Battle of evenly-matched favourites points to an intriguing Tour de France

Contador, Froome, defending champion NIbali and Quintana all set out with high hopes

After the race’s first rest day on July 13th, the battle continues with three mountain stages, each ending with uphill finishes.  Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty

After the race’s first rest day on July 13th, the battle continues with three mountain stages, each ending with uphill finishes. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty

 

It’s being billed as the most open race since Stephen Roche’s 1987 Tour de France win, with four very evenly-matched leaders going head-to-head over some of the toughest terrain in the race in recent years.

Former winners Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Saxo), Chris Froome (Sky) and last year’s champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) are joined by 2014 Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) at the top of the favourites’ list, with each taking largely different paths towards Saturday’s start in Utrecht and thus preserving a sense of mystery about who will eventually prevail.

Froome has claimed several wins this season, including the final two stages plus the overall classification in the recent Critérium du Dauphine, while Contador won the Giro d’Italia and believes he can be the first since Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve the Giro/Tour double.

Nibali showed flashes of form in the Dauphiné, leading the race, then dominated last weekend’s Italian national championship road race.

As for Quintana, who staggered the cycling world when he finished third in his Tour debut two years ago, he has spent a long period training at home in Colombia but finished second to Contador in his first race back, the Route du Sud.

The unpredictability about how the race will turn out is accentuated by two other factors, though. The first is the presence of a second tier of favourites, with the American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team), last year’s podium finisher Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Spanish climber Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and a handful of others convinced they too can challenge for yellow.

The second aspect is the danger nature of the nervous first half of the race, with a flurry of crashes hitting the peloton each year and removing some of the big names before the big mountains are even negotiated.

Froome and Contador both suffered in this way 12 months ago, their Tour campaigns ending due to fractures sustained on stages five and ten respectively.

Staying out of trouble will be vital to Froome and Contador’s chances and indeed those of all the top riders. Still, as each edition of the Tour shows, the most diligent riding and most careful guidance by team domestiques can still go up in smoke due to bad luck.

In truth, remaining in contention is as much a lottery as anything else, perhaps explaining why nerves among the competitors are so high for the Tour.

 

Irish trio with differing approaches

 

From an Irish perspective, there are three riders to keep tabs on. The Irish Times columnist Dan Martin has said he believes he can contend for a stage win early on and, depending on time gaps and how Saturday’s opening time trail goes for him, he feels a stint in the race leader’s yellow jersey may be an outside possibility.

Beyond that, he will continue chasing stages as the race progresses and will also aim for a high general classification finish. His best three-week performance thus far is seventh in last year’s Vuelta a España and, at 28 years of age, he knows he is approaching his prime years as a stage race rider.

First cousin Nicolas Roche told the Irish Times earlier this week he has put all thoughts of personal ambition to one side in his first Tour with the Sky team. He was confirmed for the team on Monday and must ride for 2013 winner Froome, who believes he can take second Tour title.

“I said many times in interviews that one of the big goals that I have in my career is to be in Paris with someone in the yellow jersey. I really think it could be achievable this year,” he said.

The third Irishman is Tour debutant Sam Bennett, who is co-leader of his Bora Argon 18 team for the race. He has taken three sprint wins thus far this year and, if he hits top form, should be one of the fast men in the finale of the flatter days.

However he has been ill in the run-up to the Tour and missed his two preparation races, the Rund um Koln and the Ster ZLM Toer. That may mean he is chasing sharpness in the opening two or three days, but he and his team hope things will get moving properly after that and he can battle Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) inside the final 200 metres.

Degenkolb’s team-mate Marcel Kittel is missing due to poor form and, having won eight stages in the past two years, his absence paves the way for a more unpredictable clash of the sprinters.

A route dominated by uphill finishes

The Tour de France gets under way Saturday with a 13.8 kilometre time trial in Utrecht. Stage three’s conclusion atop the brutally steep Mur de Huy should see time-gaps; Martin hopes to contend for the win on Monday and also to do likewise on stage eight’s uphill finish of the Mur de Bretagne.

In between those two stages the fourth stage to Cambrai crosses several dangerous, technically demanding cobblestone sectors and could be decisive.

Ditto for the three following flat stages, which may see the peloton fragment in high winds. Crashes are always a danger too, particularly in the opening week.

Stage nine’s team time trial to Plumlec will also be highly important for the general classification riders, with gaps certain between the squads after the 28 kilometre test.

After the race’s first rest day on July 13th, the battle continues with three mountain stages, each ending with uphill finishes.

These difficult Pyrenean stages to La Pierre Saint Martin, Cauterets and Plateau de Beille are followed by four somewhat flatter days in the saddle, but the up and down terrain plus the uphill finish to Mende on stage 14 could still shake things up.

The final period follows the second rest day on July 21st and will expose the riders to four difficult Alpine stages. Three of those finishes, at Pra Loup, La Toussuire La Sybelles and the legendary Alpe d’Huez will blow things apart and ensure that the race for the yellow jersey remains open right until the day before the concluder in three weeks’ time in Paris.

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