Tour Preview: The Contenders
The 2016 Tour de France course is a much more balanced affair than what we saw in 2015, largely thanks to the addition of 54km contre la montre—40km more individual time trialing than in 2015. Of course, both time trials are immediately preceded by HC mountaintop finishes, and this fact of placement defines the route in our minds. This year’s Tour looks to favor the best all-rounder, the cyclist who can best comport himself in both situations. (Though it certainly helps that the ITTs themselves aren’t the pan-flat, 50km events that littered the Tour in the ’00s.)
At present, Chris Froome best fits this criterion. If he remains unchallenged in the high mountains, then the two time trials will decide things; however, if the likes of Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador are able to dismantle Team Sky’s formidable mountain train, then the Briton could be playing catch-up in each of the tests against the clock and may even find himself in the unfamiliar position of facing a deficit going into the final week.
Though his Tour recon didn’t always go as planned, Froome’s got the form and the team for a successful July campaign.
Big Engine, Big Team
Popular opinion holds that, if Chris Froome’s two Tour wins have demonstrated any weakness—perceived or otherwise—it’s that he fades in the final week. The Briton has suggested that his 2016 build-up has been focused on maintaining form through the third week. Given the danger-laden final push through Alps this year, that supposed weakness might be a concern, so the redirected focus is warranted. But we also suspect that the apparent drop-off in 2015 was more due to the fact that he was suffering from a light illness (recall the strange coughing) than in any weakness on the part of the engine.
In fact, the only time we’ve seen Froome more dominant than last year was in 2013, when nothing but the motorbikes could slow him down on Ventoux—which, incidentally, is where we expect him to unveil the full strength of his even more impressive 2016 TDF squad. Froome may not have the yellow jersey going into Ventoux on stage 12, but he’ll definitely have it afterwards. The stage is exactly what Sky likes in a profile: a long, flat-ish lead-in to a brutal finish that comes down to pure power. Froome’s powder will be kept dry all day, Sky will let the team with yellow enjoy one final day at the front until the camelcase Cat 4/Cat 3 pair of Gordes and Trois Termes, and then the inevitable black & blue train will commence.
And my-oh-my has Sky put together one helluva black and blue train this year. Even if Froome hadn’t just put on a clinical performance at the Dauphiné, his team alone would surely put him at the top of the favorites list. It’s enough to shepherd him through the initial stages, let him take time on the ITTs, and control the tempo to his liking on the robust profiles of this year’s mountain stages.
If Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe, and the eminently capable Vasil Kiryienka constitute a flat-stage meat grinder, then the British outfit’s high-mountain team is a proper imperial thresher. Sky suffered a blow to its climbing prowess when Richie Porte left to seek his fortunes at BMC Racing, but replacing the Australian journeyman with the young, frighteningly talented Mikel Landa more than makes up for that loss. In addition to Landa, Froome’s cup runneth over with Sergio Henao, Mikel Nieve, Wout Poels, and Geraint Thomas. On any other team, the former two would be top contenders for KOM. The latter two enter the 2016 Tour with the distinction of being unofficial co-MVPs in last year’s race. Thomas was crucial in shelling Froome’s rivals when the Briton claimed yellow on the slopes of La Pierre-San-Martin; Poels limited the impact of Quintana’s final, desperate attack on the Alpe d’Huez.
In short, Froome comes into the Tour having demonstrated the right amount of dominance and restraint to beat most of the Tour’s top contenders at the Duaphiné, and he’s got the support of what may be the most impressive Tour squad we’ve ever seen. Everything looks stacked in Froome’s favor, making him a favorite to join a very select list of cyclists who have won three Tours de France. But the race isn’t won yet, and with a parcourse that looks to stack the final five days with some dangerous stage profiles, Froome’s commitment to week three may end up proving the right move.
Contador will likely have a long, black-and-blue tail throughout July.
We expect Team Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador to play a spoiler in this year’s edition rather than winning it outright, but he still enjoys second billing in our preview simply by dint of the gravity of his palmarès. He won’t win the race, nor will he even place on the podium; however, we’re keen to see some late-stage heroics that open-up the race for Movistar’s Nairo Quintana by blowing the Sky train apart. As anyone familiar with our guesswork concerning last year’s Tour knows, we’re very much in the pro-Contador camp. In casting about for justification for this position, the best we can come up with is that the Spaniard turns the pedals the way John Keats handled a pen; like every stroke might be his last.
