Like it or not, the sport of professional cycle racing is largely defined by one race – the Tour de France. and the Tour de France starts tomorrow!
To aficionados the Primavera, Ronde, Hell of the North and Classic of the Falling Leaves are eagerly awaited then devoured and endlessly analysed.
But mention any of these races to the ‘man in the street’ and you’ll be met with a blank stare.
The Giro and Vuelta will elicit a similar response – Paris-Nice?
But tell a ‘lay person’ you’re going to the Tour de France and in response you’ll get; ‘Lance, Cav, yellow jersey’ – and ‘drugs,’ naturally.
It’s the biggest annual sporting event in the world and in a world where the purse strings become ever tighter, sponsors are still fighting to throw money at ‘le Grande Boucle’ – the ‘Big Loop’ around the hexagon of France.
And for the first time in nearly 30 years there’s a British rider who is perfectly capable of winning the race – indeed, he’s favourite.
Bradley Wiggins is that man – but before we look at the skinny Londoner’s chances, let’s look at the other names which will feature in the world’s media in July.
Andy Schleck’s (Radio Shack & Luxembourg) won’t – one suspects it’s as much damage to his fragile morale as much as any bones which has prompted his withdrawal; maybe next year?
Tommy Voeckler (Europcar & France) may pull off an exploit once he rides into form but a top placing isn’t likely after a season disrupted by knee problems
As Vuelta winner, Juan Jose Cobo (Movistar & Spain) should be a name to conjure with – but cycling doesn’t work like that, any more.
We’ve taken the dozen names which we think will make the race and looked at them, one by one. The placings, particularly from sixth to twelfth is a bit of a lottery, but here goes…
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12) Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel & Spain) 34: The reigning Olympic champion won the king of the mountains and was sixth on GC in the 2011 race.
Euskaltel is more than a team; it’s a statement of loyalty to an ideal, a dream.
Despite not being of Basque origin – he’s from Oviedo in Asturias – ‘Sammy’ has been loyal to Euskaltel for his entire career, 13 seasons.
This season has seen him win the team’s home race – the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco, take second and a stage win in the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and go top ten in the Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
In other words, his form has been good, and he’s still the most demonic of descenders – his downfall will be the time trials.
The 2012 parcours are a dream for the chrono men with a 6.4 kilometre prologue in Liege, a 41.5 K test around Besancon and a 53.5 K drag race stage 19 from Bonneval to Chartres.
Sanchez will know that any chance of a good GC place will founder amongst the discs, skin suits and tri-bars.
It’s more likely he’ll use these stages as ‘active rest’ and harbour his strength for a mountain stage win and the polka dot jersey.
11) Alejandro Valverde (Movistar & Spain) 32: Despite being out for 2011 for ‘mixing with the wrong sort,’ Valverde has come back with a bang.
He opened the season Down Under with a stage win and second on GC, then there was a stage and the GC in the Ruta del Sol, a stage and third on GC in Paris-Nice and a top ten in the Tour de Suisse on GC.
His Movistar team have had an excellent season – both Suisse and the Route du Sud fell to them recently; with Valverde having a large hand in Rui Costa’s win in the former.
But despite the success of rider like Costa, the squad is selected on an ‘all for Alejandro’ basis – this is a cannily managed team and backing no hopers isn’t their way
Stage one of the Tour is made for Valverde with nasty Ardennes parcours and a tough finish – a top placing is unlikely, but time in yellow is possible.
10) Denis Menchov (Katusha & Russia) 34: I once said that the ‘big diesel’ that is Denis couldn’t win the Giro – he proved me wrong on that count.
This is a man who has won the Tour de l’Avenir, been best young rider in le Tour, won Pais Vasco, the Vuelta on two occasions, the Giro and stood on the podium of the Tour.
In other words, he’s a quality rider – but it may be that Old Father Time is hot on his heels?
Renowned for his ability to ‘just keep going’ he was eighth in the Giro and fifth in the Vuelta last year in Geox colours.
This year he’ll enjoy the much stronger Katusha formation around him and also the 100 kilometres of time trials – he’ll ride those in the Russian champion’s skinsuit, having recently won the championship in Voronezh.
The top six looks unlikely – but old Denis has proved me wrong before.
9) Robert Gesink (Rabobank & Holland) 26: A pure climber, the skinny Dutchman was sixth in the 2010 Tour and won the recent Tour of California.
That he can get up the hills isn’t a topic for debate, but the trouble with the Tour is that you have to be ‘complete.’
There are the nasty transition stages in the rain, the crazy last 10 K of the sprinter stages and the time trials – all 100 K of them.
But Gesink rode a good time trial on the way to his California win, fourth to David Zabriskie over 30 K; it’s more his bad luck which makes us think he won’t be up there – and three weeks are much longer than one.
