Tomorrow afternoon, the clock will tick down and the first rider will roll off the start ramp in Rotterdam, signalling the start of the 2010 Tour de France.
But which of the 198 starters should we be looking out for? Somewhat confusingly for the casual fan, there will be multiple ‘winners’ during the Tour. The key prizes on offer include individual stage victories (the best opportunity for the sprinters but also for lesser riders to benefit from a successful breakaway), as well as the race’s four major jerseys, easily distinguished by their colours: yellow for the overall race leader, green for the points (sprint) leader, red polka dots for the King of the Mountains and white for the best young rider.
In this preview, I’ll take a look at the main contenders for the yellow, green and polka dot jerseys.
Overall contenders (yellow jersey)
First among equals, the yellow jersey (or maillot jaune) is worn by the rider with the lowest aggregate time for the race – often referred to as the general classification (or GC, for short). This rarely equates to the rider who wins the most stages, although it is unusual for the overall champion to not win at least one stage – usually an individual time trial or a key mountain stage. The man who wears the yellow jersey in Paris will almost certainly be one of the following:
Lance Armstrong (RadioShack)
The 38-year old, seven-time winner announced on his Twitter feed this week that this year’s race will be his last, and would dearly love to bow out with what would be arguably his greatest win of all.
In 2009, his Tour preparations were compromised by a broken collarbone in the spring, but he nonetheless rode to a strong third place in Paris. This year, a crash took him out of May’s Tour of California, but otherwise his progress has been relatively smooth.
His form in last month’s Tour de Suisse looked good but a shade behind where he would have liked to be, and strengthened the suspicion he no longer has either the explosive burst to threaten in the high mountains or the sustained power to dominate in the individual time trials (he dropped 69 seconds to Tony Martin over the 27 km course).
Another podium finish is a reasonable aim; the top step will require a big step up in form and some good fortune. If things go badly, expect him to put everything into supporting good friend and RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer.
Ivan Basso (Liquigas)
Basso returned from a two-year doping ban in late 2008 and won the Giro d’Italia in May with some impressive climbs in the high mountains. Whether he can achieve a second peak of form for the Tour is doubtful, but Basso does have pedigree at the Tour, having finished second in 2005 behind Armstrong, and third in 2004.
His Liquigas team will be one of the strongest climbing units at the Tour. The yellow jersey is probably beyond him, and although he is capable of winning the King of the Mountains competition, he is too big an overall threat for his GC rivals to let him go. Expect him to be up at the sharp end, though, and to at least be looking for a win on one of this year’s summit finishes.
Alberto Contador (Astana)
The defending champion and two-time winner has looked in ominous form this spring, winning Paris-Nice, finishing third in Flèche-Wallonne and a strong second at last month’s Critérium du Dauphiné. His Dauphiné performance, particularly on the climbs, was impressive, despite a hiccup when he struggled with an experimental new bike during the time trial.
Contador’s now Armstrong-less Astana team is packed with talent, and is probably the strongest squad at this year’s Tour. It features Alexandre Vinokourov, climbing specialists Daniel Navarro and David de la Fuente, and Andriy Grivko and Benjamin Noval, who will perform much of the grunt-work on the flats and in the foothills.
Not that Contador needs much help. He has always been an explosive climber – only Andy Schleck can rival him for sudden acceleration – and has developed his time-trialling ability, formerly a weakness, to rank with the very best. He has no obvious weaknesses. In reality, his rivals will be hoping for a loss of form, an accident or other misfortune to befall the Spaniard. The runaway favourite.
Cadel Evans (BMC)
Gritty, spiky, but generally perceived to be a bit dull as a racer, the Australian has enjoyed a career renaissance over the past 12 months, starting with his World Championship win last autumn and culminating in an impressive spring which saw him finish ahead of Contador to win Flèche-Wallonne and place fifth at the Giro.
His Giro performance was particularly impressive, winning one stage and showing more aggression in the mountains than we have seen before, despite having a weak BMC team who offered him no support at all. Combined with his still-formidable time trial ability, Evans is now a completely different proposition from the man who cracked under the pressure of being the pre-race favourite in 2008.
