By now you're being bombarded from every medium in existence with stories about the individuals who will enliven the Tour de France, starting tomorrow. Funny thing, though: if you get on team mailing lists (which I don't particularly recommend), you get a distinctly different vibe. Individuals are singled out to a certain degree, but as the riders and squads gather in Yorkshire, they do so as a team, with an array of team objectives. This is the true nature of the sport as they see it: what's good for the team is success, no matter which rider makes it happen.
[Well, sometimes. Last night I was reading Étape by Richard Moore, the chapter on the 1987 Tour, which began with a well-known story about how the Toshiba team owner Bernard Tapie promised Jeff Bernard a Porsche if he won a stage, while Andy Hampsten -- coming off a maillot blanc and fourth overall, was promised bubkis. Why? Because a Bernard stage win would make France go crazy and a Hampsten success would not. In the end Bernard won two stages, got his Porsche, and more or less made himself crazy, while Tapie went to prison. So I guess it all worked out.]
Anyway, team sport, yadda yadda yadda. Let's do this! [As usual, all corrections and updates appreciated. I always miss a few bits.]
Key Dudes: Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas, Bernhard Eisel
Objectif(s): World Domination. Yellow or bust.
Outlook: Bright as the sun.
Froome comes in as the clear favorite to win the maillot jaune again, which would mark Sky's third consecutive victory. He's also doing it rather famously (cough) with his own trusted lineup of support, headed by Porte the pace-setter and the Spanish trio of Zandio, Nieve and Lopez. Thomas will be a favorite for the notable cobbles stage, and Eisel is a guy every team wishes it had three of. Those two will keep Froome from losing it on the pavé.
Team Spirit Animal: Bald Eagle, or whatever the European version is. Eagles generally soar above all others, and will eat almost anything in their path. Still, I almost never see them in Seattle without a cloud of smaller birds hassling them and driving them back to the woods.
Key Dudes: Alejandro Valverde, JJ Rojas Gil, John Gadret, Benat Intxausti
Objectif(s): Stop Chris Froome; maybe a few stages.
Outlook: Dim. I'm through touting Rojas for Green, he's a significantly impoverished man's Peter Sagan. But a stage is always a possibility, and Valverde an even better bet. But this is a climbers' lineup through-and-through, whose sole objective is to isolate Froome if they can and harry him from every angle til he says uncle and hands the yellow jersey over to Valverde. I give them at least a 5% chance of that happening.
Team Spirit Animal: Raven. Smart, organized, resourceful, obnoxious and utterly capable of hanging with the eagles til, oh, about 2000 feet. Then it's game over.
Key Dudes: Joaquim Rodriguez, Alexander Kristoff
Objectif(s): Yellow, Green and stages.
Outlook: Poor, except for the stages.
Rodriguez towered over the sport for a few years, but that's not really the case anymore. This season started off with him targeting the Giro, only to go home battered and bruised after a few days. Purito announced only in mid-June that he planned to race the Tour. No way to prepare for yellow, as he himself acknowledges. A rider of that stature can't be overlooked, but he's more of a threat to win a stage, most likely in week 3. Guys like him eat Pyrenéan climbs for lunch, and he'll have the extra time to ramp up to full power. Kristoff will follow Sagan around, looking to poach any points left on the table. The Norwegian is capable of besting Sagan et al in a sprint, but not a great bet. Maybe with a false flat and a leadout?
Team Spirit Animal: Deer. Beautiful, majestic, taken completely for granted, and a favorite meal of about 30 other species.
Key Dudes: Alberto Contador, Rafal Majka, Nicolas Roche
Objectif(s): Maillot Jaune, other GC positions, possibly white or stages.
On the plus side, they have new headphones and uniforms, the latter of which can be used as an aid in nighttime navigation. On the down side, Majka's addition to the Tour roster comes in place of Roman Kreuziger, who is under investigation for shady past practices, and comes with Majka's own since-deleted declaration that sending the 24-year-old to France so soon after a grueling Giro d'Italia (where he finished 6th) shows that "the team does not care about my health." L'ouch. But Contador is at his best a fantastic antagonist to Froome and his metronomic approach. Roche might surprise a few folks, after winning the Route du Sud and coming off his best Vuelta finish last fall (5th), but he also has a Giro in his legs.
