Words by Mikkel Condé
Photos by Kramon and Sirotti
This year's Tour de France looks to be one of the most difficult editions to call in recent history. With four top contenders, we should be in for quite a show the next three weeks!The route
In the past, the Tour de France often started out with a whole week dedicated to the sprinters. Those days are gone. In modern day cycling, there are no easy days in the grand tours. Every day serves as an opportunity to shake the general classification. The opening time trial will give us the first indication of the current shape of the favorites. On paper, the following day should end in a bunch sprint but it could easily turn into a crosswind mayhem. Stage 3 and 4 are mini editions of the spring classics Flèche Wallonne and Paris-Roubaix. Especially the day on the cobblestones will have a big impact on the GC. Be sure to make it home from work in order to watch the pave show next Tuesday.
Stage 5-8 include two days for the sprinters and two days for the puncheurs with the uphill finishes in Le Havre and on Mur de Bretagne. The next big date for the GC riders is on the ninth day of racing. None of the favorites can afford any bad luck in the undulating 28 km long team time trial. After a well-deserved rest day, the first of six mountain top finishes comes on stage 10 where the riders take on the 15.3 km HC-climb La Pierre-Saint-Martin. The following two days in the Pyrenees include well-known climbs like Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet (both on stage 11) and Plateau de Beille (stage 12).
Stage 13 serves as an excellent day for a break to make it all the way. Numerous small ascents on the last 90 km, will make it very hard for the sprinters to stay in contention. In fact, the sprinters may not get another chance to fight for glory until the race reaches Paris on the last day. The final week is very mountainous. Stage 17, 19 and 20 all finish uphill after overcoming many hard climbs. Alpe d’Huez awaits the riders as the last struggle of the race. This penultimate stage of the Tour is only 110 km long but there is barely one meter of flat terrain. It’s the last chance for the favorites to move up in the GC. We can expect a great show this Saturday afternoon.
As you can see, this year’s Tour de France favors those who excel uphill. With only one short individual time trial and a hilly team time trial, the pure climbers couldn’t ask for a better course. The sprinters don’t have many stages to aim at so they have to make sure it ends in a bunch sprints on the few days they have a chance. This means we should see a fair amount of cooperation amongst the sprinter teams. They simply can’t afford to miss out a single day. In the Giro d’Italia, we saw drama on every stage. Don’t be surprised if the same thing happens in the Tour.
Remember, bonus seconds are back on the menu in the Tour de France this year. 10-6-4 seconds will be awarded to the first three riders to cross the finishing line on all the regular road stages.
Everybody is talking about The Fantastic Four of Froome, Quintana, Contador and Nibali. Together they have won seven of the last eight grand tours. It will be a huge surprise not to see one of these four riders win Tour de France 2015. It will be very close however. Therefore, avoiding bad luck will be just as important as doing well on the climbs.
Nairo Quintana has changed his race program a bit compared to 2013, when he finished 2nd overall in the Tour. Instead of not racing since the end of April, Quintana decided to do both Tour de Romandie and Route de Sud before taking on the Tour this year. According to the Colombian, he’s in better shape than two years ago. The route suits him perfectly and personally, I’m confident he will be on the final podium in Paris. To help set-up Quintana for the win, Movistar sends a very good team for the TTT. The Spanish squad is amongst the top favorites to win stage 9. As a tiny climber from Colombia, you may not think Quintana stands a chance on the cobblestones on stage 4. However, don’t forget that he did surprisingly well in Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke this spring. Quintana proved the paves don’t scare him and even though he doesn’t have a strong team for this particular stage, I don’t think he’ll lose much - if any - time to his rivals. With three mountain top finishes in the last five days of racing, Quintana will have plenty of uphill terrain to attack and gun for the yellow jersey. In 2013, he was the best climber in the last week of the race. If this is the case again this year, Quintana will be extremely difficult to beat. In Alejandro Valverde, he has one of the strongest domestiques on the climbs. That is of course, if newly crowned Spanish champion wants to play ball. Valverde is a winner. If he sees an opportunity to take over the leadership of the team, he won’t hesitate to seize it.
To me, Chris Froome has, without a doubt, the strongest team in the race. No matter the terrains, Team Sky should have at least two or three riders next to Froome. They should also be able to fight for the win in the TTT. It would have been better for Froome had there been a long individual time trial. He might be able to put in 15-30 seconds on his rivals on day 1 but it won’t be of much importance when the peloton reaches the high mountains. Luckily for the Kenyan-born Brit, he’s also amongst the best climbers in the race. In Dauphiné, he proved to be in excellent shape. With riders like Richie Porte, Leo König and Wout Poels to support him on the climbs, Froome too will be very difficult to beat. Last year, he crashed out of the Tour on the cobblestones. Many people point to the paves as the biggest hurdle for Froome this year. However, in Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard, he couldn’t ask for better guidance on the difficult sections. If he can avoid any bad luck, I think Froome will prove to do much better on the paves than most people tend to think. Then, it’s up to himself to show that he’s strong enough uphill to conquer the race.
After winning the Giro d’Italia earlier this year, Alberto Contador now has a unique chance of becoming the first rider since Marco Pantani to win both the Giro and the Tour de France in the same year. Completing The Double has been Contador’s sole focus this year. I will be more than difficult for Contador to pull this off, though. The Giro was extremely hard and even though he didn’t have any major problems winning the race overall, he wasn’t the best rider uphill. It might have been that he held back a little, thinking of the Tour or maybe it was his crash or his allergy problems. In any case, he didn’t send the message that he will be able to drop neither Quintana nor Froome on the climbs in the Tour. Furthermore, Contador’s team proved to be very weak in the Italian mountains. Rafal Majka will be an important piece of the puzzle for Contador but if Roman Kreuziger, Ivan Basso and Michael Rogers don’t step up their game, Contador won’t be able to count on much support on the climbs. Personally, I doubt Contador will win this Tour de France. However, I have no doubts that he will do whatever he can to complete his mission and win The Double. It’s also crucial to remember that, compared to his rivals, Contador has nothing to lose. He has already won all the grand tours multiple times. Only The Double counts. It doesn’t really matter if he finishes 2nd or 12th overall in this Tour. Therefore, in case Contador is still behind when they reach stage 20, we could easily see him throw a Hail Mary and attack already on Col de la Croix de Fer. One thing is for sure, Contador doesn’t give up until the race is over.
Vincenzo Nibali arrives at the Tour with a very similar season behind him as he did last year. Despite his coach Paolo Slongo saying that Nibali would take his first win this year much earlier than he did in 2013, he didn’t cross the line first until last Saturday when he won the Italian championship - just like last year. Nibali has used every opportunity to stress that he doesn’t feel a pressure to repeat his overall win from last year. He already has a Tour de France win under his belt. Now, he can ride without any stress. However, I’m confident that the proud Sicilian is very eager to prove that he didn’t just win last year’s edition because Contador and Froome crashed out of the race. According to Nibali, his tests from training show that he’s at the same level he was at when starting the Tour last year. It will be very interesting to see if he really is strong enough to follow the other three favorites on the climbs. Astana brings a very good team for the TTT and in Michele Scarponi and Jakob Fuglsang, Nibali can count on excellent support in the mountains. Fuglsang may even prove to be strong enough to make a great result overall himself. Nibali also has great support on the cobblestones with last year’s stage winner Lars Boom on the team. In fact, Astana has number 1, 2, 3 and 8 from last year’s pave stage on the team this year. Naturally, they will try to pull off a similar performance as they did in 2014, distancing their rivals with more than two minutes.