Of the 198 riders lining up for the 2012 Tour de France in Liege, Belgium, on Saturday, only a handful will be in with a chance of wearing the coveted yellow race leader’s jersey when the race concludes in Paris three weeks later.
Defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) naturally ranks as one of the top contenders, alongside British hope Bradley Wiggins (Sky). Here we rate the chances of the pre-race favourites.
Country: Great Britain
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Every British cycling aficionado will tell you this year’s Tour de France contenders list should start and finish with Bradley Wiggins.
That may be a touch parochial, but the 2011 national road champion is certainly shaping up as the man to beat at the Tour this year, which, in his favour, includes a prologue and two individual time trials.
Injury-free, Wiggins has adopted a season approach not dissimilar to that which saw Australian Cadel Evans win his maiden yellow jersey last season. He has embarked on a lighter race programme and has won two of the four events he has started, including Paris-Nice, and the Tour of Romandy, which included his surprise bunch sprint victory in the opening stage.
Aside from minimising race days, about 19 in total before the Criterium du Dauphiné, Wiggins has paid a lot more attention to data and specific power work in training, as well as high-altitude camps designed to prepare him for the steepest Tour ascents, a previous area of weakness. Wiggins won the Dauphiné last season on the back of an altitude camp in Tenerife.
The weeks at Tenerife may go some way in helping him breathe in the high mountains, minimise time losses plus aid recovery before the time trials.
The triple Olympic gold medallist beat world champion Tony Martin in his first individual time trial of the season. At the time of print, Wiggins has dropped only one of those he had started, and can make dividends in the discipline, the courses for which suit him, if not some of his likely Sky team-mates.
Team: BMC Racing
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Cadel Evans became the first Australian and the oldest rider since World War II to win the Tour de France last season. The former road world champion’s triumph also included his second-ever stage win that was one of nine top-five finishes.
Evans followed a lighter race programme in 2011 and has adopted the same approach this year, notching around 20 race days before the Criterium du Dauphiné.
However, his results haven’t been the same, and illness has also played a part in the year of his Tour title defence; he has also become a father.
Evans won both Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Romandy last season, and finished second at the Criterium du Dauphiné.
The 35-year-old suffered from a sinus infection in April that saw him withdraw from the Amstel Gold Race and not start Flèche Wallonne or Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he was to play a support role.
Yet BMC remains solely committed to their leading man’s Tour ambitions.
Evans secured his Tour win last season in the penultimate time trial stage, pegging back Luxembourger Andy Schleck, with a second-place finish in the 42.5km trek.
This year’s Tour features just under 100km of time trialling, not including the prologue, which should work to Evans’s advantage. His team’s ability to keep him at the front of every stage and offer support in the mountains will again be important to his campaign.
Evans’s offensive role in the latter was a turning point for him last year and he’ll likely be looking to do the same again. The 2012 Tour parcours features only two mountain stages with summit finishes, as opposed to four, which could make the task a little easier. Expect to see Evans start to play his hand in the second week.
He’ll want to avoid the pressure of riding in the yellow jersey, however, and it’s unlikely he’ll look to take it until the end of the third and final week, as was the plan last season.
Jurgen Van den Broeck
Van den Broeck was one of a number of GC contenders who crashed out in the early part of the 2011 Tour, and while very few would have expected to see him wear yellow in Paris (after all, he wins even fewer races than José ‘perennial fourth place’ Joaquin Rojas), a top-five finish was probably within his reach. That was where he finished in 2010, which remarkably was the best Belgian result in the race in nearly 25 years.
He will go into the Tour with 30 days of racing under his belt in 2012, which is the same as Bradley Wiggins. His preparations have almost been a carbon copy of two years ago, and that didn’t exactly harm his chances.
Because of his permanently pained expression, it’s easy to overlook how consistent Van den Broeck actually is. He was in the top 10 of the 2010 Tour from stage three, and held fifth position from stage nine all the way to the Champs-Elysées. At last year’s Vuelta, he sat in eighth place (his final finishing spot) on GC for as many days. Come the mountains in the Tour, expect him to be particularly difficult to shake off.
Even though he was a junior world champion in the discipline, time trialling is his downfall. Using the 2010 Tour as a reference point, he lost 36 seconds to Andy Schleck and over a minute to Samuel Sanchez in the two time trials; neither of whom are noted for their skills against the watch.
Van Den Broeck has worked to improve this over the winter, and declared his ride in the 25.8km time trial in February’s Tour of Algarve (he finished sixth, 28 seconds behind Bradley Wiggins) his best for many years.
Not so good was his Dauphiné performance, in which he conceded over two minutes to Wiggins over 53km. On that basis, he probably will not win the race, but the final spot on the podium is possible.
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The eldest of the Schleck brothers, Frank has not had the run-in that saw him finish third overall at the Tour de France last season.
