UTRECHT, Netherlands (AP) 10 riders to watch in the Tour de France, which starts on Saturday in Utrecht, Netherlands.
On his best days, the 2013 winner is untouchable on steep mountain climbs, where he'll be looking again this year to open up decisive time gaps on his rivals. But before imposing himself in the Pyrenees and Alps, the Kenya-born Briton must survive the Tour's opening nine-day swing from the Low Countries across northern France. That's not a given: Battered in crashes, Froome dropped out five stages into last year's Tour. The 30-year-old's victory earlier this month in the Criterium du Dauphine, a warm-up race for the Tour, showed the rider for the ultra-professional Sky team is in fighting form for cycling's showcase event. The lack of a long individual time-trial on this year's Tour route takes away an opportunity for Froome to do some damage, because he excels in that discipline. Still, Froome will be the man to beat this year.
The 2014 champion struggled for form ahead of his title defense, notably finishing 12th at the Criterium du Dauphine warm-up race for the Tour. But the mountainous profile of this year's route should favor strong climbers like him. With only three weeks of racing under his belt this season, the 30-year-old Italian may also be physically fresher than competitors who've had more grueling schedules. The seasoned competitor also has the benefit of experience, having previously triumphed at the tours of Italy and Spain, which should give him the reassurance of knowing what it takes to win. Also has the backing of the strong Astana team.
Light, lithe and accustomed to intense physical effort at high altitude, the Colombian could steal everyone's thunder on winding, grinding climbs in the Alps and Pyrenees where this Tour will almost certainly be decided. On his first and so far only Tour, Quintana made an immediate impact, finishing runner-up to winner Chris Froome in 2013. He went one better by winning the Giro d'Italia in 2014. At 25, Quintana is the youngest of the main contenders. Because of his relative inexperience and small size, Quintana could be at risk from pushing and jostling in the pack that often cause crashes in the first week.
With Tour victories in 2007 and 2009, the punchy, gritty Spaniard seemed destined to dominate cycling. But a failed doping test at the 2010 race for the fat-burning, muscle-building drug clenbuterol punctured his progression. Stripped of his first-place finish that year, Contador has not won the Tour again. He was fourth in 2013 and dropped out last year after a high-speed mountain crash during Stage 10. This May, Contador won his second Giro d'Italia title. If the 32-year-old recovers from that effort to win the Tour, too, Contador would become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to complete that double in the same year.
A three-time winner of cycling's WorldTour rankings, Rodriguez is enjoying another consistent season and is aiming for a podium finish in Paris. The 36-year-old Spanish veteran, who won the Vuelta al Pais Vasco earlier this year and secured third place at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, is confident he can compete with the Big Four - Contador, Froome, Nibali and Quintana - after a good showing in the Criterium du Dauphine's biggest stage. Unlike last year when he was also chasing the polka-dot jersey rewarding the best climber, Rodriguez will only focus on the general classification. To protect him from the dangers of a perilous first week featuring cobblestones and roads exposed to strong winds, the Katusha team will send a solid group of riders including Alexander Kristoff.
Just behind the Big Four stands Thibault Pinot. The 25-year-old French climber finished third at last year's Tour and got the white jersey as the best young rider. He has improved this season, claiming stage wins in the Swiss mountains at both the Tour de Romandie and Tour de Suisse. The FDJ rider has also showed great progress in his understanding of the race environment, an asset that could help him avoid attacks in side winds in the first week. Time-trialing remains Pinot's main weakness, so he will be relieved that there are not so many kilometers against the clock on this year's route.
TEJAY VAN GARDEREN:
The 26-year-old American is now the sole leader at BMC following Cadel Evans' retirement. Van Garderen enjoyed a solid buildup to the Tour that culminated with a runner-up finish at the Criterium du Dauphine behind Chris Froome. Van Garderen came to prominence at the 2012 Tour when he secured a fifth-place finish. He is targeting the podium after another fifth-place finish in 2014. The big question is whether he will be able to make that next step on a route tailor-made for climbers. Van Garderen could not follow when Froome launched a blistering attack during the Dauphine's toughest climb - perhaps a tell-tale sign that he still has room for improvement.
At full speed, legs whirring furiously, pounding his pedals, the British sprinter generates enough power to comfortably light up a family home. Winning the overall Tour title is beyond Cavendish's reach. Instead, the short, squat and prickly 30-year-old uses his explosive accelerations to extract himself from mass sprint-finishes at the end of flatter stages. He can seem unbeatable when his teammates successfully guide him to the front of the pack and his squat legs still have enough power to carry him to victory over the last few hundred meters (yards). From 2008-2013, Cavendish vacuumed up 25 stage wins. Only two riders - Bernard Hinault with 28 and Eddy Merckx with 34 - accumulated more. One more win would put Cavendish alone at third on that list. He currently shares that spot with Andre Leducq, who also won 25 stages from 1927-'38. Cavendish got no further than the first stage last year, separating his shoulder in a nasty crash, the main hazard for daredevil sprinters.
One of cycling's most colorful characters, the Slovak has been known to celebrate wins by doing wheelies. Good if not exceptional on sprints and climbs, Sagan is especially dangerous when the road is neither too steep nor too flat. The 25-year-old uses those all-around qualities to keep himself in the mix on many stages regardless of terrain, accumulating points that count toward the Tour's green jersey, a prestigious title he won for the last three years. Not a strong enough climber to compete for the yellow jersey of overall victory but still an entertaining rider to watch.
Perhaps France's best prospect for the years to come, Bardet hopes to improve on last year's sixth-place finish. The 24-year-old rider from AG2R La Mondiale distinguished himself with a prestigious stage win in the French Alps at the Dauphine, on the same route the Tour peloton will ride on stage 17. Bardet is still lacking experience but his ability in one-day Classics should help him negotiate the dense first week of racing. He will also be supported by seasoned riders including 2014 Tour runner-up Jean-Christophe Peraud.