This weekend marks the start of the greatest annual sporting event in the world, the Tour de France. And this year we are missing the winners from 2007, 2009, and 2010 in the form of Alberto Contador (still suspended) and Andy Schleck (broken pelvis in a crash at the Dauphine), leaving the podium spots fairly wide open going into the race. Defending champ Cadel Evans is here and the course definitely suits him, but he will be challenged by pre-race favorite Bradley Wiggins, who has had a year to remember, and dominated Evans in the Dauphine just a couple weeks ago. The reason Wiggins is the favorite though is the presence of 100 km of time trialing in this year's Tour, a departure from recent mountain-heavy races that only had a single time trial. Wiggins is the best overall GC contender at time trialing -- he was for years a specialist in the pursuit a la Fabian Cancellara but lost a bunch of weight to compete in the mountains and has maintained his time trial form. So even though Evans can do a mean time trial (besting Andy Schleck by enough on the final stage of last year's Tour to wrestle victory from him), he's not quite in Wiggins' league. So he will need to take time out of him in the mountains, which is not exactly Evans' strength -- he usually responds to attacks and doesn't initiate, since he always has the time trial superiority over the likes of the Schlecks and other mountain goats. This year, though, the extra 50 km against the clock has everyone picking Wiggins to win. He has the stronger team (Sky, although Evans' relative lack of support from BMC last year didn't hurt him). He's the better time trialist. And he's on the the better form. He's also British and the Brits are hosting the Olympics at the end of the month so it seems fitting. But Wiggins' best place in a Tour de France was a 4th in 2009 so he's not exactly got a lot of experience on the podium in this event. Evans had two 2nds in 2007 and 2008 before winning it all last year. He has definitely been there before. It will be a monster battle, even without Contador and Schleck. I can't wait.
Can someone else challenge for the win besides those two? Most observers are questioning the likelihood of a usurper but Evans and Wiggins are not exactly mountain climbing aces so if anyone has a great 3rd week in the mountains, they could pull off the upset. Andy Schleck was obviously the best climber besides Contador to potentially be racing but he's not (and neither is Alberto) so this is the year that one of the following could pull off the big win, a la Carlos Sastre in 2008 when Contador's team wasn't invited.
Here are a list of the betting favorites pre-Tour:
1. Wiggins, GBR (Sky)
2. Evans, AUS (BMC)
3. Vincenzo Nibali, ITA (Liquigas)
Nibali has been pointing to this race all year, is entering the prime of his career, has a good enough time trial to limit his losses, and is potentially better in the mountains than Wiggins and Evans (although he hasn't really ever shown it). He's won a Vuelta so he can win a 3-week major Tour, he's got a great team with him, and his downhilling prowess could carve out an advantage of one of several stages with downhills to the finish. I kind of don't think he's got it in him to make the podium because he's never shown much strength in this Tour. Also, Basso's going to be here and is always lurking as the team's preferred rider so if there's any sign of weakness, Nibali could be dumped as the team leader. But he is the favorite for third at this point.
4. Robert Gesink, NED (Rabobank)
Rabobank is going all out for this Tour, bringing a team of highly skilled climbers to play for Gesink. Of course, this Tour features a boatload of time trials that make climbing less important, but if Rabobank weren't screwing up team management decisions, we would have less to talk about in July. Gesink has actually shown significant prowess in his time trialing in the past couple years, after his disastrous final time trial ride in the 2010 Tour knocked him out of the top 5. There are definitely indications that he can stem his losses to Evans at least, if not Wiggins, and he -- more than Nibali -- has shown mountain climbing excellence in the Tour and appears to be on good form with a strong placing in the Tour de Suisse. All-in for Bobo? I think he will podium.
5. Jurgen Vandenbroeck, NED (Lotto)
Vandenbroeck was the big find of 2010's Tour, finishing a surprising 5th (4th after Contador got banished), one spot ahead of Gesink. He crashed out of last year's event, though, and unlike Gesink or Nibali, his time trial is virtually nonexistent so he needs to make a boatload of time up in the mountains. I don't really see it happening but he could limit his losses for a top 5 place.