As in his Silence-Lotto days, it is a good but not great team which is likely to scupper Evans’ GC chances. Recruiting George Hincapie, for many years Armstrong’s right-hand man, will help, as will the presence of Steve Morabito, an impressive fourth at the Tour de Suisse. But BMC remain a notch below Astana, RadioShack or Saxo Bank in terms of depth. If Evans is to make an impression, he will likely have to do so on his own. At least it would be a familiar scenario for him.
Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack)
Leipheimer remains a top time trial riders and a good enough climber, but his previous attempts at the Tour have often been compromised by one (or more) bad days in the high mountains. He was forced to withdraw after breaking his wrist in a crash, but a third place in 2007 underlines his potential.
His form this year is good, with an excellent third place in the Tour of California, where a mechanical problem in the closing time trial cost him victory.
Leipheimer’s biggest issue is that his aspirations will be secondary to those of Armstrong, so unless his team leader cracks, another year of being there or thereabouts beckons.
Denis Menchov (Rabobank)
The Russian has won the other two Grand Tours, adding the 2009 Giro to his 2005 and 2007 triumphs at the Vuelta a España, but has never really looked a genuine contender in France. This year may be different, though, as he skipped the Giro to concentrate on the Tour.
Menchov is both a good time-trialler and a good climber. He won both kinds of stages at last year’s Giro and also has a Tour mountain stage to his name in 2006, but has generally lacked the ability to produce the all-important exceptional performance at the Tour, and has often been beset by misfortune and the odd catastrophic day. Last year he had all manner of mishaps early on and finished a lowly 51st.
Menchov may confound me and produce the ride of his life over the next three weeks to complete his set of Grand Tour wins. I doubt it, though. A top-five finish is a more realistic objective.
Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Last year’s runner-up behind Contador and the younger brother of Frank, Andy is probably the only rider Contador genuinely fears in the mountains. He was the only rider to ask any serious questions of the eventual champion with his repeated attacks on Mont Ventoux in last year’s penultimate stage, and he is the only other leading rider in the peloton who can produce the kind of savage acceleration that can shatter a lead group apart. He petered out somewhat after an exploratory attack at the Tour de Suisse, but nothing to cause any major concern.
His Saxo Bank team will also provide ample support, from the engine-on-two-wheels that is Fabian Cancellara, to the experience of Jens Voigt and Stuart O’Grady, to specialist climbers like Chris Anker Sørensen – not to mention brother Frank who will, if required, devote everything to his brother’s cause, as he did last year.
Andy’s Achilles’ heel, though, remains his time-trialling, which is mediocre at best. But with this year’s route heavy on climbing and with just one long time trial, this represents his best chance of unseating Contador. If anyone can crack the Spaniard, it is Andy, but he will need at least a two-minute advantage ahead of the stage 19 time trial if he is to wear the yellow jersey in Paris.
Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank)
In many ways a better all-rounder than his brother, being both a very good time-trialler and a very good climber, although he lacks Andy’s acceleration on steep ascents.
He is in good form, having won the overall in the Tour de Suisse in impressive style (including a stage win) and placing second at the Tour of Luxembourg. But does he have the confidence and the permission to ride his own race, or will Saxo Bank ask him to sacrifice himself for his brother’s cause, doing the heavy hitting in a one-two punch to isolate Contador?
It’s unlikely Frank will have the luxury of riding completely for himself, but with the race unlikely to be decided until deep into the third week, he will have every opportunity to pick up the reins should Andy falter. Whatever happens, an improvement on last year’s fifth place is a realistic target.
Bradley Wiggins (Sky)
The surprise package of last year’s Tour, when he finished fourth for Garmin, ‘Wiggo’ is now the focal point for the new Sky team.
His form at the 2009 Tour blind-sided everybody, as he added decent climbing form to his well-known time-trialling ability. A repeat performance this year requires a similar leap of faith: other than two time trial wins (one of which briefly earned him the leader’s jersey at the Giro), he has shown little elsewhere. His Giro was compromised by an early mass accident, but in the mountains he was dreadful. True, he has had two months since then to build his form up, but a repeat of last year’s breakthrough fourth place would be a huge – and unlikely – achievement.
