Have you ever ridden a bike for 180 km in a single day? Ever woken up the next day and, with your legs screaming in agony thought ‘that was fun, let’s do it again’? Ever done this for three weeks straight over some of the toughest mountain passes in Europe? Didn’t think so, but this is the challenge facing the world’s elite road cyclists in the coming weeks.
Yes it’s Tour de France time, the biggest bike race in the world is commonly referred to as simply ‘The Tour’. There are numerous other stage races called a tour of somewhere; Tour de Suisse, Tour of Britain, Tour Down Under, Tour of California to name just a few, but there is only one Tour. It captures the attention of the world like no other cycling event, the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana may pose equally daunting physical challenges over their three-week durations but the intensity and desire to succeed of every rider taking part makes the Tour something special. For team sponsors it’s time to reap the rewards of the investment they make to fund their team all season long. The riders themselves are aware of this and have been known to launch solo attacks and get into breakaways purely to get their team sponsor some more airtime, such is the focus of attention on this race. It is easy to spot a first-time stage winner in a major race as, providing time permits, an experienced pro will do up their jersey after a long day in the saddle several hundred metres before the finish line just to make sure the sponsors logo is fully visible as they cross the line, arms aloft with a thousand camera lenses trained on them. Those first-time winners are often naive and so caught up in the momentous, life-changing occasion that they can forget their professional duties and cross the line with their jersey half unzipped and all the photographers capture is the rider’s sweat soaked vest clinging to their emaciated rib-cage.
It is a mark of how much the Tour means to every rider that just finishing the grueling ordeal is enough for many. Getting to the finish line on the Champs-Elysees is the personal goal for all but the chosen few at the start of the race. Some will target a stage win, some will have their eyes on taking home a jersey come Paris but most are there to work for their team leader, set a pace, fetch water and protect them from the inevitable bumps and scrapes of racing in such a large peloton. There will be the odd breakaway that will be successful though, and a formerly unheralded domestique can write their name into the record books. Mark Cavendish, the 15-time Tour stage winner, repeatedly states that he would be happy with one stage win every year as a single stage win in the Tour can make a cyclist’s career. Magnus Backstedt, the Swedish giant of a man tells a story of how, having just signed a single year contract with Chris Boardman’s Credit Agricole team he won the 19th stage of the 1998 Tour. That evening he was sitting down with the team’s sporting director who ripped up Backstedt’s current contract and handed him a new two-year deal with an improved salary – that is what the Tour means to teams and riders alike.
This year’s edition, the 98th running of the event, gets started on Saturday on France’s Atlantic coast in the Vendee region, so clear skies and energy sapping sun are almost guaranteed to wave the riders off as they embark on their 3000+ km anti-clockwise journey around the roads of France. The anti-clockwise nature sees the riders tackle the Pyrenees first and with two of the three high mountain stages ending with summit finishes they will give an early opportunity for the general classification (GC) contenders to separate themselves from the rest of the peloton. The Alps then follow in the final week and with the Col du Galibier being climbed twice in 24hrs to mark 100 yrs since it was first climbed in the Tour, it really is a climber’s route this year. Summit finishes on the top of the Galibier and the iconic Alpe-d’Huez will no doubt be fought out by race favourites Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, but can anyone get near the top two from the past two Tours?
My guess would be no, the battle for the final podium spot has been one of the most intriguing stories of the last two Tours though with Lance Armstrong edging out Britain’s own Bradley Wiggins in his breakout Tour of 2009 and Russian Denis Menchov managed to stay on his bike for long enough in 2010 to beat Sammy Sanchez on to the podium. Sanchez will be targeting the podium again along with a host of others, and with only 65.5 km of time-trialling to deal with this year and 23 of those being the team time-trial, it’s not unlikely that you’ll see a bunch of pure climbers fighting it out for that third step in Paris. That unfortunately would seem to eliminate Wiggins, who whilst appearing to be in spectacular form as his win in the Dauphine last month suggests, will always rely on his time-trialling prowess to build an advantage over the ‘mountain goats’ and then limit his losses when the roads start to point skywards.
