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Tour de France preview: Ten riders to watch

The countdown continues, with the start of the 98th edition of the Tour de France now just 48 hours away.

Having already reviewed the prospects of all 22 teams, here is a personal list of ten riders to watch out for who are each likely to animate the race at various points. I have also added a further ten ‘honourable mentions’ who have the potential for a high finish or dramatic stage wins.

Ten to watch

Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek)

Objective: Individual time trial (stage 20). A stage win in the first week which could put him in the yellow jersey.

‘Spartacus’ is a possible stage winner and yellow jersey in the classics-style finishes of the first week, and will certainly start as favourite for the individual time trial, a discipline in which he is the reigning world and Olympic champion. He will feature regularly at the front of the Leopard-Trek train in the foothills of the mountains as they look to isolate Alberto Contador from his teammates and set up Andy Schleck. 2011 has been a mediocre season so far by Cancellara’s high standards, winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen but managing ‘only’ second at Paris-Roubaix and third at the Tour of Flanders. (Last year he won all three.) Nonetheless, he has recorded time trial victories at Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour of Luxembourg and two at the recent Tour de Suisse, where he won the concluding hilly time trial on a course not dissimilar to the Grenoble parcours at the Tour.

Image courtesy of TDWSport.com

Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad)

Objective: Sprint wins and the green jersey.

It has been a quiet 2011 by the standards of the fastest sprinter on two wheels, with just four wins entering the Tour – although two came at the Giro d’Italia in May. Sometimes a slow starter, Cavendish has nonetheless amassed 15 wins at the last three Tours (including five last year) and will also be targeting the green jersey this year. When on form and presented with a flat finish, he is nigh on unbeatable. However, rival teams will adjust their tactics to try to eliminate him on the lumpier stages of the first week. But while he is not as strong a climber as, say, Thor Hushovd, he is capable of winning hilly races in the right circumstances, as he proved at Milan San-Remo in 2009.

Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard)

Objective: The yellow jersey.

Contador starts under the shadow of an ongoing doping appeal which could yet see him stripped of his 2010 Tour win and 2011 results. However, the Spaniard remains the consummate stage-race champion, having won the last six Grand Tours he has entered, including the 2007, 2009 and 2010 Tours de France and May’s Giro d’Italia, in which he won two stages and gifted two others. His form this season has been impeccable, including overall wins in the Vuelta a Murcia and Volta a Catalunya. The only question mark over him – in physical terms, at least – will be whether he has regained peak form having sat out the last few weeks to recover from one of the most gruelling Giros in memory. If he has, expect him to go on the attack as soon as the race hits the high mountains on stage 12 to Luz-Ardiden. But don’t expect to see much of him before then.

Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto)

Objective: Stage wins on days with uphill finishes in the first week, which could enable him to enjoy a spell in the yellow jersey.

The newly crowned Belgian champion and the undisputed king of the spring Ardennes classics – he won Amstel Gold, Flèche-Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the space of eight days – will thrive on the uphill finishes scattered throughout the opening week. In particular, look for him on stages four and six. The former (which takes place on his 29th birthday) finishes on the third-category Mûr-de-Bretagne and is tailor-made for one of his trademark late attacks.

Robert Gesink (Rabobank)

Objective: A podium finish, to be achieved via strong rides in the high mountains.

Rabobank’s team leader is one of the strongest individual climbers in the peloton, and is supported by a squad packed with mountain specialists. Bauke Mollema and Laurens ten Dam were fifth and eighth at the Tour de Suisse, Luis León Sánchez was 11th at the Tour and tenth at the Vuelta last year and Juan Manuel Gárate has three top ten finishes at the Giro to his name. Gesink is a decent time-trialist, and so far this year has won the Tour of Oman and added podium finishes in strong fields at Tirreno-Adriatico (second) and the Tour of the Basque Country (third). He finished sixth overall at last year’s Tour, and can be expected to ride aggressively in pursuit of a podium finish here. Look out for him as the final man in wave after wave of orange-clad Rabobank attacks in the mountains.

Image courtesy of highroadsports.com

Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad)

Objective: Earn and then defend the yellow jersey during the first week, probably via the team time trial (stage two). Individual time trial. Top 20 finish on general classification.