Team Spirit Animal: Alpine ibex. Majestic looking in a slightly silly way. Capable of scaling the unscalable. But if you can get close enough to look in their eyes, you can see the madness therein.
Astana Pro Team
Key Dudes: Vincenzo Nibali, Jakob Fuglsang, Max Iglinsky
Objectif(s): Yellow, or at least a podium, and stages
Now nearly 30 and coming off a terrific 2013, Nibali pushes all his chips in at the Tour. Basic physiology suggests this is perhaps his best chance to win, or one of very few such hopes. He'll have decent if not elite support from the likes of Kangert and Scarponi, and Iglinsky is the type of all-rounder Nibali will value from the cobbles to the climbs.
Team Spirit Animal: asd
Key Dudes: Peter Sagan, Elia Viviani
Objectif(s): Green and stages
Outlook: I'm not saying you should bet the kids' college fund on Sagan winning greem. I'm saying you should bet the roof over your head.
Sagan has a strong enough team around him to run errands on those rare occasions when there is any pressure on him. I doubt he'll have a massive leadout, but one or two may be enough, or he can poach Cav's. On the cobbles he has Marcato for help, plus his own Roubaix experience. Viviani doubles as the pure sprinter capable of a stage or pulling points off the table when Sagan isn't up for it.
Team Spirit Animal: Jaguar. Sleek, fearsome, and generally restricted to lower-lying areas.
Belkin Pro Cycling
Key Dudes: Bauke Mollema, Laurens ten Dam, Sep Vanmarcke
Objectif(s): High GC placing, stages
Outlook: Bright as the setting sun.
I like the cut of Mollema's jib these days, after finishing sixth in the Tour last year. His time trialling seems solid enough. He was good not great at the Suisse. Not to be slept on. Ten Dam is an ideal lieutenant or top ten challenger in his own right. Vanmarcke and Lars Boom should know what to do on stage five (follow Cancellara).
Team Spirit Animal: Polar bear. Beautiful, beloved, not much of a future.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step
Key Dudes: Mark Cavendish, Niki Terpstra, Jan Bakelants
Objectif(s): Stages galore
Cavendish on home soil at the Tour? No better place for him and the OPQS train to take Marcel Kittel down a peg. Look for wins and tears there. Bakelants should like the shape of 4-5 of these stages. Terpstra should scare people on stage 5. If there are any other OPQS riders I should care about besides these nine, I can't think of them.
Team Spirit Animal: Hyena. Tough, unsexy, terrifying in numbers.
AG2R La Mondiale
Key Dudes: Christophe Riblon, Romain Bardet, JC Peraud
Objectif(s): Stages, early yellow, aggressiveness
AG2R are a team that knows how to get on camera, and not for cheap reasons. Riblon spectacularly won the Alpe d'Huez stage last year and every year they seem to either hold a jersey or place some guys high up. With an early climbing stage in England, yellow will be in play for aggressive climbers who won't be saving themselves for later.
Team Spirit Animal: Beaver. You can call it an oversized rodent, but they're impressive beasts and will mess you up if you don't pay enough respect (and you're made of wood).
Key Dudes: Andrew Talansky, Janier Acevedo, Sebastian Langeveld
Objectif(s): Stages and GC surprises
Outlook: Getting brighter.
Garmin have enjoyed several years of surprising people, but I dunno if Talansky will sneak up on anyone after winning the Dauphine. In fact, this year Garmin are unusually focused on a single leader and his GC chances -- not their typical MO. But that says quite a bit about Talansky's advancement, that they're not hedging their bets. With Tejay Van Garderen having an off year, Talansky is the US's main hope for more Tour glory. Langeveld, the new Dutch champion, should be valuable early on. And I'm curious to see what Acevedo can do in his opening Tour -- he got the call-up from Garmin after bothering the Bigs in both California and Colorado last year. Since then he's done nothing but show his class.
Team Spirit Animal: Hoary Marmot. Those things are awesome.
Key Dudes: Marcel Kittel, Jon Degenkolb, Tom Dumoulin
Objectif(s): Stages, jersey rentals, and maybe Green.
