Remember Thomas Voeckler in the 2011 Tour? The sneaky Europcar rider infiltrated a breakaway on Stage 9 and drove it to the line, mind clearly set on taking the yellow jersey. This wasn't the first time the enterprising Frenchman had done this, though he was not resilient in 2006, cracking on the second day in the mountains. In 2011, though, Voeckler treated viewers to day after day after day of contorted grimaces and tongue acrobatics, stubbornly refusing to concede time until he finally cracked on the Col du Galibier with mere days remaining before Paris.
Veritable miles of headlines and print were dedicated to Voeckler's astounding fourth place finish that year, and again the next as journalists and fans wondered if he belonged in the class of overall podium contenders. This is the type of story that draws individuals back to the race over and over, within a year and year to year, for calling the Tour merely a race is doing it the greatest injustice. The Tour is a drama, a soap opera in twenty one harrowing parts, a three week thriller. It draws people in, cyclists and non alike, because it is bigger than sport.
As I look towards Saturday and the Grand Depart in Corsica, there are stories that have my interest piqued already, ones I cannot wait to see what the ending is and how it plays out. I care who wins, but that is almost of secondary importance. After all, there are more than one prize in the race and it is as much a foreshadowing of Tours to come as it is a race in itself.
This year, I want to see young hopes challenge the standing guard, an insurgency in the fight for the green jersey. This year, I want to see what has happened to Alberto Contador and what will happen to Thibault Pinot. This year, this year... what do you want to see this year?
Like any good race, this year's Tour poses many questions, and among them are whether Alberto Contador is, at the young age of 30, beyond his prime. The Spanish climber with an affinity for time trialing won eight of the last nine grand tours he entered, though two titles were later stripped after he tested positive for small amounts of the banned substance clenbuterol. Once unstoppable, but now seemingly stuck in a lower gear after his suspension, Contador won the Vuelta a España last year seemingly more through tactics than pure strength. Can he put on the attacking displays of climbing pedigree he has in years past, or will he be on the same level (or lower) than Chris Froome? The two faced each other in that Vuelta, but Froome was coming off a second place in the Tour de France and surely did not have the legs of July when the climbs in the middle of September rolled around. As we approach the Alps and the Pyrenees, we wonder - was Alberto truly suffering allergies in the Criterium Dauphiné in June, or is he truly lacking form? For the sake of the racing, I hope it is the former.
But Contador is part of the old guard by now, one that will be replaced over the next five years, slowly but inexorably, by a younger generation, by the Thibault Pinos and Pierre Rollands and Bauke Mollemas of the sport. All three have something to prove this year, but perhaps none more than Rolland. He has finished 10th and 8th in the prior two versions of the Tour, the latter result coming on a course which held not enough climbs to truly suit his tastes. We expect him to improve, but how far up the classification can he climb? If he fails to reach the top five this year, it will be hard to envision him as a future Tour winner. That top five will be crowded, though, with last year's tenth place finisher and an even purer climber Thibault Pinot being given a leadership role at FdJ and another youngster - Tejay van Garderen - looking to repeat as winner of the white jersey for best rider under 25 years of age. The upcoming three weeks in France are a huge melting pot of stressors, and not all riders have the mental capacities to deal with such pressures even if they have the physical abilities to perform well, and that is one thing astute fans will be attuned to as young riders perform or falter.
A GC veteran and promising young riders can always provide entertainment and a draw to the race day after day, but stories like this appear year after year. Less frequently do we see such an intriguing battle for the green jersey for leader of the points classification. Mark Cavendish has won 23 individual stages in the race over five years but only taken home the green jersey once. Peter Sagan, not a pure sprinter but strong enough to feature in the bunch gallops as well as take uphill stage wins or out-last the other sprinters when climbs arise near the finish, won the maillot verde last year. And Andre Greipel, the big German national champion, has perhaps the best drilled leadout train in the sport and increasingly gets the better of his former teammate Cavendish. It is not possible to do justice to the nuances of the points competition in this space, and trust me there will be a separate post (warning - will involve math) on how different riders must perform to win, but the battle for green is as interesting as it has been in years, especially with the Argos Shimano duo of John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittell (who beats Cavendish more often than not) playing the role of spoilers.
As we have gotten closer to the Grand Depart in Corsica on Saturday, these are but some of the stories I have been tossing around in my head, wondering how they will play out, coming up with scenario after scenario and weighting them by subjective estimates of their likelihood. There are far more, of course, for the Tour is not two or three dramas but a grand tour, a grand drama. What are you most looking forward to?