The time trial may be his speciality – in which he is second only to Fabian Cancellara – but Martin is a good all-round rider who has the potential to finish in the top 20 overall (his best finish to date was 36th in 2009). That aspiration may be compromised by his role as a key member of Mark Cavendish’s lead-out train, but if HTC-Highroad win the stage two team time trial he is likely to claim the yellow jersey. At the very least he will expect to challenge Cancellara in the stage 20 time trial. He has already won the time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné over exactly the same course earlier this month, which may give him an extra advantage.

Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo)

Objective: Wins, particularly on the lumpier flat stages. Green jersey.

The reigning road race world champion is no match for Mark Cavendish in terms of outright speed but is a superior climber, which will favour him on a number of flat stages with tricky uphill finishes. On just such a finish at the Tour de Suisse a fortnight ago, he earned a confidence-boosting first win of the season. His climbing ability means he will also gain points over Cavendish and many of the other top sprinters at intermediate sprints on mountain stages. Even if he does not win any stages, he may potentially have the upper hand in the green jersey competition.

Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek)

Objective: The yellow jersey.

The runner-up to Contador in each of the last two years, the younger Schleck has had a relatively quiet preparation for the Tour, placing a strong third at Liège-Bastogne-Liège before testing himself at the Tour of California (where he finished eighth) and the recent Tour de Suisse, where he had two very impressive days in the mountains interspersed with other mediocre efforts, which appeared to contain an element of sand-bagging. Although he performed well in the time trial at last year’s Tour it remains a weakness, so Schleck will be hoping to pull out an advantage in the mountains ahead of the penultimate day’s race against the clock. A less explosive but no less effective climber than Contador, the long, gradual climbs of the Alps will probably be better suited to his attacking style. Like Contador, he will hide in the anonymity of the peloton for the first half of the race, before launching targeted attacks in the mountains aided by brother Fränk.

Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto)

Objective: A podium finish, to be achieved via strong rides in the high mountains.

Fifth overall last year after stepping out of the shadow of the departed Cadel Evans, the Belgian climber is one of a handful of riders capable of putting in the kind of accelerations required to put his rivals under pressure in the high mountains. He was fourth at the Dauphiné and took a fine solo win with an impressive uphill attack. More of the same will be required if he is to achieve a podium finish this year, as he is not as strong a time-trialist as many of his immediate rivals.

Thomas Voeckler (Europcar)

Objective: A stage win, either via a late attack on one of week one’s classics-style stages, or as part of a long breakaway in the mountains.

Although not a contender for a high finish in the general classification, the much-loved Voeckler has considerable Tour pedigree, having honoured the yellow jersey for ten days in 2004 and twice winning a stage via breakaways. The lumpy nature of the first week will suit his punchy attacking style, but he is also a good enough climber to profit from a break on the tougher mountain stages too. He probably won’t succeed, but it will be glorious to watch one of the most spectacular and likeable men in the peloton regardless.

Ten honourable mentions

Cadel Evans

Of the other key general classification contenders, Cadel Evans (BMC) has shown the most consistent form this year, taking an impressive stage win and the overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, winning the Tour of Romandie and finishing second at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Runner-up at the Tour in 2007 and 2008, he is a strong time-trialist and climber who lacks the acceleration to live with the very best in the mountains, but is a good each-way bet for a podium finish.

The Dauphiné also saw the prospects of two other top riders heading in very different directions. Bradley Wiggins‘s (Sky) preparation has been low-key, but he followed up a useful third place at Paris-Nice by winning the Dauphiné. Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) won the GP di Lugano and was fourth at Tirreno-Adriatico, but suffered an injury in a training accident in May and was poor in the mountains at the Dauphiné. The Italian has the stronger pedigree and is the superior climber when in form, whereas Wiggins lacks acceleration and will ride defensively in the mountains, hoping to stay in touch with the leaders and make up the gap in the time trial.

Fränk Schleck (Leopard-Trek) will provide half of a one-two punch in the mountains which his brother Andy hopes will expose Contador. Although his primary role will be to support Andy, he is a top rider in his own right, boasting two previous top five finishes and prestigious mountain stage wins at Alpe d’Huez (the last mountain finish this year) and Le Grand-Bornand.