The 2011 national road champion won a stage and overall honours at Criterium International, finished runner-up at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and scored a top-10 finish at the Tour de Suisse last year.
Schleck started May’s Giro d’Italia for the first time since 2005 and withdrew during the 15th stage, citing a shoulder injury, and before the exacting Dolomites in the final week. He resumed his usual Tour prep after the Giro at the Tour of Luxembourg, with ambitions to race the Tour de Suisse as well.
The 32-year-old was a surprising late call-up to lead RadioShack-Nissan at the first Grand Tour of the season, after team-mate Jakob Fuglsang was sidelined due to a knee injury.
Schleck had been set to play a vital role in support of his brother Andy, before the latter’s late withdrawal from the Tour due to a back injury. As a GC podium finisher last year, Frank may decide to take on his sibling’s role and have a crack at the maillot jaune. His injury hit build-up and proliferation of Tour TTs will count against him though.
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Nibali has been, if nothing else, consistent this year, and, in terms of winning results, is second only to Wiggins.
The Italian has shown form from the beginning of the season, taking line honours at the queen stage of the Tour of Oman in February before claiming a stage win, the overall title and points classification at Tirreno-Adriatico in March – one of the races Evans won before his successful Tour assault last season. His performance in the final 9.3km time trial stage saw him jump from third to first and snatch overall honours from Chris Horner.
The 27-year-old was also prominent in the Classics, finishing third in Milan-San Remo and then eighth at Flèche Wallonne and second in Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April.
The Tour is a major objective for Nibali this season, and he is set to return for the first time since the 2009 edition, where he finished seventh overall. His race programme has consequently changed and he skipped the Giro, where he finished second overall in 2011 and third overall in 2010, opting to race May’s Amgen Tour of California instead.
Nibali is a proven Grand Tour winner, having won the 2010 Vuelta a España and his diversity, as seen in his season results, may be one of his biggest strengths come June 30.
The all-rounder is set to leave Liquigas-Cannondale at the end of the season, with reports he has received lucrative offers from more than one outfit, so the financial aspect could be an additional motivating factor.
Nibali reclaimed the red jersey at the 2010 Vuelta after the 42km stage 17 time trial and should be able to improve on his overall standing at the Tour in the races against the clock this year.
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The stick-thin climber unsurprisingly declared himself pleased with his victory in the recent Tour of California, which came just eight months after he broke his leg in four places while training. He obliterated the opposition on Mount Baldy, and surprisingly even kept his time trial losses to a minimum.
But that’s the thing about Gesink – his week-long credentials are proven. Since 2008, he has finished in the top 10 of such races 15 times. It’s his three-week record which is more hit and miss. A sixth in the 2010 Tour was as high as any Dutch rider has finished in recent years.
However, that result is sandwiched between a withdrawal in the 2009 race and a lowly 33rd last year. Both those Tours were blighted by early crashes – coincidentally both happened on the fifth stage. In 2009 he broke his wrist, while in 2011 he injured his back. How he must fear the 196.5km stage from Rouen to Saint Quentin on July 5.
The way Gesink flits between very good and distinctly average (with a knack for getting tangled up in crashes somewhere in between) means that only the most ardent of gamblers or Dutch fanatics would stick £100 on him to win the Tour.
Team: Omega Pharma-QuickStep
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Think Andy Schleck’s Tour preparations have been rough? Tony Martin’s haven’t been much better. He was hit by a car while out training in April, and looked dramatically out of form prior to that. For a rider so good in time trials – he is the reigning world champion in the discipline, remember – it took until the Tour of Belgium at the end of May for him to take his first win against the clock. Talk about the curse of the rainbow jersey.
However, he came out of the Dauphiné happy, insisting that his form is where it needs to be. That will no doubt please anyone who bet on him to win all three time trials at the Tour as soon as the route was announced last year. That looked an extremely safe wager back then, especially given how strong Martin was in the Grenoble time trial on the penultimate day of last year’s race.
The German’s record in Grand Tours is not great, although he has finished four out of the five he’s started. The non-finish, too, was at the 2011 Vuelta, when he pulled out ahead of the Worlds. For all his time trialling prowess, it will take a performance in the mountains hitherto never seen for him to mix it up with the main GC contenders.
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What will the Spaniard be capable of in his last outing as the reigning Olympic road race champion? Recent history suggests a top 10 finish – you have to go back to the 2005 Giro for the last time Sanchez finished in 11th or below in a Grand Tour.
A win on Luz Ardiden and two second places at Plateau de Beille and Alpe d’Huez during last year’s Tour helped Sanchez finish sixth overall and become the first Spaniard since Domingo Perurena in 1974 to win the King of the Mountains classification. Without any rule changes to the competition for 2012, it is likely that a GC candidate (read: someone of Sanchez’s ilk) will win the polka-dot jersey.
