There are any number of of intriguing aspects to this year’s Tour but the stand-out issue is clear: nobody can seem to agree on who is going to win it. Not since the late 1980s have there been so many – and such evenly matched – genuine contenders for the yellow jersey.
Chris Froome is one of three past winners who will line up for the start in Utrecht next Saturday, along with Alberto Contador and defending champion Vincenzo Nibali. They are joined by the Colombian climbing sensation Nairo Quintana – winner of the Giro d’Italia last year – to form a quartet of outstanding favourites.
The general feeling of pre-race uncertainty is only heightened by an innovative Tour route that defies easy definition. Indeed, the dearth of time-trialling miles prompted Froome to consider at one point skipping the race altogether. There is just one individual test, a 16km-long effort on the opening day, and a short but demanding team time trial in Brittany, which takes place far later than normal, on stage nine.
In between, the peloton faces the most demanding first week in recent history. Usually made up of flat stages to suit the sprinters, this year’s opening act is peppered with tough stages in the manner of the one-day classics, as the peloton makes its way through Holland, Belgium and across northern France.
As in 2014, the early exchanges include a trek over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, on stage four to Cambrai. Froome crashed out on the corresponding stage a year ago and is understandably wary of the challenge that lies ahead. “Before you get through those nine ‘classics’ [cycling’s no-holds-barred, one-day races] you’re not even entered for the general classification race,” he noted, somewhat grimly.
Assuming Froome makes it through those arduous opening days with his hopes intact, he will find rather more amenable terrain once the Tour hits the Pyrenees in the second week, with successive summit finishes at La Pierre Saint-Martin, Cauterets and Plateau de Beille. The terrain is even more mountainous in week three, with four tough stages in the Alps, including finishes at Pra Loup and La Toussuire, ahead of a potentially spectacular shoot-out atop the fabled Alpe d’Huez, just 24 hours before the finish in Paris.
Each member of the Big Four – the galacticos, as some have labelled them – will set out with optimism. Nibali has had a low-key year since winning the Tour last year, but the Italian is a remarkably consistent performer in three-week races and, more than any of his rivals, has the ability to shine outside of the high mountains. His victory of a year ago was built around his stage win in Sheffield on stage two and his fine ride on the cobbles three days later, after all, and he will expect to emerge from the tough opening week on the front foot.
The latter part of the course seems to suit Quintana best of all, however. The pure climber was the only man to put Froome in any real difficulty in 2013, and at 25, he is entering his prime. Cycling is second only to football in his native country, but he carries the weight of home expectation – no Colombian has ever won the Tour – with a coolness that belies his tender years.
Contador arrives in Utrecht seeking to become the first man to win the Giro and Tour in the same year since Marco Pantani in 1998, a feat thought almost impossible in the modern era. A moment of weakness on the final mountain stage apart, Contador was a convincing winner in Italy, and victory at the four-day Route du Sud warm-up race last week suggested that he has recovered from his efforts in May, though the third week of the Tour will provide the true test. A punchy climber with a knack for finding a way to win regardless of his form, the Spaniard is the man Froome fears the most.
For his part, Froome emerged victorious in his lone head-to-head with Contador this year, at the Ruta del Sol in February, and he scored a morale-boosting overall win at the tough Critérium du Dauphiné in the Alps in early June. The Kenyan-born Briton has not yet reached the same heights in this campaign as he did en route to winning the Tour in 2013, but he insists that his current mindset is very different to that of a year ago. “I’m a lot more relaxed this time around not coming in as defending champion,” he said.
Yet even with those marquee names, youngsters such as American Tejay van Garderen and French talents Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot will harbour ambitions of a podium finish. It is now 30 years since Bernard Hinault became the last Frenchman to win the Tour, but Pinot’s recent form has certainly raised home hopes. In a Tour like this year’s, after all, just about anything could happen.Reuse content