RadioShack have a trio of ageing musketeers – Chris Horner (39), Levi Leipheimer (37) and Andreas Klöden (36) – who each have overall stage race wins to their names this season (the Tour of California, Tour de Suisse and Tour of the Basque Country respectively). They will be joined in a four-pronged attack by Janez Brajkovič, the winner of last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné, but the Slovenian is more likely to be pushed into a support role here.

Damiano Cunego

Lampre’s Damiano Cunego, a Giro winner in 2004, skipped his home race this year to focus on the Tour. He is a strong climber whose Achilles’ heel is time-trialling, as he demonstrated at the Tour de Suisse. He is certainly capable of improving on his previous best Tour finish of 11th (in 2006), but may struggle to challenge for the podium positions.

Reigning Olympic road race champion Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) finished fourth last year and will look for better this time round. He will most likely target the Pyrenean stages where his team will receive the raucous support of hundreds of thousands of Basque fans.

Finally, in what may well be his last Tour, Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) will undoubtedly seek one last stage win with a kamikaze solo attack, either in the first week or possibly on one of the mountain stages which does not conclude with a summit finish.

Tour de France preview

The Tour in numbers

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Official Tour teaser video

Six key stages

Stage 1 preview

Links: Tour de France official websiteSteephill.tv

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

41 Responses to Tour de France preview: Ten riders to watch

  1. Pingback: Tour de France preview: Teams and sponsors (part 1) « The armchair sports fan

  2. Pingback: Tour de France preview: Official Tour teaser video « The armchair sports fan

  3. Pingback: Tour de France preview: The Tour in numbers « The armchair sports fan

  4. Pingback: Tour de France preview: Teams and sponsors (part 2) « The armchair sports fan

  5. Sad to say, I really don’t think we’ll see Thor win the green jersey this year. I’m hoping for a stage win or two, but he hasn’t had the best season so far, and his sprinting days are largely behind him, I think.

    Cannot wait to see them get under way, though!

    • I’m a big fan of the Thunder God, Beate, especially after his world championship win DownUnder. That was a great effort for a reputed sprinter over a hilly course.

  6. Kitty Fondue says:

    Beate, I think you’re right about Thor – but the new intermediate points system will probably work more in his favour than in Cav’s – we just need to see what Garmin’s tactics are. Cav says he wants the green jersey this year but I still think he wants the glory of the stage wins more than playing the points system to get the green.

    I think the unknown quantity is definitely Basso – if he has a strong team around him (and Liquigas is very talented) then he can stay in touch of the podium. We just need to see how everyone else is climbing. I think the yellow in the first week will be about the team time trial and I think HTC will be hard to beat. I’d *love* Cancellara to do his usual week in yellow but he might need to pull 8 guys with him – the Vuelta TTT last year shows that sometimes he’s too strong for his own team.

    Will Contador be too tired after the Giro? Not sure about that, but I reckon his team will be as he’s taken about 5 Giro riders onto the Tour with him. But then, he’s shown before that he can do it all without any team help so … It’d be great if Andy actually got a killer instinct over the last year.

    Can’t wait for it all to start!!!!

  7. Tim says:

    It’s difficult to know exactly how the new points system will work out. Cav has made it clear he wants the green jersey but that he will look for stage wins and to do no more than minimise his losses at the intermediates. Thor’s form has been poor, but he will have taken heart from his win at the Tour de Suisse.

    I can see Thor winning the green without actually winning a stage, especially if Cav gets burned off on the uphill finishes of stages one, four and six and Thor can secure high places in each. Add to that whatever intermediate points he will target in the mountain stages where Cav won’t score at all, and it could happen. That will leave Cav having to win pretty much every flat stage – he reckons there are maybe only five? – just to stay in contention. It really could go either way. And we haven’t even thought about the wily old Petacchi yet …

    I have a feeling the green jersey may turn out to be the most interesting competition this year, as it so often is!

