The white jersey is the surprise package of the Tour. It's never easy to predict how the U25 riders are going to do with a race like the Tour de France. Some will be riding their first grand tour, others their first Tour de France. All of the riders here have shown a past talent for stage racing, but the Tour de France has a way of opening up the vast, gaping chasm between potential talent and actual results. To reach Paris in a first Tour is a huge achievement. To reach Paris with a high placing in the General is hors catégorie. Little wonder that those who win the White Jersey carry home not only a souvenir of their time in France, but also pick up the burden of future expectations that they will some day wear Yellow. The White Jersey competition began in 1975, and since then, five of its winners have gone on to win the overall. The five: Jan Ullrich, Marco Pantani, Laurent Fignon, Greg LeMond, and Alberto Contador. Certainly, prestigious company to join.
This year's Tour is a race for complete riders, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. A pure passista will find it hard going in the Alpes where the classic marriage of the Galibier and l'Alpe d'Huez awaits, never mind that this year's course climbs the "easy" side of the Galibier. At the same time, a pure climber who hasn't dusted off the time trial bike lately will lose serious ground come the 20th stage's 53 km time trial. The middling mountains of the Massif Central require vigilance, but also offer opportunity. A young rider, whose name is perhaps a little less well known, could climb very high in the classification if he found the right breakaway companions. To a typically open competition, then, this year's course adds a balanced and unusually unpredictable course, as least in so far as the Tour de France goes. Who among the U25s could challenge his elders for a high finish in the general? Let's have a look.
In last year's Giro, Andy Schleck (10/6/1985) rode way beyond expectations and finished on the podium in Milano. That race celebrated his grand tour début. This year, he rides his first Tour de France. By all accounts, the team expects him to play the role of gregario to support the ambitions of Spaniard Carlos Sastre, who has consistently, though unspectacularly, placed himself in the top five in France. Whether this heirarchy holds on the road remains an open question. Cyrille Guimard, who trained Andy Schleck as an amateur, thinks not, and has predicted that Andy could well win the first Tour he rides. Indeed, throw out the opening team time trial at last year's Giro, and Andy very nearly won a grand tour on his first start. That isn't the sort of talent we see everyday. The younger Schleck climbs beautifully, and time trials consistently. The 53 km crono may give him difficulties against a more experienced rider like Cadel Evans or the specialists like Kreuziger and Lövkvist. What stands out, perhaps more even than his formidable physical talents, is the calm alertness that characterizes his racing. He is rarely rattled by anything a race throws his way, and rides with a maturity that belies his 23 years. Were it not for the vagaries of CSC's team hierarchy, Andy Schleck would stand far and away as the favorite for the White Jersey, even a podium finish in Paris. He is that good. Only the constraints of a gregario role, and the stated objective of the Olympic Games rather than the Tour classification, stand in the way. Rating: Five Stars!
Almost as famous for his mouth as for his legs, Riccardo Ricco (01/09/1983) rides his second Tour this year. He has twice found success at at the Giro d'Italia where he has finished 6th and 2nd and won three stages. This year, he also won the White Jersey for best young rider. Ricco is strongest in the high mountains and has already circled the Galibier-Alpe d'Huez stage on his calender. Given his climbing talents and stage racing experience, he should be a favorite for the white jersey. Indeed, he may well leave the Tour's mountains wearing White and sitting pretty. Until he doodsmaks directly into the 53 km crono that comes on stage 20. Unless Ricco has ridden extraordinarily well in the Tour's high mountains, he will say ciao-ciao to the White, as his skills against the watch are no match for the talents of his rivals. He may also find the Tour mountains a different beast than the steep ramps of the Dolomiti which seem to suit him and which have so well supported his ambitions in Italy. In Ricco's favor, he will have the support of climbing ace, Piepoli, and will have no rivals for team leadership. If he has the legs, he'll have the chance. Still, that crono, it could be ugly, really. Rating: Three Stars!
Based upon his results in the Tour de Suisse, Roman Kreuziger (06/05/1985) is on excellent form. This year marks his first attempt at the Tour de France, and he has himself admitted that he does not know what to expect. Since his junior days, he has ridden well against the watch, and will have no fear of the the Tour's long time trial. He has worked steadily to improve his climbing, and at the Tour de Suisse, those efforts placed him consistently at the front in the mountain stages. Most remarkable, perhaps, is his lovely pedaling style and near-perfect position on the bike. Those traits will serve him well over the long term, and mark him as a rider to watch. But the Tour is a different animal than the shorter stage races, as we all know. The relentless pace of the opening stages, the punishing repetition of col after col, and the deep reserves that three weeks of hard racing require make it hard to predict how a first-timer will finish. Still, Kreuziger has the pedigree to ride well. Though Team Liquigas does not bring a major GC fave, allowing its young riders the chance to shine, Kreuziger may face a rival in team mate Vincenzo Nibali. All the same, Nibali has shown a willingness to play the loyal gregario, so the Liquigas duo may well make for a formidable team to the advantage of both. The likelihood of a free hand to chase the classification and his obvious good form at Tour de Suisse earns Kreuziger his high rating here. Rating: Four Stars!