More realistically, he will be among the favourites for Saturday’s prologue, and if he is out of the yellow jersey race by the time the riders hit the Pyrenees, a relatively gentle cruise through the mountains could set him up for an all-or-nothing tilt at individual time trial glory.
- Robert Gesink (Rabobank) – He nearly won last month’s Tour de Suisse, but his time-trialling is a major weakness and he will be expected to play second fiddle to Menchov.
- Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) – A very good all-rounder, but he is Basso’s designated wing-man, just as Vincenzo Nibali was at the Giro.
- Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) – A threat in the mountains who will benefit from the absence of the team time trial, but his form this year has been patchy at best. Probably best regarded for stage wins this time around.
- Carlos Sastre (Cervelo) – The former champion has never recaptured the form which took him to the 2008 yellow jersey.
- Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions) – Twice a top ten finisher at the Tour, but crashed out of the Giro with a broken clavicle. Also part of a team whose priorities will be divided between himself and Tyler Farrar.
- Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) – Explosive and exciting, and has shown some sparkling 2010 form, but as likely to blow up unexpectedly as he is to produce a stunning win. No chance unless Contador withdraws early on.
Points competition (green jersey)
The green jersey (or maillot vert) is awarded to the winner of the points competition for being the most consistent finisher in the race. The emphasis in this competition is on the flat stages which are the life-blood of the pure sprinters like Britain’s Mark Cavendish or 2009 green jersey Thor Hushovd.
Points are awarded at the end of each stage, with the number on offer depending on the nature of the day’s terrain. For a flat stage, the winner receives 35 points, the runner-up 30, down to one point for 25th place. Mountain stages carry a lower tariff (up to 20 on a high mountain stage); time trials lower still. There is also a smattering of points available for intermediate sprints. But it is the long, flat stages frequently resulting in the mania of a bunch sprint where the focus of the green jersey competition lies. Hushovd won just won stage last year – to Cavendish’s six – but still triumphed overall by means of a more consistent accumulation of points.
Edvald Boasson Hagen
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky)
A great all-rounder rather than a pure speed merchant, the 23-year old Norwegian will nonetheless be Sky’s main focus when it comes to bunch sprints. He has accumulated six wins so far this season, including stages of Tirreno-Adriatico and the Dauphiné, adding to an already impressive palmarès which includes four stages and the overall win in last year’s Tour of Britain.
A former teammate of Mark Cavendish, look out for him on flat stages featuring uphill sections towards the finish, which require power as well as out-and-out pace, where you can expect him to be mixing it with the likes of Óscar Freire and Thor Hushovd.
Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia)
The outstanding sprinter in the sport in 2008 and 2009, during which he won ten stages at the Tour and also the 2009 Milan-San Remo classic, 2010 has been a troubled season for the ‘Manx Missile’. Complications arising from off-season dental surgery have left him woefully short of fitness and form, and the loss of key teammates such as George Hincapie have also weakened his HTC-Columbia squad.
With just three wins to his name so far in 2010, Cavendish lacks battle-hardness. Even at last month’s Tour de Suisse, he struggled to out-pace rival Heinrich Haussler, resulting in a crash which forced his withdrawal from the race and knocked Haussler out of the Tour. As well as missing his top gear, he lacks mountain miles, so with a tough sequence of days in the Pyrenees to survive, there is no guarantee he will make it all the way to Paris.
Cavendish has stated the green jersey is his primary objective this year, not stage wins. But a patchy 2010 thus far means the odds may be stacked against him. Chalk him down for at least a stage win or two early on, though.
Gerald Ciolek (Milram)
Another young sprinter who left HTC-Columbia to escape Cavendish’s shadow, Ciolek is consistently in the mix of a bunch sprint, but has not always been able to convert this into stage wins. One minor win is all he can boast this year, but with Milram‘s stated focus for the Tour being capturing stage wins, he will benefit from a greater degree of focus on his ambitions than he did last year.