    As for Basso, his form at the Dauphine was appalling, but he has had another few weeks since then to ride himself into better form. Looking at the Liquigas line-up, I’m not sure it’s all that strong, particularly when you compare it to Leopard and Rabobank, or even the depleted Movistar boys. (Spare a thought for them – no Tondo, no Soler …) I’m dubious Ivan will get anywhere near the top 5 unless his team picks up some slack – and there are some tricky descents to negotiate too this year, which is never his favourite.

    So many ifs, buts & maybes. Don’t you just love this time of year? 🙂

    • Kitty Fondue says:

      I’m standing by my Basso hopes. I think he’ll be in contention. I just have this feeling …

      The green jersey has actually been the most interesting competition for a couple of years now. I think it’s kind of funny that Cav always feels so aggrieved that he hasn’t won the green jersey yet. If it were purely for stage wins, then fair enough, but it’s not so he needs to play the game. Which, so far, he’s clearly not wanted to do – and he can say he wants the green jersey till the cows come home, until he starts fighting for those intermediate sprint points, he actually means he wants to win his way or not at all. Personally, I like that attitude – go for the glory of the stage win – but if that’s what you want to do, stop whining that it’s not fair you don’t get the green jersey too. I think it’s 50/50 if he’ll win it this year but no doubt he’ll be the fastest man in the peloton.

      It will be interesting to see how Leopard work together this Tour – everyone says it’s just Saxo with different uniforms, but we’ll see. That said, any team with the mighty Jens on it will be a team to be reckoned with, if only from a pain point of view. This may be his last Tour, I think he’ll be even more Jens than normal!!!! It’ll be great!

      • Tim says:

        I’m impressed with Leopard’s strength in depth. O’Grady, Cancellara and Jens will get them to the steep bits, then Monfort, Fuglsang and Frank will keep jabbing away to launch Andy. They will surely burn off all Contador’s lieutenants, but as we saw at the Giro Alberto at his best doesn’t actually need much help from his team when it comes to the toughest gradients. To my eye, the only team that can match Leopard for climbing depth is the Rabobank boys.

        Cav is still sulking over his dodgy DQ in 2009 for supposedly blocking off Hushovd. (He has a point on that one.) I do still think if he had to make a choice, he would rather win five stages and lose the green jersey than win no stages and win the jersey. And that’s the fundamental difference in approach between Cav and Thor which makes the green jersey competition so interesting. They’re both valid strategies that play to their individual strengths. Cav is undoubtedly the faster sprinter, but Thor is the stronger all-round rider on the slopes.

        Bring it on. 🙂

  8. Todd Kinsey says:

    This year has been rather anticlimactic in cycling so hopefully this year’s Tour will live up to the hype. I don’t think you can pick against Contador especially when you see how bad Andy Schleck performed in his most recent TT. I’m hoping to that Cavendish can finally take the next step and win the coveted green jersey. HTC has been decimated by defections the past few years dramatically reducing the effectiveness of the once dominant leadout train. Given his poor results up to this point in the year, Cav’s goal must be the Tour. We shall see.

    • Tim says:

      I know what you mean, Todd. The Giro turned into a bit of a procession for masochists trailing around after Contador, and the ongoing doping scandals don’t help. But there have been some fantastic second tier races this year – the Tour de Suisse and Dauphine last month were good, and the spring classics saw some fantastic racing.

      Cav is sticking to his strategy of pursuing stage wins to win the green jersey. No one quite knows how the new points system will work out – it may help him, or it may favour all-rounders like Hushovd. Certainly the number of uphill finishes on otherwise flat stages will not help Cav’s cause, although it will create chances for a broader range of winners such as Gilbert, Boasson Hagen and Voeckler. Cav’s season has been OK, after a slow start. He looked close to his best at the Giro, and didn’t feature at the Tour de Suisse because the ‘flat’ finishes were too hilly. For him, it’s always been all about the Tour and then the Worlds on a flat course in Denmark. We may even see him at the Vuelta again.

      The big question mark against Contador is post-Giro fatigue, and the fact that Leopard-Trek (and Rabobank) should be able to isolate him quite easily in the mountains. It’s tough to read too much into Andy’s results at the Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse – he seemed to be riding to a specific programme that involved really testing himself here and there in the mountains while sand-bagging on other days. It’s hard to get a good read on his form – I suspect it will be very, very good.

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