Where else to look for action this year:
Team Time-Trial – many a team will be eyeing up the 23 km second stage as a chance to get themselves some glory, and a good shot at the yellow jersey to boot. Team Sky have made no secret of their desire to attack every stage this year and will see it as an ideal opportunity for their first yellow jersey in their sophomore year. They’ll face stiff competition though from HTC-High Road, Garmin-Cervelo, the Schleck’s newly formed Leopard-Trek outfit and the Contador-led Saxo Bank. The Schleck’s and Contador will be less worried about being in yellow during the first week as they’ll see it as more of a burden on the team than anything, but they won’t want the likes of Wiggins or HTC’s Tony Martin gaining too much of an advantage too early.
Green Jersey – Last year’s winner Alessandro Petacchi is present again, as are controversial Belgian Tom Boonen, 2005 and 2009 winner Thor Hushovd and Manxman Mark Cavendish. The four of them will all slug it out for the points jersey. Adjustments have been made to the intermediate sprints this year with only one per stage, but with more points on offer Cavendish has already said he will have to divert from his previously unsuccessful game-plan of focussing solely on stage victories to win green. Cavendish has had another slow start to the season but two stage victories in May’s Giro gave him a boost and plenty of training miles were got into the legs during the Tour de Suisse so he should be able to pick up more than his prerequisite one victory again this year. There aren’t many flat sprints this year though so it does seem tailor-made for a big man such as Hushovd to emerge victorious again, but with four sprinters of such pedigree in the field it won’t be a walk in the park for any of them.
Individual Time Trial – It’s hard to look past the usual suspects of Fabian Cancellara, Bradley Wiggins, Alberto Contador, Tony Martin and David Millar for the penultimate stage. Millar and Wiggins have both got the better of four-time World time trial champion Cancellara this year but the man they call Spartacus always seems to perform on the big occasion so shouldn’t be written off.
King of the Mountains (KoM) – With two of the last three winners having had their title stripped due to doping irregularities it seems rather difficult to predict a winner this year, and for how long they will manage to keep hold of their title. Anthony Charteau was wearing the polka dot jersey in Paris last year after fighting all the way with compatriot Jerome Pineau, but it seems unlikely he’ll be able to repeat the trick for a second successive year. Gone are the days it seems of a KoM winner placing high in the GC as well, the tactics nowadays seem to be to breakaway early on in a stage, hoover up the points on the early climbs and then let the big boys pass you by on the final slope. With this in mind I wouldn’t like to put too much money on anyone this year but the French seem to have been targeting this jersey somewhat in the past couple of years as they try to bring back some pride to French cycling in the lack of a real GC contender.
Philippe Gilbert – Swept up in the Spring classics and with a tough first week not looking tailor-made for the usual sprint-fest then the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider could well be in with a chance of a stage to add to his three other Grand Tour victories in Italy and Spain.
Yellow Jersey – Contador to take it by around a minute from Schleck the younger, only to have this year’s and last year’s victories taken away from him when the Court of Arbitration for Sport hear the appeal for his drugs ban in August.
Green Jersey – Yes I said it wasn’t built for Cavendish this year but I’m still going to go for him anyway, he’s acknowledged that he’ll have to change his approach this year and seems more determined than ever finally grab the green jersey to match his green sunglasses.
KoM Jersey – Not much more than a guess for this one but I’ll go for a Spaniard and David Arroyo in particular, not sure why just had to pick someone.
3rd Spot – With Andy Schleck pencilled in for second I’ll go for the returning Vinokourov to steal third, he finished 16th in support of Contador last year so with the full backing of his Kazakh team behind him he’ll be going all out this year.
Aside from all the inevitable talk around Contador’s ongoing doping saga I also think this will be a very clean Tour, and hopefully accident free given the couple of horrible incidents cycling has had to bear recently. Whatever happens though it is sure to be three weeks of pure theatre, set against the stunning backdrop of France’s imposing mountains and numerous châteaux.