He has won more races in 2012 thus far than he has managed in any previous season, and whatever happens in July, at least Sanchez can say three of those victories came in the Tour of the Basque Country. That’ll keep the sponsors happy.
At 34, he may be a year younger than Cadel Evans, but his desire still appears to be burning bright. We’re hoping that his career lasts long enough so that France Télévisions can put a camera on his bike and include live pictures from it while he’s descending as part of their Tour coverage.
Recent history suggests that it’s difficult to be competitive at the Giro and the Tour in the same year. Alberto Contador is the only rider in the last three years to finish in the top 10 of both of races, and Marco Pantani was the last man to win both in the same year all the way back in 1998. Go figure.
However, Ryder Hesjedal says that his form off the back of his impressive Giro victory is good, so much so that he believes he can compete with the best at the Tour.
In his favour, the course suits an all-rounder of his ilk, and he has finished both races in the same year before (2008, which also marked his Tour debut). But finishing in 60th and 47th respectively as he did then isn’t quite the same as challenging for the pink and yellow jerseys.
Nor is he an unknown quantity any more, something he was able to benefit from at the Giro and, in particular, at the 2010 Tour, in which he finished seventh overall. He rode consistently there, only really having one bad day, but that’s probably one more than he can have this time if he is to complete a remarkable, and historically hard-to-achieve, double.
How Johan Bruyneel must hate Jakob Fuglsang’s knees. An inflammation of the left knee kept the Dane out of this year’s Giro, which was his main target for 2012.
Frank Schleck got sent there as his replacement, but he pulled out halfway through. Cue the whole Schleck/Bruyneel debacle, which threatens to overshadow RadioShack-Nissan’s pre-Tour build-up. On the plus side, this frees up Fuglsang to ride the Tour. With Schleck junior sidelined, he could be thrust into the limelight.
He’s ridden the Tour twice before, and used Andy Schleck-like consistency to finish 50th on both occasions. Had he replicated that at last year’s Vuelta, a top five position would have been on the cards. Instead, he lost five minutes on three consecutive stages and finished 11th overall. Luckily for him, the final week of the Tour isn’t quite as tough.
Oh, and if you think Bruyneel lacks people-management skills, this is what the team’s sporting director Kim Andersen said of Fuglsang: “He must lose two per cent of body fat. Otherwise he can not make it all the way up the steep mountains”.
Thankfully for the Dane (and to the annoyance of – you’ve guessed it – the Schlecks), Andersen has not been invited to the Tour by Bruyneel.
The offer to lead Astana at this year’s Tour was one of the reasons Janez Brajkovic rejoined the team he left in 2010 over the winter. With the off-season merger between his old outfit RadioShack and the Leopard-Trek squad, there would have been little chance that the Slovenian would have been their protected rider at the Tour.
Given the rate of how quickly Johan Bruyneel upsets his own riders, Brajkovic could have easily been shipped out to ride the Giro or, worse still, the Tour of Poland instead of heading to La Grande Boucle, too.
With the offer of leadership seemingly still on the table (just don’t tell Alexandre Vinokourov), it will be interesting to see how Brajkovic fares. His victory in the 2010 Dauphiné seems a long time ago now, and with only a national time trial title and stage win in this year’s Volta a Cataluyna added to his palmarès since, Brajkovic’s career still looks set to be defined by his one remarkable triumph.
Having crashed out of last year’s Tour during the opening week, his sole finish in the race was an unremarkable 42nd in 2010. This season he has finished seventh in the Dauphiné and ninth at the Tour of Romandy, but like Robert Gesink, baby-faced Brajkovic’s results in week-long races have always been solid.
Team: Omega Pharma-QuickStep
Since 2010, mop-haired Peter has proved that he is the better of the Velits twins. While his slightly-older sibling (and Omega Pharma-Quick Step team-mate) Martin is seemingly aiming to win as many Slovakian national titles as possible, Velits junior has slowly blossomed into a promising Grand Tour rider.
He backed up a podium finish in the 2010 Vuelta with a top 20 placing in last year’s Tour, despite also having to work for Mark Cavendish in both races.
Things should be different this year, particularly as there will be a GC-heavy feel at OPQS. Without Tom Boonen, Velits, Levi Leipheimer and Tony Martin should be free to concentrate on the overall standings without any distractions.
The Slovakian could be their best bet; like most of the team, he took an impressive early-season victory (the overall win at the Tour of Oman). Furthermore, Martin’s form has been patchy at best and if any overall contender is bound to crash in the opening week, it is probably going to be Leipheimer.
A former under-23 road race champion, Velits says his motto is “the biggest risk is not to risk at all”. Let’s hope his performances then, are as conservative as they are socialist.
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