Kittel is the world's fastest man, and his youth wasn't an impediment last year when he won four stages and trotted around in yellow for a day. The parcours isn't great for him, but he'll have his moments, and when he doesn't, Degenkolb may have them instead. Dumoulin is on the list of guys who could steal an early moment in yellow.
Team Spirit Animal: Cheetah. I don't know if they do anything interesting besides run fast.
Key Dudes: Rui Costa, Chris Horner, Sacha Modolo
Objectif(s): Stages, some GC hopefulness.
Outlook: Foggy as hell.
Lampre have retooled with the idea that someone could be interested in them in July. Hiring the World Champion, Costa, is a good way to get that done, up to a point. What's less clear is whether Costa will be known for more than his fancy kit. He's a terrific all-round rider and will know what to do on the endless succession of rolling or moderately climby stages. But if he puts all his effort into the GC, things might get a bit more anonymous. Horner... who the hell knows? Modolo might be one of those guys who hangs around the bumpy stages, to the detriment of whoever forgot to notice.
Team Spirit Animal: Elk. No special powers, but hey, they look good.
Key Dudes: Arnaud Demare, Thibault Pinot, Arthur Vichot
Objectif(s): Stages upon stages; a decent GC showing
Starting with the GC, it'd be nice for Thibault Pinot to recapture the glory of 2012, but his struggles on descents are gonna be a problem on a course with one small climb after another -- in other words, a hell of a lot of time spent descending.
The stages thing, on the other hand, seems like a decent bet. Pinot is a former stage winner, over some rolling terrain. Demare is a reasonably tough sprinter, with his best results on hard days. Vichot strikes me as the kind of guy who can sneak away and do something. FDJ can pay a lot of bills with their roster of competent guys who have some climbing pedigree, but not enough to scare the Bigs. Say what you want about second-rate French climbers, but come July, a lot of them take the bit in their teeth and put on a show. I think that's an outcome FDJ could feel good about.
Team Spirit Animal: Snake River sockeye salmon. Not too many of them survive the endless journey to glory, but it sure is cool when they do.
Key Dudes: Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Andre Greipel, Jurgen Roelands
Objectif(s): Get people outside Belgium to notice Van Den Broeck. And stages.
Outlook: Decidedly mixed
First off, how much of a chance do they give VDB, the 31-year-old Mr. Consistency who owns two fourth-place finishes at Le Tour, to take a step up to the podium? His team consists of Greipel, Greipel's leadout train, and VDB. No Vanendert, no Monfort. Both could be of some help, but Monfort went to the Giro instead and Vanendert doesn't seem to be having a great season at the moment, undone by multiple injuries. The latter I can understand, but what possible use is it to have Monfort complete a forgettable Giro and in the process give up on helping VDB do something bigger at the Tour? I know Marc Sergeant is no fool, so there may be particular reasons, e.g. sponsor pressures or Monfort's wishes or something. But it's too bad they couldn't have done otherwise.
Greipel is Greipel. Remember how bad we all felt for him when he crashed out of Gent-Wevelgem? That was six wins -- including a German nats title -- ago.
Team Spirit Animal: The platypus. Sum of its parts are OK I guess. I like duck faces, beaver tails, and eggs just fine. But the whole? WTF??
BMC Racing Team
Key Dudes: Tejay van Garderen, Greg Van Avermaet, Daniel Oss.
Objectif(s): GC and maybe some stages.
I think BMC come into the World's Greatest Race with unusually muted expectations -- unusual because when do they ever show up without something of a killer roster, on paper at least? At last, though, the old veterans are being cleared out: Evans to the Giro instead (not an insult but definitely a downshift), Hushovd looking at retirement, Hincapie deep into his. It should by all rights be van Garderen's team by now, and in the titular sense it is. But Tejay hasn't been feeling it yet, and probably still bears some concerns after last year's disappointing 45th. Everyone knows he can do better, but I get the sense from interviews I have read that van Garderen is out to prove to himself that he's a contender, and if he isn't in top condition, well, that may take time.
Oss is a dark horse for some of these undulating stages. Boy's got some game, though he may just be pressed into service the whole time. Van Avermaet's biggest problem is that everyone knows they can't take their eye off him too long.