Given this apparent exigency, Contador seems wholly incapable of lining up for any competitive event without trying to win the damned thing. This impulse disregards lack of form, lack of team support, or lack of the prospect of maillot jaune prestige for doing so. Compared to the by-the-book, heavily scripted approach that Sky/Brailsford/Froome take to the Tour, Contador’s panache—Do we dare write “panache” in this age of artfully jaded self-reflexivity? Yes, we dare.—is a refreshing throwback to the halcyon days of cycling before stodgily metered efforts and ear-piece coaching from the team car spreadsheet. Plus, there are few sights more beautiful in cycling than Contador standing on the pedals to climb, saddle wagging with the graceful precision of a metronome ticking out the cadence of visual poetry.
But despite that praise, we still don’t think Contador will make the podium. That’s because he’s no longer the most dominant GC rider but he still doesn’t care about podium spots. He succinctly articulated that position earlier this year after losing Paris-Nice to super-domestique Geraint Thomas: “I don’t like second places. I did everything I could to make up for lost time, and in the end I nearly won.” All-or-nothing may not be an admirable attitude for almost any other competitor, but the 33-year-old may be forgiven his ambitions considering that he’s tied for fourth with Fausto Coppi and Miguel Indurain in overall grand tour wins. (If his redacted wins are included, he bumps Jacques Anquetil out of third place.)
The rest of the quote referenced above reads, “I made the show even if I didn’t succeed.” This year’s Tour will be another example of Contador making the show. If he wins the Tour, it will likely be on stages 19 and 20 with a tactically astute ride. But we suspect that when the credits roll the Spaniard will have no more than another fifth place to his name, and the overall will be decided between Froome and Quintana.
As with last year’s edition, we expect Quintana and Froome to occupy the first to steps on the podium.
Given the profiles and distances of the individual time trials and the amount of climbing in this year’s edition, we’d say Quintana must be the GC favorite; however, last year’s race was even more suited to the diminutive climber’s talents, but Movistar insisted on riding for second and third instead of first. Once again, Quintana is the unknown quantity. His build-up over the past two years has been more mystery and less form-flaunting, so it’ll be hard to gauge where he is until stages 8 and 9, which is where we expect the first serious GC action. Last year, he looked to be every bit as strong as Froome, but the difference was in the team. Where Sky was lined up behind its captain, Movistar wasted an undue amount of time, energy, and opportunity protecting Alejandro Valverde’s eventual podium place.
There are two keys to Quintana having a successful campaign. First, he can’t get caught out in week one—see last year’s time gaps after a wind-swept stage 2 on the Dutch coast. Second, he’ll need some help dismantling the Sky train. Valverde has publicly committed to working for Quintana, but, even if the well-decorated Spaniard does lay it down for the Colombian, Movistar’s team car has consistently shown a lack of imagination when it comes to grabbing grand tours by the horns. The final profiles of the Alpine stages provide some opportunities for tactical heroics, but chances are good that Movistar will let the important skirmishes in the GC come down to a group comprising a handful of team captains, two or three Sky domestiques, Tejay van Garderen (in support of Porte), and a depleted Valverde.
This is, admittedly, conjecture, but of that hypothetical group, we doubt van Garderen or Valverde will have the ability to attack any combination of Sky’s superlative roster. And even if either of them are able to muster a gap, we doubt Sky will be inclined to do anything more than ride tempo in classic Sky fashion. It’ll take an attack from a big gun to soften that train, and we suspect El Pistolero is the only rider who will be willing to take a shot.
This likelihood leads us back to the above assertion that Contador may be the deciding factor of Quintana’s campaign. If Contador does pop off, then the Sky team car will be obligated to either risk burning all of its matches and hope that the Spaniard can be reeled in or let Froome off the leash. Either way, that’ll open the door for Quintana to counter.
The Other Contenders
The grand narrative going into the Grande Boucle last year was replete with references to the “fab four.” We hated it, and we’re glad that the collective cycling consciousness has accepted that Vincenzo Nibali may be one of the most well-round cyclists in the world, but he’s not on par in grand tours with the above three. As we’ve intimated above, we expect either Froome or Quintana to win the Tour with Contador falling off of the podium while trying to win it, but there are a host of other cyclists who could potentially round out the top three.
