Only 4 days now until the opening prologue on this year's Le Grande Boucle and the last rosters are being finalized and the final preparations for the race are being made. After the 3 years of domination by Andy Schleck, last year brought a breath of fresh aid in the competition with Pierre Rolland (Europcar) squeaking it out over Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) by "46 after the Frenchman's incredible win on Alpe d'Huez. The only thing about this year is that is is rather light on young competitors...with teams such as Garmin-Sharp having an average age over 30, there are only
The white jersey has seen a few different incarnations over the years. Beginning in 1975, the white jersey was awarded to the best young rider in the General Classification. In the beginning, it was awarded to the top ranked neo-pro rider. In '83, the only riders eligible were those in their first Tour. In '87, the competition took the present criteria of the jersey and riders age 25 or under on the year of that Tour are eligible to compete (i.e. born on or after January 1st of 1987).
Op de flip (We are starting in Belgium after all...I don't care if it is in Wallonie) I shall give you my take on the contenders for the white jersey.
Those that are eligible for the competition are as follows...
Tejay van Garderen (BMC)
Nicolas Edet, Jan Ghyselinck, Rein Taaramäe and Romain Zingle (Cofidis)
Thibaut Pinot, Anthony Roux and Arthur Vichot (FDJ-BigMat)
Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
Daniel Oss, Peter Sagan, Dominik Nerz (Liquigas)
Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank)
Tony Gallopin (Radioshack)
Anthony Delaplace (Saur-Sojasun)
Edvald Boasson Hagen (SKY)
Patrick Gretsch, Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano)
Cyril Gautier, Davide Malacarne (Europcar)
Kris Boeckmans, Wout Poels, Rafael Valls (Vacansoleil)
As you can see, it is quite a light field. With only 22 riders under 26 in the this year's Tour, which is down from 39 in 2010, there is a great chance that the white jersey will be switching hands many times in this race. Peter Sagan, Marcel Kittel and EBH will have the best chance to take the white jersey after the prologue in Liege and the stages that follow. The overall battle will be tight between about 5 to 6 different riders, with a few being more clear cut than others.
My ranking for the white jersey battle is as follows...
1. Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank)
Kruijswijk has had a quieter year this year after his breakout 2010 where he was 8th overall in the Giro along with 3rd overall at the Tour de Suisse with a stage win into Liechtenstein. Steve-O had a consistent, if not conservative, start to his year with top 20 overall placings at Ruta del Sol, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya and a Ardennes campaign filled with domestique duties. He seems to be timing himself well though because of his 8th overall finish at Tour de Suisse, filled with a large amount of work at the front for Gesink.
Kruijswijk Tour situation will be unique...Rabobank will be running as a three-headed hydra but unless Gesink or Mollema are in a position to win or podium, Kruijswijk will have a darkhorse role that will give him some freedom. What makes me rank Kruijswijk ahead of others is that he is healthy, he does not have a strict domestique role and his decent time-trialling abilities.
Looking at Kruijswijk's past results, his time-trialling ability usually nets him around 20th place, give or take a few places, in any given TT. A flat TT in the Vuelta last year that was 47km long? 20th. Uphill TT at the Giro last year? 13th. He was 18th at the recent Tour de Suisse TT which lends more credit to the fact that while he isn't an amazing TTer, he can limit his losses and then ride strong in the mountains. His prologue skills are a bit lower but the losses there are marginal compared to what he could lose in a long TT.
Overall prediction: 9th
2. Wout Poels (Vacansoleil)
While many people are thinking that Lieuwe Westra is Vacansoleil's #1 man at the Tour, they are wrong. A high P-N result doesn't give credence to going up actual col's and the man that has all ready proven himself on big mountains is Mr. Poels. Finishing 2nd on l'Angliru and 4th at Lagos de Somiedo at last year's Vuelta, Poels has shown his penchant for climbing and has been getting better and better over the last few years. The Dutchies will have the majority of their climbing talents at the Tour which will harken back to the glory days of the Dutch climbers in the early to mid 1980's. Anywho, while Poels will have backing from his Vacansoleil squad, he will have to deal with 100+ kilometers of TTing, something that is not his forte.
Poels all ready has experience being up in the top ten of a Grand Tour, thanks to last year's Vuelta, and should have finished there if it wasn't for a disastrous stage 19 in Bilbao, where he lost 6 minutes. Where he also lost time last year was in the TT. Finishing 47th in the Salamanca TT, he lost minutes on GC rivals and also, more importantly for us, 1'17" on Kruijswijk over 47 km. Poels will not be fighting for the podium but in his fight for the white jersey, he needs to TT about his normal capabilities to get close to Kruijswijk. Poels seems to be in good form coming into the form with a stage win and 3nd overall in the Tour of Luxembourg and then a solid ride at Suisse, going 15th overall.
