form Froome over the course of three weeks, and he’s already been unable to distance a fatigued, post-Giro Contador at the Route du Sud. While Quintana may still be building toward a third-week peak, Contador is also likely to only get stronger. A Quintana win would likely signal the beginning of a new era of dominance, and he’ll certainly be a key animator in the mountains, but we think he may still be a year or two off of the top step.
Having detailed the four popularly accepted favorites, we’d be remiss not to note that the low time trial kilometers and an effectively neutered queen stage (Galibier, we hardly knew ye) mean that the lead-up to this year’s Tour has it looking as wide open as any since Operation Puerto popped the two pre-race favorites on the eve of the 2006 edition.
The situation plays well into the hands of upstart challengers like Tejay van Garderen, who was Froome’s strongest competition at the Dauphiné, several of Cannondale-Garmin’s cyclists, and the French pair of Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, who both rode into the spotlight by partially filling the holes left in last year’s Tour when Contador and Froome climbed off.
Pinot is looking especially promising this year. He appears to continually gain confidence in his descending, and he lost the Tour de Suisse by dint of time trial kilometers alone, which — again — are notably absent from this Tour. As with our Contador pick, we accept that this may be a case of privileging our hearts over our heads — after all, who doesn’t enjoy seeing Frenchmen ride well at their home race? — but misguided or not, we’re tagging the promising youth to surprise the favorites and cement his presence in the grand tour conversation with his second consecutive podium finish.