6. Frank Schleck, LUX (RadioShack Nissan)
The remnants of the great Johan Bruyneel squads that dominated cycling with Lance Armstrong and Contador for so many years merged with the Schlecks / Cancellara / former Saxo Bank dominant squad in the offseason, getting a new sponsor (Nissan) and promising a dominant year on the bikes. Instead, in every single way, the team has been a complete and utter failure. Cancellara crashed in the Tour of Flanders, ending his spring campaign with a multiple fracture of his collarbone. And he was the only one named by Bruyneel a couple weeks ago as worthy of a spot in the Tour on his team. And that was before Andy Schleck -- the runner up in the Tour from 2009 to 2011 (and default winner in 2010 thanks to Contador's clenbuterol issue) -- broke his pelvis. And before Bruyneel was brought up on charges by USADA dating back to the Armstrong days of doping mania. So it's not been a good year. Andy's older brother is now the de facto team leader and did come in 3rd last year but his time trials are worse than his brother, he wasn't expecting to even race this year's Tour (choosing instead to focus on the more climber heavy Giro, which he crashed out of), and he recently admitted that he's not expecting to even contend. But he did just finish 2nd in the Tour de Suisse and was the best climber in the prep race, better than Nibali or Vandenbroeck, so maybe he is sandbagging? Otherwise, the once mighty Radioshack team will be backing the corpse of Andreas Kloden or 39-year-old Chris Horner. Not good times.
7. Sammy Sanchez, ESP (Euskaltel Euskadi)
Sanchez is 34 now and the Olympic road race champion from 2008 hasn't quite lived up to the hopes that that upset victory provided, with a 4th overall in 2010 (3rd without Contador) as his closest to a podium in cycling's biggest race. But this year, sans Contador and possibly both Schleck brothers (if Frank isn't sandbagging), he has perhaps his last best chance. He can time trial decently and he can definitely climb if he's on form. Plus, he might be a better downhill racer than even Nibali and could pick up some bonus seconds on those stages ending after a major mountain. Without Andy Schleck in the race, SamSan is probably my favorite remaining rider so I'll be rooting hard for him. But he won't have a team to help. And his 5th last year nearly 5 minutes behind Evans doesn't make me think he will finish strong. But the 3 places immediately in front of him last year were the Schlecks and Tommy Voeckler, who used a big breakaway time gap to get his time advantage and won't be back near the top this year, barring a shocker. So Sanchez is the "closest" returning competitor to Evans, again assuming that Frank Schleck isn't sandbagging. We shall see.
8. Denis Menchov, RUS (Katusha)
Menchov was 5th in 2006, 4th in 2008, and 3rd (or 2nd, without Contador) in 2010. He also won 2 Vueltas and the 2009 Giro so he's got the chops to compete at the very top of this sport. He also once had a great time trial, one to rival (or best) Cadel Evans. But last year he went to new team, the short-lived Geox with Carlos Sastre and they weren't invited to the Tour. Instead Menchov was 8th in the Giro and 5th in the Vuelta, assisting teammate Jose Cobo to the overall victory. As far as I know he hasn't shown any form this year and it's likely he's over the hill (former teammate Sastre retired after last year). But this course is made for him, it's wide open, and if he has any form left in his 34-year-old body, he could have a shot for the podium.
9. Tommy Danielson, USA (Garmin)
Maybe I just wanted an American in the top 10 of this preview but Danielson is coming off an 8th placed / best US rider from last year and appeared to be in good form in the Tour de Suisse. His time trial is typically strong (as with most American riders) and he could find the form to a top 5. Could he podium? I can't see that happening but another top 10 would be a strong performance from a former up-and-coming prospect who fizzled out and then belatedly made good.
10. Ryder Hesjedal, CAN (Garmin)
Danielson's teammate is coming off a shocking and historic win of the Giro in May, the first Canadian to ever finish on a podium in any grand Tour, let alone win. He can time trial OK and he can mountain climb and he pretty much dominated (admittedly weaker) competition in the Giro. But no one has done the Giro-Tour double since a seriously doped up Marco Pantani did it in 1998 and the odds of Hesjedal breaking that trend are slim. But hey, maybe he's doping so you never know... No, seriously, I think Danielson will end up team leader but Hesjedal has clearly earned the right as a pre-race favorite. Good luck to him.
