Still stinging a bit from Team USA’s departure from soccer’s World Cup? Here comes a potential balm and distraction. The Tour de France begins Saturday in Yorkshire, England, famous for its pudding, terriers and verdant countryside. Like soccer, cycling is a vastly popular sport around the globe. Unlike the World Cup, this Tour can be reasonably expected to deliver at least a top 10 performance by an American.
But don’t expect 25-year-old Miami native Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), last seen standing atop the podium at the prestigious Tour tune-up, the Dauphine Libere, to make his move until midway through the race, when the peloton hits the high mountains. There’ll be plenty to hold your interest in the interim.
You may recall that the ’07 Tour de France kicked off in the shadow of Buckingham Palace. While that seemed a bit surreal, the thought of a Grand Depart in Great Britain is no longer a reach. The intervening years have been a golden age for British cycling, from the rise Mark Cavendish, who has snatched 25 stage wins in this race; to Team GB’s dominance in the velodrome at the 2012 Olympics, to the emergence of Manchester-based Team Sky, which has given us the last two Tour de France winners.
In a bit of early Tour drama, one of those champions was not invited back this time around. Sir Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour champion, will be sitting home in Lancashire, playing lugubrious riffs on his collection of guitars. Sky general manager David Brailsford apparently determined that the 34-year-old could not be trusted to completely sublimate his own ambitions and ride in the service of Chris Froome, who won last year’s Tour, and whose contentious history with Wiggins includes a war of Tweets between their significant others.
Froome will need a drama-free work environment to hold off Alberto Contador, who won the 2010 Tour de France but was later stripped of the title for a positive drug test. Contador, now 31 and riding for Tinkoff-Saxo, is in superb form and was last seen out-dueling a wounded Froome in the mountain stages of the Dauphine. Both were beaten by Talansky, the young American who believes the layout of this year’s Grand Boucle sets up well for him. Herewith, a breakdown of the key riders and key stages:
Chris Froome, 29, Team Sky
Update (July 9th): Chris Froome pulled out of the Tour de France following two crashes that injured the riders left wrist.
Froome is looking to become just the 11th rider in the 111-year history of this race to repeat as champion. He’s had a turbulent build-up to this Tour, not including the soap opera with Wiggins, who – rightly divining that Brailsford intended to exclude him – went on the BBC to talk about how “gutted” he was be passed over.
While Brailsford’s move was probably the right one – Brits know a little about the perils of internecine strife (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wars_of_the_Roses) -- it wasn’t popular. Sir Bradley is much beloved in England, where sports fans have found the charms of the more reserved, Kenyan-born Froome -- his father, Clive, is a British citizen -- easier to resist.
After fighting off a chest infection in the early season, Froome hit the deck hard in Stage 6 of the Dauphine, after which he wasn’t the same rider. While he says he’s “more or less” recovered (http://velonews.competitor.com/2014/07/news/froome-impey-positive-crash-bradly-wiggins_334166), it was sobering for Sky fans to see Contador roughing him up for the rest of that race.
Despite the start on English soil, this year’s parcours doesn’t necessarily set up that well for Froome. Yes, he’s one of the best climbers in the world, and yes, the course features five mountaintop finishes. But the climbs in this Tour aren’t as imposing as usual, according to one former Tour champ. Like many elite climbers, he’s stick-figure thin – a detriment in Stage 5, when the peloton must cope with cobblestones usually reserved for races like Paris-Roubaix. Froome, likewise, is a superb time trial rider, but this year’s Tour de-emphasizes the Race of Truth. Organizers did away with the prologue – a short, Day 1 sprint that serves to seed the riders – and the dramatic, visually gorgeous team time trial. The only TT in this Tour comes on the penultimate day. If Froome is in yellow that day, it’s not likely to be by much, with this guy breathing down his neck.
Alberto Contador, 31, Tinkoff-Saxo
Always tactically astute, Contador has looked even more predatory and confident than usual this season. His well-timed attacks on Froome in the Dauphine took big chunks of time out of the Sky leader. Contador’s subpar 2013 season led to questions about whether his time had passed. It hasn’t. The Spaniard finished second overall in the Dauphine, and won the Tour of the Basque country and Tirreno-Adriatico. Yes, he’ll need to be alert – and a little lucky – to avoid the crashes that kneecapped his 2011 Tour defense. And he’ll be riding minus the services of teammate Roman Kreuziger, who finished fifth in last year’s Tour but will sit this one out at as the UCI examines irregularities in his biological passport dating from 2011 and ’12. But his performance heading into the race leaves no question that the rider known as Bertie is back.
Vincenzo Nibali, 29, Astana
A dynamic, attacking climber, the Italian known as The Shark won the three-week Giro d’Italia in 2013, but has been off his game this year. Nibali began the season in subpar form, and failed to make a number of elite selections in the mountain stages of the Dauphine, where he finished seventh. If Nibali is playing possum, if this has been all part of a grand plan to peak just in time for the Tour, than he could make the podium. Time trialing is not a strength, so the shortage of TT miles in this race is fine by Nibali.
