Cycling has its bigs and it smalls. The Belgiums, Italies, Spains and Frances of the world have a litany of heroes and will be represented by a dozen if not dozens of riders at the tour. But I thought I'd turn my eye to the other end of the spectrum and the riders who are the sole representatives of their country in this year's grande boucle. Conveniently there are five of them...
1. Nicolas Roche - Ireland (AG2R La Mondiale)
With Dan Martin and Philip Deignan not riding Roche will be the only man from the Emerald Isle on the tour. It's fair to say he is probably living living in the shadow of his father, Stephen, and despite a number of very respectable placings in one days races on stages and in the GC he's never had the breakthrough victory he is clearly capable of achieving.
2009 might have been his year and he showed well in the tour with two second places and 23rd overall. This year he has to hope to go better on the GC and possibly bag a win most likely from a break. Plus he's got to be keeping fingers crossed a teammate doesn't stumble into yellow as Rinaldo Nocentini did dragging away support and opportunities Roche might otherwise have taken.
2. Julian Dean - New Zealand (Garmin Transitions)
For many Dean will be the only New Zealand pro rider they know - resplendent in the NZ champs jersey in both the 2007 and 2008 tours he was easy to spot on leadout duties for Thor Hushovd in the first year and riding for himself the second with a string of top ten finishes. But he is by no means the first Kiwi to ride the tour. In researching this I was astonished to find the first was Harry Watson way back in 1928 as part of a four man "down under" team - Watson finished 28th overall. Since then a further five Kiwis have completed the race excluding Dean (this figure includes Tino Tabak, a son of emigrees from Holland who won the Dutch road race championship in 1972 but seems to be claimed by Kiwis).
Hushovd described Dean as "the best leadout man in the world" and that's just what he'll be at the tour to do even if he's lost that crown to the likes of Mark Renshaw. Renshaw's HTC-Cplumbia team will be the main rivals and Dean will be looking to deliver Tyler Farrar out their clutches and bring him to the line first on at least one occasion, preferably more. Dean will also be hoping to avoid a shocking mistake like he did on the Champs d' Elysees where a misjudged corner ruined Farrar's chance to take home unofficial sprinters' world championships.
3. Robbie Hunter - South Africa (Garmin Transistions)
Hunter is a one-man trendsetter for South African cycling. In 2001, riding for Lampre Daikin, he became the first South African to complete the tour and the first to win a stage with victory in Montpellier in 2007. That year is probably the standout in career terms. Not only did he win a stage but he was in the mix for the green jersey finishing second to Tom Boonen by just 22 points. In the process he nudged the great Erik Zabel into third by a measly two points. He also won a stage and the overall at the Tour de Picardie.
Like Dean, Hunter will there for one purpose only: to lead out Tyler Farrar to victory in sprint stages. Working with Dean he will be one of the last guys in the train jostling with HTC-Columbia in an attempt to outwit Cav. What will success look like? At least one win for Farrar
4. Roman Kreuziger - Czech Republic (Liquigas Doimo)
I won't comment on Kreuziger's riding other than to say he is probably the highest profile in my list and certainly has the most to lose.
What I find interesting is the lack of Czechs in cycling at the top-level. The country seems to have a long tradition of cycling with the Peace Race finishing and starting in Prague in alternate years. And Jan Vesely - who won in 1949 - was apparently a big national hero. Yet only Kreuziger and Frantisek Rabon. And beyond this, nada, apart from the guys on domestic continental teams PSK Whirlpool and AC Sparta Praha, and cyclocross world champ Zdenek Stybar. I'd be interested in your theories...
5. Yukiya Arashiro - Japan (BBox-Bouyges)
Last year Arashiro technically became the first Japanese to finish the tour, coming 20th on the final stage some 114 places ahead of his compatriot Fumiyaki Beppu (but trailing him in the final overall standings). In his first season as a European pro just finishing the tour was an achievement but add in the media frenzy back home and it was a big deal.
In terms of riding it's fair to say Arashiro hasn't set the world alight: some good placings in the Tour du Limousin and some decent performances in Japanese races, that's it. The highlight of his career so far is probably third place in stage 5 of this year's Giro. Having initiated the break he helped drive it all the way to the line putting in a vital surge that kept the escape from the snapping jaws of the chasing peloton - sadly it also provided a perfect leadout to Jerome Pineau who took the victory.
Success for Arashiro this time round will probably be finishing and spending some time in a break, most likely on an early or transition stage rather than the high mountains (hey, he rides for Bouyges, whaddaya expect). If he converts this into a victory so much the better and sweeter as it'll be Japan's first