Alejandro Valverde, ESP (Movistar) and Jose Cobo, ESP (Movistar). Valverde is the huge star of Spanish racing who fought for years in courts against the Operation Puerto doping scandal and eventually had to sit out for some time. This is his first time back at the Tour since a 9th in 2008 but he is on great form and while he won't podium, he could get a top 10. Cobo is the defending Vuelta champion and an excellent climber. I'm writing this before the final Movistar start list has been announced but I'm assuming he's part of it.
Pierre Rolland, FRA (Europcar) and Tommy Voeckler, FRA (Europcar). The duo were seen at the front of all the big mountains on the final week of last year's Tour, as Rolland tried to coax his team leader (and then yellow jersey holder) Voeckler -- the French national hero -- over the slopes to hold onto his lead. Voeckler was game but couldn't quite do it but Rolland was a revelation, a Frenchman who could actually climb! They both finished in the top 10 and both will be back this year in the bright green jerseys, hopefully making France proud.
Jean Peraud, FRA (AG2R) and Nicholas Roche, IRL (AG2R). Speaking of Frenchmen, there were 3 that made the top 10 last year in the best year for France in a Tour de France since at least the '90s, and Peraud was the third. Not sure if he or Roche, who got a top 10 in 2010, is the team leader but I have a feeling that the French team will favor Mr. Peraud.
Levi Leipheimer, USA (Omega Pharma Quickstep). The other big team combination from the offseason brought the two great Dutch cycling powerhouses Omega Pharma and Quickstep together and it's been wildly successful so far this year, as Tom Boonen dominated the spring classics and they've performed well in other races. But this is not a team built for Grand Tours and the aging Levi will be their team leader here. He is still strong on the time trial and he can still climb but this is a course made for 2008 Levi and he ain't walking through that door again.
Michele Scarponi, ITA (Lampre). I don't think Damiano Cunego is racing, although he might be (6th last year) for Lampre. But Scarponi is and he can mountain climb with the best of them despite also being pretty old. Like Leipheimer and Menchov and Sanchez, this could be his last best gasp at a high finish in the Tour but he can't time trial at all and I wouldn't expect much. Except he could be the one breaking away from the pack at the start of the climbs to see if Evans and Wiggins can follow. Very few others have shown they have the balls to do that.
Ivan Basso, ITA (Liquigas). Yes Basso is back. Yes he rode the Giro this year (not all that well). Yes he has no chance and should just be there to support Nibali. But remember he did finish 2nd and 3rd in the Tour way back in 2005 and 2004. And 7th last year. So there's that.
Janez Brajkovic is being named as team leader of Astana, who also have Fredrik Kessiakoff as a potential young upset artist (and Vinokourov back for one last time after crashing out of his "one last time" last year). Omega Quickstep has the world time trial champion in a time trial heavy Tour, Tony Martin, and promising young Czech Peter Velits, each of whom could sneak into the top 10 with great form. Chris Anker Sorensen will be leading the once great Saxo Bank squad. And Brice Feillu climbed great one year a few years ago and is leading Saur Sojasun. I can't figure out who on Vacansoleil, Cofidis, Argos Shimano, or Orica Greenedge would be an overall contender / team leader. And FDJ's Sandy Casar is more of a stage hunter at this point in his career. So that's pretty much it for all the teams and all the possible winners. I'm pretty sure I didn't miss anyone who could make the top 5 (although last year I never would have mentioned Voeckler).
One last thing: The sprint competition should be rather compelling between the dominant Tour sprinter for the past several years, Sky's Mark Cavendish, and the dominant sprinter of 2012, Peter Sagan of Liquigas. Sagan's won 12 races this year, as follows:
- Tour of Oman
- 1st Stage 4
- Three Days of De Panne
- 1st Stage 1
- Tour of California
- Tour de Suisse
- 4th Milan – San Remo
- 2nd Gent–Wevelgem
- 5th Tour of Flanders
- 3rd Amstel Gold Race
- But Cavendish won 20 stages of the Tour between 2008 and 2011. That's pretty hard to argue with. Neither will have a ton of team support, as Sky and Liquigas have dreams of overall glory. So they will largely be on their own. Should be exciting. At least until Cavendish drops out to start preparing for his home soil sprinter's special Olympics road race. Go cycling!