Pierre Rolland, Thibaut Pinot, Dan Martin—all have made compelling cases recently as to why they should be considered in the challengers pool. Considerations of column inches make a more compelling case against them, and—with one exception due to a deferential nod to the inherent nationalism of cycling—we’ve limited the below list to the riders we think will have an indelible effect on the general classification.
BMC Racing’s Richie Porte is the most immediately obvious of these. He’s coming off of a very strong Dauphiné, where he finished a deceptively low fourth having surrendered just 21 seconds to Froome over the course of 1,154km of racing. Porte’s number has been in the tumbler for years now, and 2016 is the Australian’s best opportunity to date to confirm his oft-teased grand tour pedigree by mounting a challenge against his old boss. If Froome or Quintana have a bad day, Porte may find himself in contention for the first two podium steps, but first he’ll have to address his innate talent of always having a jour sans himself.
Aru and Nibali will be a formidable pair when the roads point up.
Turning to the Continent, we like what we’ve seen from Astana’s Fabio Aru and AG2R’s Romain Bardet. Though he arguably lacks Quintana’s talent, Aru already has as many grand tour wins and podium appearances as the Colombian. He’s also a blast to watch, as he takes the art of Voecklerian emoting to levels befitting caricature. Few cyclists suffer in the saddle with Aru’s spectacular lack of grace, and—despite the fact that he falls apart when confronted with both adversity and success—he’s already proven that he has the ability to match wits with elder statesmen of the peloton like Purito and Contador himself.
Bardet will be carrying the hopes of the home crowd on his narrow climber’s shoulders.
Romain Bardet suffers the curse of being the World’s (Current) Strongest Frenchman; the whole country expects him to bring the Tour title home. No French cyclist has won this race since Bernard Hinault, and Bardet isn’t quite on that level. His Dauhpiné results indicate he’s riding a wave of good form, though, and the avian-faced climber has proven time and again that he can descend with the same alacrity that he can climb. We’d go so far as to posit that, by the end of his career, Bardet will be ensconced in the same ranks as Nibali, Samuel Sanchez, and Paolo Savoldelli—cyclists who can burn you on the climbs but will scorch you on the descents. Given these abilities, we expect some gutsy animation from him in the final week, which he’ll enter after having surrendered a few minutes in the overall in the Pyrenees and the first ITT.
On this side of the Atlantic, US fans will be pinning their hopes on van Garderen.
And now for something that has become a recurring feature in these commentaries: acknowledging the Anglophone media’s obligatory yet unrealistic touting of whatever US cyclist happens to be showing form. With Cannondale Pro Cycling’s Andrew Talansky having already announced his intentions to skip the Tour, the nation’s expectations fall on Tejay van Garderen. When he first made a name for himself with some subaltern heroics to finish fifth (at +11:04) in the 2012 Tour, Tejay van Garderen assumed the mantle of the next great GC cyclist from the US. He repeated that performance two years later with almost the exact same deficit, albeit with the expectation that—in a depleted field—he might accomplish more.
Our impression is that, had he been allowed to develop in smaller races like California, the Dauphiné, Utah, Paris-Nice, etc. (which he’s historically done well in), and then honed his grand tour form as a protected rider in the Vuelta before (and that “before” is the really important part here) being thrown to the wolves in the Tour, van Garderen’s career may have described a different arc. And, to be fair, it still may—after all, we’re simply armchair commentators and he’s still three years away from the traditional GC peak. But compared to other upper-mid-tier riders who don’t exhibit the myopic Tour-centricity peculiar to US and French cyclists, van Garderen’s palmarès aren’t necessarily where they could be.
While he’s confronting new horizons in 2017, we get to watch Spartacus in one final Tour.
End of an Era
Finally, this Tour marks the last that we’ll get to see Fabian Cancellara take the start line. The only cyclist in today’s peloton who surpasses Spartacus’ days in yellow is Froome himself, and even then the tally is 29 to 30. The Swiss machine took his first maillot juane in the 2004 prologue, and one of our favorite Tour memories came in Compiègne in 2007 when Cancellara initiated a long “sprint” at the red kite, holding off the entire peloton to take stage honors in the yellow jersey. Over the following decade, Cancellara has become one of the true senior statesmen of the peloton, and his leadership and tree trunk-shaped legs will be missed. Chapeau, Spartacus, and happy retirement.
For a more thorough investigation of the stages, keep an eye out for our article on the course, coming soon.