Team Spirit Animal: Rattlesnake. Pretty cool. Everyone takes them seriously. But if you're going to run into a snake, you could do a lot worse.
Key Dudes: Thomas Voeckler, Yukiya Arashiro, Pierre Rolland
Objectif(s): Insurgent GC campaigns
Outlook: Poor. But! They could also make history.
Let's start with the latter: Arashiro is still bidding to become the first Japanese Tour de France stage winner. If I'm not mistaken he's of the rouleur/puncheur class, a good skillset for this Tour. Do I love his chances? Not really, but if you're taking 10th at Amstel, then you've got enough to make an impression in stage 2 and a few other spots. As to Rolland, his fourth at the Giro has to have killed him for the Tour. And Voeckler, he's sort of a side-show nowadays, though at Europcar they'll be quick to tell you "he's our sideshow." He's paid some bills over the years, mostly at the Tour.
Team Spirit Animal: the Skunk. Kind of awesome in a way, and maybe even a little cute. Mostly disrespected, but a few folks have learned otherwise, the hard way.
Trek Factory Racing
Key Dudes: Fabian Cancellara, Danny van Poppel, Frank Schleck.
Outlook: Next to zero.
OK, Cancellara can always pull off a thrashing on the cobbles. Now name another type of stage where a Trek rider will have an inside track. Need time? I can wait.
Team Spirit Animal: Possum. Not seen much. Nobody is terribly sad about that.
Key Dudes: Rein Taaramae, Daniel Navarro
Objectif(s): Stages, maybe a Taaramae revival.
Whatever happened to Taaramae? Well, he had some sort of obstruction to his breathing that eventually required surgery on his larynx. Just a straight-up constriction of his breathing. After that operation, he's come around a bit, performing well in Turkey, but still has a long way to go. Whether he can show some hint of a future that resembles his glittering rise through the ranks is the big question. Best of luck! But more realistic signs point to next year.
Team Spirit Animal: the Lobster. When cooked, turns as red as a Cofidis kit. Also, nobody knows exactly where they go most of the year, but we are happy when they return.
Michael Matthews, Simon Gerrans, Michael Albasini
Outlook: Positive, in the sense that it's not negative or zero.
I left Matthews on there intentionally to point out how unpleasant his training crash is. He's a fine sprinter on difficult finishing circuits, which makes him yet another quirk rider named in this post who may take a liking to this Tour. So yeah. Sucks. Gerrans and Albasini are both guys who know how to snag a win now and again, so there's that at least. Gerro is aiming to sneak into yellow after stage 2. Not the most original idea, but I wouldn't rule him out.
Team Spirit Animal: Kangaroo. Not because they're Australian. Just because they are amusing and feature an unusual skill set.
Key Dudes: Mathias Frank, Sylvain Chavanel, Marcel Wyss
Objectif(s): Stages, other attention-gaining activities
Frank makes his Tour debut, and he could turn out to be an interesting rider, but I'm not too keen on that happening right out of the chute. Chavanel is having a poor season after what seemed like a solid spring. Kind of a longshot but too much class to simply forget about. And Wyss... I dunno, I just liked how he rode in Switzerland.
Team Spirit Animal: Pika. Cute, fuzzy, not especially frightening.
Key Dudes: Leopold Konig, Jan Barta
Objectif(s): Konig's GC place, stages
A German team in the Tour! That alone is good enough news, even before we get into the specifics. But on that score, Konig is coming off a ninth at the Vuelta and 11th at the Dauphine, meaning he 26-year-old can hang with the Bigs for a little while. Inexperience probably doesn't translate into achieving personal bests at the team's inaugural Tour de France. But hey, it's worth a go, and with no pressure. Barta heads up a bunch of stage hopefuls, who will ideally be animating breaks all over France.
Team Spirit Animal: Sea otter. Coulda gone with river otter here, but I'll step up in size. Just a happy creature, doing its thing.
Key Dudes: The Feillus, Anthony Delaplace
Objectif(s): Get recognized.
I just named the only guys I recognize. Maybe that's just me.
Team Spirit Animal: Northern spotted owl. Where are those guys anyway? Somewhere nearby, I hope. Has anyone tried calling them?