Andrew Talansky, 25, Garmin-Sharp
The former high school cross-country runner from south Florida entered his first bike race at the age of 17, and fell in love with that particular species of suffering. Eight years later, after winning the ’08 collegiate nationals; after living with eight other riders in the servant’s quarters of an Italian villa in his first, disastrous year as a pro (“You wanted to be one of the first guys back from your training ride, or there would be no hot water for your shower”); after being ignored by USA Cycling, whose development program director at the time, Noel Dejonckheere, concluded that Talansky lacked the right stuff to make it in the pro peloton; Talansky is an overnight success, having won last month’s Dauphine, snatching the lead with an audacious move on the final day.
While Garmin CEO Jonathan Vaughters has in in the past assembled Tour rosters featuring “multiple leaders and multiple goals,” this year’s focus is on one rider. “Our roster is designed to give him the best support possible.” Not making the cut, Scotsman David Millar, who sounded, if possible, more gutted than Wiggo to be left out.
Tenth in last year’s Tour, Talansky likes what he sees in this year’s course profile: “There’s only one time trial, but it’s a long time trial, on the second-to-last day of the Tour. People are gonna be on their hands and knees, just suffering, and I’m generally at my best in the third week. There are back-to-back climbing days, and hard mountains stacked in the third week – all that kind of plays in my favor,” he told Edge recently in a Skype interview from his apartment in Girona, Spain. “It’s all about getting through the first half of the race safely, healthy. Once we’re in the mountains, it’s not so tactical, there’s not so much luck involved. The best riders will end up at the front.”
The Big Days
Stage 1: Leeds to Harrogate, 190.5km
No prologue, no problem for Mark Cavendish and the other members of the strange, offbeat tribe known as sprinters. By making the Tour’s first day an open stage, organizers increased the likelihood that a sprinter, rather than a time trial specialist, will spend a few days in yellow.
Cavendish wants this one desperately, and, in true Cav fashion, wears that urgency on his sleeve. This largely flat run-in to Harrogate gives him “a chance to ride a stage at home and be in with a chance of winning! It's my mum's home town and it's designed for a sprint. I haven't yet worn the yellow jersey and I want to do it. It's going to be what my whole season is built around. If I had to choose one stage of the 21 … that's got to be it.”
The Manx Missile fell short the last time the Tour came to the U.K., and again at the Olympic road race two years ago. Marcel Kittel, poised to snatch from Cav the mantel of World’s Greatest Sprinter, could rain on his parade yet again.
Stage 5: Ypres, Belgium, to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, 155.5km
To the big names looking on in person at the presentation of the 2014 Tour course, the most unpleasant surprise was provided by Stage 5, a day featuring nine sections of dreaded cobbles – many of them the same secteurs riders jackhammer over during the one-day Paris-Roubaix classic. Three-time Paris-Roubaix champion Fabian Cancellera will be a favorite on this day, as will Niki Terpstra, who won the race this year. But the real news will come behind the leaders. As it did with Frank Schleck and Lance Armstrong in 2010, the pave can be counted on to sabotage the ambitions of a few general classification threats.
Stage 10: Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles, 161.5km
Finally, halfway through the race, the pure climbers have a chance to say, “It’s on.” The profile of this Bastille Day abbreviated ordeal – seven categorized climbs in the final 130km — is serrated as a shark’s mouth. The dastardly Col des Chevrères includes 15-degree pitches; the final climb up La Planche des Belles Filles features a 20-percent gradient that couldn’t deter Froome a year ago: he rode into yellow on a stage that finished on that same peak. A snapshot of Froome, Contador and the guys who arrive at the summit with them on will give us our clearest picture yet of the Top 5.
Stage 18: Pau to Hautacam, 145.5km
Unlike Stages 10 and 17, this final day in the mountains opts for quality over quantity, sending riders over the stunning, savage hors categorie Col du Tourmalet, before finishing atop the technical, consistently steep Hautacam, also beyond category. With the time trial just two days away, GC contenders desperate to take time out of Froome and Contador will attack them on Hautacam. Fewer mountains will not mean fewer fireworks.
Stage 20: Perigueux to Bergerac, 54km (time trial)
It’s flat(tish), but it does go on. Thirty-four miles is a loooonnnng time to go full gas. It is the belief of Tour Sports Director Thierry Gouvenou (http://www.letour.com/le-tour/2014/us/stage-20.html ) – he’s kind of the route guru who has the most say in choosing and shaping stages – that, “even without a second time trial, the 2013 Froome would have crushed the opposition on this route... But will the 2014 Froome be as strong as last year's model? It all boils down to this. If so, he will certainly be in the mix to win [Stage 20], whose solid course is more tailored to men in great form than to true specialists” – such as Tony Martin, and Cancellara.
If Froome wins this stage, it’s tough to see how he isn’t wearing yellow during the next day’s ride into Paris.