8) Andreas Kloden (Radio Shack & Germany) 37: The unsmiling German seems to have been around forever – it was 1996 when he took bronze in the World U23 time trial championships – whilst he hasn’t sparkled this year, he’s an enigma, as liable to spring a surprise win as he is to finish in 47th place.
Last year he won stages in Paris-Nice, the Criterium International and Pais Vasco – also taking the GC in the last named.
We name him because of the 100 K of time trials – where he’s still very strong – the fact that there are only two mountain top arrivals and because he usually looks cool and inscrutable in pictures.
7) Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin & Canada) 31: It would be easy to say ‘he can’t do it’ – but ‘can’t’ isn’t a word which features in the former mountain biker’s vocabulary.
Allowed to build his whole season around a Grand Tour for the first time, the big man from British Columbia won the best Giro in years on a combination of strength, guile and sheer grinta.
His big build means he’s not intimidated when the pushing starts, he can time trial just below the very highest level, hangs on to the very best grimly in the mountains and if an opportunity to gain time presents itself, he doesn’t hesitate.
But at the back of our minds we can’t help but think that if ‘Alberto couldn’t do it, Ryder can’t.’
But this is one occasion where we’d love to be proved wrong.
6) Levi Leipheimer (QuickStep & USA) 38: A desperately unlucky Paris-Nice landed the Californian in hospital; but third spot in the recent Tour de Suisse confirms that he’s back on course.
His season started well, on a new, high profile, successful team he took a GC win in the ever more competitive San Luis tour in Argentina and was well in the mix in Paris-Nice until that nightmare stage of crashes shattered his hopes.
It may be five years ago, but Leipheimer time trialled himself to a podium in 2007, beating Evans and Karpets to take the final time trial and finishing just 31 seconds behind GC winner Contador and 12 behind second placed Evans.
It would be easy to say that was as good as it gets for him, and he’s no spring chicken anymore – but retired pros will tell you; ‘it’s always the head which goes first.’
Leipheimer’s head is still very strong; and he’ll love all those chrono kilometres – he won’t be far away.
5) Frank Schleck (Radio Shack & Luxembourg) 32: Don’t believe the hype that he’s peaked and won’t be expecting much from this Tour.
Forget the Giro debacle – he didn’t want to ride and bailed out at the first opportunity.
He was third in Luxembourg and second in Suisse – form and peaks aren’t his problem.
The real problems he as are those 100 K where’s there are no team mates around him and no gradient to fight.
‘Alone and unpaced,’ was how the English Road Time Trials Council used to phrase it.
His other negative is the Machiavellian nature of his team’s inner workings.
Sports psychologists will tell you that the ‘hungry fighter’ is a myth in most cases; a top athlete needs harmony and calm around him to perform at his best – not tabloid headlines.
Nor should we think that lack of Brother Andy is a problem – many would argue that it should improve his focus.
If only there weren’t all those damn time trials . . .
4) Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto & Belgium) 29: Big, strong, quiet and easing his way nicely up the Tour rankings year on year until last year’s crash.
A PR man’s nightmare, he prefers to let his Ridley do the talking for him.
Hailing from Rik Van Looy’s home town of Herentals, his 2012 campaign has been solid rather than spectacular – fourth on GC in the Algarve, third in Catalunya, 12th in the Pais Vasco and fifth in the Dauphine.
That’s his way – and what you don’t see are the endless kilometres notched up in training camps, a method which he places much store in.
He’s not going to win the Tour, but a podium is possible, if for no other reason than his sheer solidness and reliability.
If he has a weakness, then it’s his team – not that they’re not strong riders; but Greipel will need support, and Vanendert knows he can win in the high mountains, will he be willing to through away personal glory for Jurgen?
We’ll know soon enough.
3) Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas & Italy) 27: Let’s not pay too much attention to his lowly place in the recent Dauphine – rather let’s remember podiums in the Primavera and Doyenne and his GC win in Tirreno.
He’s won the Vuelta and been second in the Giro – but to become a ‘Great’ you have to perform on the biggest stage of all.
A good time trial rider (with junior and U23 Worlds medals to confirm that) a strong climber, a deranged descender and backed by one of the best disciplined squads in the world – he’s not day dreaming of Tour podiums, to use Team Sky parlance; ‘he ticks a lot of the boxes.’
It’s conceivable that if Nibali shows weakness then the men in green and blue will turn their support to the phenomenal Peter Sagan and chase stage wins.
Especially given that Nibali is alleged to be heading for Astana on a mega-euro contract.
Rather, we think that Nibali will rise to the occasion and the Liquigas Legion will ride until they drop for him, as they did for Basso in the Giro.
Basso is slated to ride in support for Nibali at le Tour – he could have no finer support.
2) Cadel Evans (BMC & Australia) 35: The fact that the man won the