Is Chris Froome ready?
For once, Chris Froome (Team Sky) goes into a Tour de France (July 1-23) looking vulnerable. We’re used to seeing him dominate pre-Tour stage races, but this season he is without a win altogether and could only manage fourth at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
These results have inevitably triggered questions regarding whether he is at the optimum level necessary to win what would be a fourth Tour de France title, but Froome himself has retained a calm public demeanour, insisting that he has no concerns about his form. We’ll find out soon enough how accurate this assertion is.
There is no ambiguity surrounding the strength of his team, however, which is so chock-full of talent like Geraint Thomas, Paris-Nice winner Sergio Henao and Milan-San Remo winner Michal Kwiatkowski that no room could be found for British stalwarts Ian Stannard and Peter Kennaugh.
The usual suspects
A familiar assortment of riders frustrated in recent years in their attempts to defeat Froome are again planning on taking the race to him.
We’re itching to see whether Nairo Quintana (Movistar), for whom finishing on the podium at the Tour behind Froome has become habit, will (as his team are insisting) be as strong as usual, despite having ridden the Giro in May. If he isn’t, teammate Alejandro Valverde – who hasn’t been out of the top eight since 2013 – is an able deputy.
For what feels like the umpteenth time Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) is also among the pre-race favourites. Despite his underwhelming from and the fact he hasn’t mounted a genuine yellow jersey challenge since before his doping ban, such is his history and experience of winning that he can never be discounted as a threat.
A more recently established Tour stalwart is Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), whose runner-up finish was also his third successive top ten, and proof that he possesses the climbing skills, intelligence and daring to potentially become the first French winner in 32 years.
Can Richie Porte come of age?
Overall victories at the Tour de Romandie, Tour Down Under, as well as a very impressive display of strength to finish runner-up at the Dauphiné earlier this month, has led some to declare that Richie Porte (BMC) could even be considered the favourite to win the yellow jersey.
That seems a big statement, however, for a rider whose highest Grand Tour finish in ten attempts across his career is still only fifth place (at last year’s Tour).
Many of those past shortcomings can be put down to youthful inexperience, riding as a teammate and simple bad luck, but there is a feeling – perhaps reinforced by his slightly tetchy response to being attacked on the final stage of the Dauphiné – that he struggles under pressure.
Nevertheless, off the back of some career-best form, and having finally cracked the top five of the Tour last year, this feels like Porte’s moment to fully deliver on his potential. With the additional narrative of the old apprentice Porte looking to usurp his former master Froome, we should be in for some thrilling drama.
As well as the familiar, older riders we’re used to seeing battling for the yellow jersey, there are several younger riders who could upset the established order this year.
Simon Yates, for instance, has developed considerably since his last appearance here two years ago to the extent that a top five challenge is realistic, even if his similarly youthful 27-year old Orica-Scott teammate Esteban Chaves may lack the form to make much of an impact on his debut Tour.
Fabio Aru (Astana) may no longer be eligible for the young riders’ white jersey, but he will still only be 27 when the Tour starts and is making just his second appearance. Recent results, including fifth overall at the Dauphiné and victory at the Italian national championships, suggest he’s nearing the same form that saw him win the Vuelta a Espana in 2015.
An unusual route
One of the main talking points concerning the route has been its lack of major mountain top finishes.
There are only three in total – stage five to Planche des Belles Filles (where Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali asserted their authority in 2012 and 2014 respectively), stage 12 to Peyragudes and stage eighteen to Col d’Izoard, of which only the Col d’Izoard has been assigned the most difficult ‘hors categorie’ status.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a awful lot of climbing this year – it’s just that the big mountains are to be tackled further from the finish than usual. The first week ends with a pair of stages in the Jura mountains that feature 10 climbs between them; there’s an intriguing looking Pyrenean stage 13 that crams three mountains into just 101km of racing; and the day before the huge finish to Izoard is features the monolithic hat-trick of the Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Télégraphe, and the Col du Galibier.
The news that Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) will ride the Tour means that the big three of he, Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) and André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) will once more duke it out in the bunch sprints.
Their fortunes have alternated in recent Tours, with Cavendish winning four stages last year, Greipel four in 2016 and Kittel four in 2015.
It’s unclear which, if any, of the three are likely to dominate the sprints this year, with Cavendish battling for form and fitness having suffered from glandular fever, and Kittel and Greipel having had inconsistent seasons.
What is clear, though, is that they’ll have plenty of opportunities, with at least eight stages looking likely for bunch sprints.
A peloton full of stars
Such is the prestige of the Tour that it’s not just the world’s best GC riders and sprinters that turn up to compete, the peloton’s best of every discipline.
World champion time-triallist Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) will go for yellow in the opening 14km time-trial (and later for victory in stage 20’s 22.5km effort), against the likes of silver and bronze medallists Vasil Kiryienka (Sky) and Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar).
Classics specialists like Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Greg van Avermaet (BMC) will have their eyes on punchy uphill finishes like stage three’s in Longwy, and rolling days like stage fourteen’s to Rodez.
Michael Matthews (Sunweb), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ) are among the high calibre sprinters who would be in the mix on days potentially too undulating for the pure sprinters, such as stage sixteen, while the recently-crowned British champion Steve Cummings (Dimension Data) is always a good shout on potential breakaway days like stage 15 in the Massif Central.
And, of course, the peloton’s chef superstar and world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will be frequently the centre of attention, whatever the terrain is.