A solid points competition performance is probable; a stage win certainly possible. But don’t expect him to be wearing green in Paris.
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions)
Farrar would have won at least a couple of stages at last year’s Tour were it not for the sheer speed and efficiency of Mark Cavendish and his HTC-Columbia train, but he has since shown that he can win sprints at the big races, with one win in the Vuelta and a further two stages at May’s Giro.
Like Cavendish, he will struggle on the mountains, but give him a flat, straight run to the line and he is as good a finisher as there is. What will make the difference for Farrar is whether his team can organise themselves at the front of the peloton to give him a clear run. Too often at last year’s Tour they were outmuscled by Columbia or one of the other sprinters’ teams, and although Farrar was successful at the Giro, both his wins came in scrappy, disorganised free-for-alls.
Farrar will be a serious threat to Cavendish on the high-speed finishes, but is unlikely to be consistent enough to mount a serious challenge for the points competition.
Óscar Freire (Rabobank)
At 34, the Spaniard is a veteran of the fast-twitch bunch, but one with an enviable record which includes 11 Grand Tour stage wins (four at the Tour) and the 2008 green jersey. His form this season shows no sign of decline, with six wins including Milan-San Remo.
His Rabobank team is likely to devote significant resources behind Menchov (and possibly Gesink), but Freire is used to this. He will struggle to compete with the likes of Cavendish or Farrar for outright speed, but look for him to apply his intelligence and power on any kind of uphill finish, where he is likely to have Boasson Hagan and Hushovd for company.
Thor Hushovd (Cervelo)
In claiming his second green jersey last year, the Norwegian powerhouse waged an at times bitter battle with Cavendish, benefitting from a disqualification which effectively wrapped up the competition for him.
But Hushovd rarely needs much in the way of external help. He has the power to win uphill sprints, as he demonstrated when the Tour visited Barcelona last year, and is strong enough to strike out for intermediate bonus points on the mountain stages too. He may not win many stages – although he has won at least one in each of the past four races – but this extra dimension gives him a critical advantage over the likes of Cavendish and Farrar.
He is also extremely proficient over short time trials, so if he decides not to conserve energy, he could feature high up the timesheets in tomorrow’s prologue.
King of the Mountains (polka dot jersey)
The polka dot jersey (or maillot à pois rouges) is worn by the leader of the King of the Mountains classification, which as the name suggests is designed to reward the best climber in the race.
The Tour assigns one of five categorisations to mountains, based primarily on length and severity, with a sliding scale of points for the first riders over the summit. Fourth category climbs are the least severe, awarding three, two and one points for the first three riders. The tariff increases with the categorisation, so that first category climbs offer 15 points for the leader down to one for the eighth-placed rider, and the toughest climbs of all, designated hors catégorie – ‘beyond category’, or simply HC – yield points for the first ten riders, up to a maximum of 20. Furthermore, the final climb of any given day carries double its standard tariff.
The top GC riders will all generally feature among the upper reaches of this competition, but usually the jersey is won by a climbing specialist who is willing to give away time on other stages to conserve the energy to mount a serious attack on one or two of the long, up-and-down mountain stages which carry a huge number of points.
Damiano Cunego (Lampre)
Cunego is a genuine all-rounder, having won the Giro in 2004 as a 22-year old and enjoyed success in the Spring Classics, winning the Amstel Gold race in 2008. Last year, he added two mountain stages at the Vuelta to his palmarès, underlining his potential as a contender for the polka dot jersey here.
He is certainly good enough to contend for a top ten spot on GC at the Tour, but is more likely to focus his energies on the mountains. Good spring form which saw him finish sixth at Amstel Gold, fifth in Flèche-Wallonne and 11th at the Giro indicates that he will be a serious challenger here.
John Gadret (AG2R)
A former French national cyclo-cross champion, Gadret was a mid-level rider who catapulted himself into King of the Mountains contention with his performances at May’s Giro. Although he did not win a stage, he caught the eye on the mountain time trial up to Plan de Corones, where he finished an impressive third. He went on to finish 13th overall.
