Tour de France: The Yellow Jersey Preview

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Who will wear yellow in Paris?

When the Tour de France course was announced last fall, the climbers cried. With nearly 100 kilometers of racing against the watch, this year’s Tour de France is weighted heavily in favor of the time trial riders. To add to the pain of the climbers, the course includes only two summit finishes in the high mountains and a shorter uphill finish at the end of the first week. It’s a cruel world.

The story of this year’s Tour is the clash between the riders who can crush the long time trials and the riders who have to figure out where to gain time on the road on a course that is short on obvious places to do just that.

Two riders start the race in prime position to wear the yellow jersey in Paris. Bradley Wiggins and last year’s Tour champion Cadel Evans will take the start in Liège as the favorites. Both riders are talented all-arounders. They can manage the high mountains and ride strong in the time trials. This year’s Tour is tailor-made for them.

The 2010 Tour champion Andy Schleck might well have challenged Evans and Wiggins. Last year on the road to the Galibier, Schleck made a fearless play for all the marbles. But Schleck will not ride the Tour after crashing hard during the Critérium du Dauphiné in June.

Why are Wiggins and Evans the favorites? Which riders might prove capable of overturning their apple cart? Let’s take a look at this year’s battle for the yellow jersey.

The Favorites

When it comes to stage racing, Bradley Wiggins is on a roll. So far, this season, he’s won Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, and Critérium du Dauphiné. The triple decker stack of wins has come on the strength of Wiggins rock solid steady consistency. And, a crushing ability at the time trial.

Yes, Wiggins is a master of the long time trial. At the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, he won the time trial stage ahead of specialists such as Tony Martin and Michael Rogers. And maybe more significantly, Wiggins took more than two minutes out of Tour rival Cadel Evans. It’s easy to see then why Wiggins is widely considered the top favorite this year. In 2009, Wiggins finished fourth overall at the Tour, and that result remains his best.

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If Wiggins has a weakness, it’s paradoxically that same consistency that has won him so many races this season. Wiggins crushes the time trials, and rides consistently through the mountains. He also relies on his solid Team Sky to keep him out of trouble. What happens at this year’s Tour de France if Wiggins is isolated during a high mountain stage? Can he make smart tactical decisions on the fly? The Tour de France is an unpredictable business. The rider who wins is the rider who knows how to turn the unpredictable to his advantage.

Cadel Evans won the 2011 Tour de France by riding a very smart race. Evans, a former world champion, has become a tactically astute rider, and he made the best of every opportunity last year’s course offered him. He took time in the first week on the short, steep Mûr-de-Bretagne, and when Andy Schleck went up the road on the Col du Galibier, Evans rode a determined, inexorable pursuit. Evans then sealed his victory with a stunning ride in the final time trial.

Though Evans is not as stellar in the time trial as Wiggins, Evans holds an ace card in his ability to read the race and to make smart choices on the road. Evans knows how to win a Tour de France. Evans also has formidable support riders at his BMC Racing Team. BMC was especially evident during the tricky early stages of last year’s Tour, the stages where a yellow jersey campaign can easily be derailed by a crash or other mishap. The team kept Evans at the front and out of trouble. Watch for them to do the same this year.

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The Spoilers

Though Wiggins and Evans stand out as the favorites, there are still plenty of riders who can spoil their party. It’s easy to be sucked into a vortex of inevitability and imagine that the race is some kind of coronation procession for the pre-race favorites. It’s easy to forget the random accidents of fate that add up to the story of each year’s Tour de France.

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One rider who could very well upend all expectations is Robert Gesink. At the Amgen Tour of California in May, Gesink finished fourth in the flat, windy Bakersfield time trial. It was no country for climbers, but Gesink didn’t seem to get the memo. Then at the Tour de Suisse in June, Gesink did another impressive time trial on a course of a similar length to the 53 kilometer monster in the Tour’s third week.

Better still, Gesink can climb like nobody’s business. Unlike the diesel boys Evans and Wiggins, Gesink can jump and open up serious daylight over the rest of the field. And that is a race-making and race-winning talent.

