The tour has been an international affair from the start with at least one non-Frenchman on the start line in Montgeron in 1903 (German Josef Fischer who finished 15th overall) and national teams from 1930 to 1961, albeit alongside multiple French regional teams. Since the return of trade teams the French hold on the race has diminished both in terms of victory and participation. First the traditional heartlands began breaking out of their regional ghettos - at some point even Italians realised they couldn't claim to be the best just because they'd won the Giro - and in the 80s the foreign legion of Americans, Canadians and Aussies started arriving changing the face of the tour forever and turning it into what it is today. The mondilisation has continued ever since with the French just being the largest nation in this year's peloton, thanks to ASO's instance on inviting French teams who probably wouldn't all make the cut if selection was on merit alone*:
|Country||Riders||Teams||Population||Riders / 10m population|
The same as last year, it's the countries at the bottom of the list I'm interested in and the guys who carry the weight of a nation's expectation - here are five of the eight I particularly like...
Ryder Hesjedal - Canada - Garmin-Cervelo
The original "weight of a nation" Hesjedal comes into the tour on the GC side of Garmin-Cervelo alongside Vandevelde and Danielson. Starting as a mountain biker then a domestique he's yet another rider who has bloomed under Vaughters' wing relatively late in his career. That culminated last year with strong placings in the Spring one day races (strade bianchi, amstel, san sebastian), 7th at the tour, and more strong rides in Quebec and Montreal where the weight of a nation was at its greatest.
Success this year will be a top 10 on the GC himself or helping another Garmin-Cervelo rider get there. To me top 20 feels more likely. While there have been promising signs - 7th at the Criterium International, 9th in the Basque Country - he ended up 20th overall in Switzerland and most notably behind Danielson, and I don't think a climby tour suits him. That said I hope I'm proved wrong on this as I'm a sucker for the team and their plucky GC hopes.Bernhard Eisel - Austria - HTC
Big Bernie Eisel - as no doubt Phil and Paul call him - is one of the sprinter / strongmen of the peloton, as shown by his win at Gent-Wevelgem last year, top tens in other northern classics (e.g. KBK, Paris-Roubaix) and stage victories at various week long tours. He'd probably be the sprinter or green jersey hope on other teams but not on HTC at the tour. Here his job is simple: help Cav win. We'll see Eisel on the front of the peloton nose in the wind dragging the break back to set up a bunch sprint. In the early stages of Cav's train too. In the mountains he'll be by Cav's side coaxing him over the mountains and bringing him bottles so Cav is as rested as possible when it's sprint time again. The more stages Cav wins the better Eisel's tour will have been.
Julian Dean - New Zealand - Garmin-Cervelo
Julian Dean will be trying to do for Farrar what Eisel and co do for Cav. Unlike Eisel he probably won't have his nose in the wind because, well, when there's a break to be chased HTC will be doing that... Last year Dean's attempts to pilot Farrar to a stage came to naught, and he (and Robbie Hunter) possibly came closer to breaking Garmin-Cervelo's tour duck after Farrar had withdrawn with a broken wrist. This year he'll be hoping to make amends alongside Hushovd, Navardauskas, Millar and Zabriskie. I fear it'll be a losing battle with Farrar being in uncertain form having left the Giro and the Garmin-Cervelo boys lacking the confidence and sheer speed of Goss, Renshaw etc.
Rain Taaramäe - Estonia - Cofidis
What's this? A non-Frenchman? A guy who dreams of the GC not a breakaway victory? On Cofidis?!
Taaramäe is all these things: an Estonian who hopes to be in the white jersey fight. He's shown promise winning the Tour de l'Ain in 2009 and top tens in various week long tours (Suisse, Romandie, Criterium International, Paris-Nice) and two young rider classification wins already this year (Paris-Nice and the Criterium International). But sadly none of those is the tour and with only one GT finish under his belt (2009 Vuelta) I struggle to see him finishing let alone placing higher than top 20.
Roman Kreuziger - Czech Republic - Astana
I toyed with picking Nico Roche for my fifth rider but felt I'd have little to add to others' comments. The same could be said for Kreuziger. At the tour he'll be on domestique duties for Vino and probably unable to ride for his own chances even if he had the legs after the Giro. Top 30 - maybe top 20 - overall and top 5 in the young rider competiton while Vino's GC hopes crashes and burns seems more likely to me.
What's more interesting is where Kreuziger's career is going. His reputation is as a rider whose early promise hasn't turned to gold. And next to his peers Andy Schleck and Nibali that's true. However he's won Suisse and Romandie, twice finished ninth in the tour, and just came a very creditable sixth at the Giro. He's only just turned 25. In anyone's books that's an impressive palmares and he's only just coming to the age when GC riders blossom.
But in this fickle spot he risks a reputation as a nearly man, like Evans, or a not quite nearly man, like Kloden. To my mind he needs to take a leaf out of Evans' book and try to diversify: week long races, stage victories, the Ardennes classics, the Vuelta. A guy who can hang near the top of the grandest of grand tours has this in his reach. But it means letting go of a bit of the tour dream...
* Based on the Cycling News list at 27 June. I added the column on the number of teams from each country to show how the ASO team selection biases the tour towards French riders. And the columns on population and normalised number of riders for interest and to see what reaction it got.