Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Fabio Aru and Alberto Contador will likely go head-to-head at the Tour de France, but does the route suit any of them?
Froome, already a two-time champion, will be licking his lips at the prospect of a 37km time trial through the Ardeche region, with his performances against the clock a key feature of his 2013 win.
But the parcours of that time trial are also favourable to a number of his rivals – the hilly nature of the route to La Caverne du Pont-d’Arc means that poorer time trialists among the general classification contenders will likely not lose as much time as if it were flat.
Nairo Quintana, who pushed Froome to the wire in 2015, has already spoken of his delight that the time trials are not completely flat, giving him a better chance of keeping Froome at bay.
Here we take a look at some of the main contenders and see how the 2016 Tour de France route suits them.
The return of some major time trials in the 2016 edition will definitely play into Froome’s hands, although the Team Sky man only partook in three individual time trials in 2015 – the longest of which was 17km.
With the Olympic Games time trial on his radar, Froome will no doubt look to up his game in time for August, meaning he will look to lay down a marker on his rivals on stage 13’s 37km effort.
Stage 18’s uphill time trial between Sallanches and Megève does not so much favour Froome, in the fact that his rivals will likely be equally strong. The gradients on show – over 11 per cent at points – will probably remove any doubt of whether to use a road bike or time trial bike, thus the playing field will be more even.
If 2015 is anything to go by, Froome will look to take the yellow jersey at the earliest possible opportunity and defend it until Paris. This opportunity comes earlier than normal, with some pretty major climbs coming up on stage five, which will throw the GC open.
Knowing Froome, he’ll be relishing a return to Andorra, where he broke his foot and abandoned the Vuelta a España in September. Stages eight and nine will be more opportunities for attacks to be made, although with so much racing still left to do it wouldn’t be surprising to see the breakaway reach the end on both days as the main contenders mark each other on the many climbs.
Other than the time trials, Froome’s destiny may be sealed again on Mont Ventoux on stage 12. His climb up the bald mountain in 2013 pretty much won him the Tour, and even though that performance was used against him in the 2015 Tour, Froome will want to prove his dominance there again.
After two second-place finishes in his two Tour appearances, Quintana may think that this is his best chance to win the Grand Boucle to date.
His 2015 race was made harder by losing important time to Froome on the windy stage two – a time difference that ultimately proved decisive. With fewer obstacles in the first week, the Colombian will likely be more confident of staying toe-to-toe with his rivals until the mountains.
We’ve all seen how strong Quintana can be in the high mountains, especially the steep ones, and with plenty of jaw-dropping gradients on offer in all three weeks, he will have a number of opportunities to leave Froome et al behind.
He’ll probably have the support of Alejandro Valverde once more, but Quintana said that now the Spaniard has the podium finish he so desired, the pressure will lift on the whole team.
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Time trials have previously proved Quintana’s downfall, but he shouldn’t lose too much time to his rivals in stage 13 and he’ll be hoping for a repeat of the 2014 Giro d’Italia, where he won the race on an uphill time trial.
One of the decisive climbs of the race, the Col de Joux Plane on stage 20, will hold fond memories for the Colombian, being where he danced clear of the likes of Froome, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans to win stage six of the 2012 Dauphiné in Morzine.
An almost identical finish will possibly play into Quintana’s hands again, and if the race is close heading into this final stage, the descent into Morzine could prove decisive.
Of all the main contenders, it’s the hardest to predict how Aru will do, given that he’s never ridden the Tour before.
Indeed, Aru has only ever ridden two races in France in his career with Astana – the 2015 Paris-Nice and the 2013 GP Fourmies.
In Paris-Nice the riders took on an uphill time trial a little similar in length and gradient to the one the riders will face on stage 18 of the Tour, although he finished 1-55 down on the stage winner in 38th place.
Granted, in March he probably wasn’t in best form, but it still wasn’t an overly convincing performance. Give him a mountain to ride up, though, and he’ll devour it.
At the Vuelta this year he held his nerve to put on a masterclass on the penultimate stage to see off the surprise challenge of Tom Dumoulin and also in the Giro he won two consecutive stages in the very high mountains.
His rivals will look at the first few climbs of the 2015 Giro to find ways to beat down Aru, given how ropey the Italian looked in pursuit of an ailing Alberto Contador in the first two weeks.
But if it’s the Aru who won in Sestriere in May who turns up to the Tour we could see a very special performance.
It’s likely to be Contador’s final roll of the dice in the Tour de France, given that he keeps saying he’ll retire after 2016.
He’s not won the Grand Boucle (officially) since 2009, but it’s very hard to write off a man who’s so consistent in the three-week races.
Contador finished fourth and fifth in 2013 and 2015 respectively, withdrawing through injury in 2014 but going on to win the Vuelta.
Then he won the Giro ahead of Aru in May, but struggled to match that form in the Tour two months later. This time, though, he’ll be saving all his energy for the Tour – something his rivals should look out for.
His time trialling has gone a bit downhill in recent years, but the rolling nature of the one in the Ardeche shouldn’t hamper him too much, and he’s proved he’s still a force to be reckoned with in the mountains.
A fully fresh Alberto Contador, surrounded by a strong supporting Tinkoff-Saxo cast, will prove a major threat, so don’t be surprised to see El Pistolero make an early charge at the yellow jersey.