Gadret is a strong climber who might seek to establish a big points lead in the Alps, and then defend his advantage through the Pyrenees. Equally importantly, he is not as serious a threat to the GC contenders as some of the other climbing specialists, so he would be an ideal candidate to be ‘gifted’ the yellow jersey coming out of the Alps, forcing his AG2R team to pick up the hard work to defend it en route to the Pyrenees. This would give the major teams a chance to conserve their energy for the grander battles to come.
Robert Gesink (Rabobank)
Gesink has a strong history in mountainous races, which includes two fourth-place finishes at the Dauphiné. He nearly won last month’s Tour de Suisse after claiming the race’s big climbing stage over the Albulapass with an impressive solo ride.
However, that race also highlighted why he is more likely to focus on the mountains rather than the general classification. He lost huge chunks of time in the concluding time trial, and demonstrated that he is a far better climber than he is a descender.
Gesink’s primary role at the Tour will be to support Menchov and he will therefore feature prominently in the Alps, where he can expect to pick up a healthy number of points. If the Russian’s challenge has faded by the time the race enters the Pyrenees, Gesink will have free licence to go for the polka dot jersey.
Egoi Martínez (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
Probably the best climber on a team packed with Basque country climbers, Martínez has previously won the King of the Mountains competition at the Vuleta in 2006, and was second in France last year behind the now suspended Franco Pellizotti.
With four days in the Pyrenees forming the centrepiece of this year’s Tour Martínez, like all his countrymen, will be desperate to shine as the race skirts along the Spanish border where the Basque fans will, as usual, be out in force.
Martínez won the mountains classification at the Dauphiné in June, and looked as good on the climbs as anyone except Contador and overall winner Janez Brajkovic. Expect him to quietly rack up some solid points in the Alps before launching wave after wave of attacks once the riders hit the Pyrenees.
Jurgen van den Broeck
Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
The Belgian climber finished an impressive fifteenth overall last year (and ninth in the polka dot standings), despite losing six minutes in an early crash. Previously, he finished seventh at the Giro (in 2008) and a strong fourth at last month’s Dauphiné.
With former team leader Cadel Evans now gone, and lacking a credible GC contender or sprinter, the King of the Mountains and the odd breakaway represent Omega Pharma-Lotto‘s best chances of Tour glory this year, which will help van den Broeck.
Teammate Matthew Lloyd – a stage winner at the Giro – is also a potential contender for the jersey. At the very least, the two will ride strongly in support of each other in the mountains. And they will be assisted in their efforts by Britain’s Charlie Wegelius, one of the better climbing domestiques in the peloton.
I haven’t included any detailed analysis for the white jersey (maillot blanc), which is awarded to the best young rider (who must be under the age of 26 on Jan 1st 2010), simply because I have already covered most of the contenders for already elsewhere. It will almost certainly be won by Andy Schleck. (And if Schleck should suffer some disaster, look to Gesink, Roman Kreuziger or HTC-Columbia’s Tony Martin.)
Time to put my reputation (such as it is) on the line. My predictions for the Tour are:
Overall: 1st Alberto Contador, 2nd Andy Schleck, 3rd Cadel Evans. (Sorry Lance, sorry Bradley.)
Green jersey: Thor Hushovd (but Cavendish and Farrar will both win more stages than him).
Polka dot jersey: Egoi Martínez (count on him to launch a stage-winning attack in the Pyrenees, possibly as early as stage 14 to Ax 3 Domaines).
White jersey: Andy Schleck.
So there you have it. In three weeks you can come back and laugh at how wrong I was.
Watch out tomorrow for my preview of the prologue and the key stages which will most likely determine the outcome, and keep reading here for regular race analysis as the Tour progresses.
For the first two parts of my pre-Tour preview, click on the following links:
Part 1: Who to support?
Part 2: The Tour in numbers
For full coverage of the Tour de France, I would recommend either the official website or alternatively steephill.tv as your one-stop shop for race reports, photos and videos.