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Vincenzo Nibali is another rider who could play the spoiler. Nibali’s secret super power is descending, and this course offers him some tantalizing opportunities. Two of the most difficult mountain stages of the race end with long descents to the finish. This is Nibali territory, and the Italian is no slouch at climbing either.

Where Nibali will struggle is the long time trials, but he is a rider with the tactical imagination to make up time on the road in unexpected places. In 2010, Nibali won the Vuelta a España. Why not the Tour de France this year?

The Darkhorses

The Tour de France specializes in the unexpected. No matter how sure-thing the favorites look, there is always the possibility for surprises. Here are the darkhorse contenders. The riders who could, on their best form, put together a Tour-winning race.

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Garmin-Sharp (formerly Garmin-Barracuda) likes surprises. Every Tour, there is the Garmin surprise, and the team specializes in racing as the underdogs. Who will it be this year? The team comes to the Tour de France after celebrating victory at the Giro d’Italia with Ryder Hesjedal. Hesjedal will race the Tour de France to win. Vaughters has said the Canadian races better with more kilometers in his legs, but certainly, there is a limit. Eventually, the tank runs out.

If Hesjedal does not have the legs, Garmin is also bringing Tour veteran Christian Vande Velde. Vande Velde did a stellar ride on the Stelvio in support of Hesjedal at the Giro, and he is certainly a rider who can race a heavy schedule. Vande Velde can also ride a time trial like nobody’s business. Vande Velde’s highest finish is fifth. Can he top it? If ever there was a course that suited him, this year’s Tour is it.

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With a victory at the Giro d’Italia and a second-place finish in the 2010 Tour de France to his credit, Denis Menchov probably does not qualify as a darkhorse. The quiet Russian is unshakeable in the time trials and steady in the high mountains. He’s won a grand tour previously, and he is the brand spanking new Russian national time trial champion.

Why is Menchov never really mentioned among the favorites? Simple. You’d have to look long and hard to find a result for Menchov this season. He finished fourth overall at the Vuelta a Andalucía and eleventh overall at the Volta a Catalunya. Not too shabby, but not exactly the kind of thing that’s going to set people to talking up a rider’s chances at the Tour de France.

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Around four weeks before the Amgen Tour de California, Levi Leipheimer was hit by a car and broke his tibia. The American pushed hard and made it back in time to ride his home race. But he was not on his usual level.

The time trial heavy course of this year’s Tour suits Leipheimer’s style. He’s a diesel who gets his best results on his ability to ride well day in and day out. Leipheimer is the classic stage racer. In 2007, Leipheimer finished third overall in Paris, but that feels like a long time ago now. And with his injury this year, it looks like a big ask for Leipheimer to match that result.

The RadioShack-Nissan team, what do we make of this horde? With Andy Schleck’s withdraw from the Tour, the team captain role is up for grabs, and no one seems to want to pick it up. Fränk Schleck and Andreas Klöden are the most likely suspects here.

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In 2011, Fränk Schleck finished third overall, but in recent press comments, he has said he is not on form to make a run for the yellow jersey. Schleck claims he is tired from the Ardennes classics, and will hunt stages instead of the general classification. That might be a wise choice for Fränk Schleck, who is famously maladroit at the time trial. Still Schleck has a podium finish in his very recent past, and it’s hard to imagine him finishing outside the top ten, if not the top five.

Schleck’s teammate Andreas Klöden will enjoy the time trial stages considerably more, and Klöden also counts a podium finish at the Tour de France in his past. In 2006, he finished second. Like Menchov, Klöden’s results this year have been few and far between which makes that second-place finish in 2006 look like a very small dot on a very far away horizon. If Klöden does a big ride in the first long time trial, he’s in with a chance.

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Got picks?

But I know you, you want to know who’s going to win. Too bad I broke my crystal ball. Really, I should not have taken it to the beach this weekend. I’m a bit lost without it, really.

I’ll take Cadel Evans to win and Robert Gesink to podium. Who’s your pick?

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