Overall prediction: 11th
3. Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis)
The Cofidis rider has gone through a tumultuous year so far but after showing signs of life at the Dauphine and then at the Estonian championships, he might be able to do something at the Tour. While Taaramäe rode to an 11th place at last year's Tour, he has not had the best of years this year because of mononucleosis and a couple of crashes which have derailed him. There is no question that Taaramäe knows what to do to get into the white jersey. He is solid climbing, can produce a top ten TT and has the support from his team. Taaramäe is just a huge question mark...if he is on form or can ride his way into form, he could challenge for a top ten overall but if not, he could slip way down the GC and begin to target stages.
Overall prediction: 15th overall
4. Tejay van Garderen (BMC)
The 23 year old American is having a great season so far though maybe not up to his high standards. After going 7th at Algarve and then 5th at Paris-Nice, Van Garderen went through a light spell that included two DNFs and a couple Ardennes races, Van Garderen missed his big target at the Tour of California. Shooting for the overall win, something that has been devoid from his pro career, Van Garderen finished 4th behind Gesink, Zabriskie and Danielson. Moving to the Dauphine, Van Garderen played lead domestique to Cadel Evans and piloting himself to 14th overall while Evans hit the podium in 3rd.
If Van Garderen was on any other team he would be higher on this list but because of his presence and importance within the BMC squad, his attention will fully be upon Cadel and not upon the white jersey. Van Garderen played a similar role last year when he was apart of the BMC squad that piloted Evans to victory. While his skills in the TT and mountains are clearly shown in the one-week races, Grand Tours are rather unknown to the young American. He ranked 81st last year after doing heavy work last year and while he will be more vital in the mountains this year, I see Van Garderen slipping off the pace on at least one or two stages and losing chunks of time.
5. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ-BigMat)
The 22 year old Frenchman was all set to finish top 5 in the recent Tour de Suisse until he suffered from heatstroke on the final day and was forced to pull out but even with this unfortunate turn of events, Pinot has showed that he is ready for a crack at the big time. While Pinot has had a quite year until his last two races in Romandie and Suisse, one needs only to look at his stage win on La Grand Colombier at the Tour de l'Ain last year along with 2nd at La Toussuire at last year's Dauphine to see his climbing abilities.
The mountains are Pinot's calling and he is quite green and will probably only chose a few stages to target but in a recent interview, he is optimistic that he can do something and is just looking to ride his own race. While some such as cyclingnews are hyping him up to possibly be the revelation of the Tour, I can see he going for a win in a mountain stage and will finally stamp his arrival to all of the people who have yet to discover this gem.
6. Dominik Nerz (Liquigas-Cannondale)
While many Americans are up in arms about the non-selection of American riders Ted King and Timmy Duggan, Dominik Nerz is quite a talent that should be noticed by many. A rider that could be one of the strongest going forward for German cycling, he has had a fantastic year so far with Liquigas. For those that are unaware, Nerz was a climbing and all-around talent in his U23 days with Continental Milram and Team Ista. He rode for Milram for a year before moving to Liquigas in 2011. While riding a fairly quiet year in 2011, he did finish the Vuelta off in 38th overall and a 3rd place on the brutal stage in Bilbao. This year has been consistent and he has shown his worth off in more ways than one. Finishing 5th in the GP Indurain and then 2nd at Eschborn-Frankfurt behind teammate Moreno Moser, Nerz also rode a quality Dauphine finishing 35th overall with a few higher stage placings. His last Tour tune-up as the Tour of Slovenia where he finished 6th overall.
So what do I expect from him? Not much. Nerz will be working for Nibali but I really do think that he will find himself into a good breakaway this Tour that will lead itself to the line. Also...It is not Dominique...I hate when publications spell his name as such (looking at you CN...)
Other than these high finishers, there is a wealth of talent that is capable of winning stages and flying the flag of the young rider. Namely in this area is Peter Sagan...and nothing really needs to be said about him. It will be a disappointing Tour if he doesn't get a stage win. While Boasson Hagen will be doing much more domestique work this year, he should get his chance to grab a stage win. Marcel Kittel has a whole train directed towards him for a stage win and he will be laying down everything he has for a stage.
All in all I think it will be a great TdF for the youngsters! =]