Like Kreuziger, Thomas Lövkvist (04/04/1984) has made his name as a formidable talent against the watch, but he is also no slouch in the high mountains. He has results so far in the shorter stage races, such as Critérium International and Tirreno Adriatico. Among the young riders, he also can draw on considerable experience with the Tour de France. He has already ridden and finished the Tour three times, an unusual feat for a rider still only 24 years old. If there is a reason to doubt his chances for the white jersey, it lies with his team structure. Lövkvist has said that he expects to ride for Kim Kirchen and Team Columbia has touted Kirchen as its GC leader. If Lövkvist plays the gregario, this role may well limit his opportunities to ride for his own results. That would be an unfortunate turn of affairs, as the young Swede is plainly one of the more talented young riders taking the start in Brest. Indeed, only his possible role as team rider for Kirchen knocks him down the ratings list here. Otherwise, he must be the favorite to win the White. Rating: Four 1/2 Stars!
Last year, J. Mauricio Soler (14/1/1983) was the surprise package of the Tour de France winning a mountain stage and the Dots of best climber. This year, he targets the classification. A crash in the Giro derailed his preparation some, though he recently told the press that he is feeling confident and ready for the Tour. Soler faces the same obstacle as the other climbers in this Tour: no real decisive mountain stages and a long, slow, painful, ride against the watch on stage 20. Soler will be watched more carefully this year, which may cramp his style and hinder his efforts to escape in the mountains and climb the classification. A stage win and a top ten finish are a good bet for Soler, but more than that? Perhaps not. Soler climbs better than his U25 rivals, but the power of Kreuziger and Lövkvist in the crono offer a formidable barrier to his chances to win the White. Rating: Two 1/2 Stars!
At age 23, Vincenzo Nibali (14/11/1984) has ridden and finished the Giro d'Italia twice, but this July marks his first attempt at the Tour de France. On paper, the less strenuous gradients and longer cronos of the Tour should suit the young Italian. He has shown well against the watch at the Italian grand tour, but has tended to struggle in the high mountains. Still, he managed to place in 11th in this year's Giro, while riding in support of Franco Pellizotti, and is improving gradually as a rider for the general. Though his talents seem a good match for the Tour, he will likely suffer from having already ridden the Giro. That didn't seem to stop Cunego two years ago, when he won the White Jersey, but the double is no easy task for any rider. Should Kreuziger's form from the Tour de Suisse hold, Nibali may shift into support mode. Taken together, these factors suggest that this year might not be Nibali's best chance for White. At only 23, he has time on his side. Rating: Three Stars!
Belgian climber Maxime Monfort (14/1/1983) will ride his first Tour this year for Cofidis. His is currently 25 years old, and known for his climbing prowess. Last year, he finished an impressive 11th at the Vuelta, his second grand tour. Along the way, he placed 5th in the climbing stage to Lagos de Covadanga. He is not known for his skills against the watch, and that may cause him problems in France, as this year's course lacks the decisive mountain stages of past Tours. Team dynamics should work to his advantage, though he will have to freelance his way up the classification, as Cofidis is not built for the general. Monfort may have to sacrifice to support David Moncoutié in search of a stage win, but otherwise he is likely to have a free hand. Given his climbing talents, Monfort is a rider who could surprise. But like Ricco, the final crono will likely prevent him from a big result in the overall.Rating: Two Stars!
Riding his first Tour, 23 year old Trent Lowe (08/10/1984) is an unknown quantity for the grand tours. He has never ridden a grand tour, much less the Tour de France. Indeed, some observers wondered at the wisdom of sending such an inexperienced rider to France, but Vaughters is confident in Lowe's abilities. Perhaps rightly so, as the young Aussie has the knack for racing above his age, and riding his way into big results. He is the wildcard of the White Jersey classification this time around. He has the talent to surprise, but his inexperience makes it impossible to predict what may happen come the third week of the Tour de France, when a young rider like him enters uncharted territory and discovers the outer limits of his talents. Just where those limits lie for Lowe remain to be seen. This year may be too soon to expect a big finish from him, but certainly, he has the head and legs to ride high in the classification in the future. Vaughters claims that we will all be surprised by what Lowe can do. Me, I like surprises, but against his more experienced rivals Lowe will have to do a huge result to wear White. No doubt he will have the support of Garmen, should he find himself riding near the front of the race. That support might well make the difference, but there are no team mates in a 53 km crono. Rating: Wild Card!
Luis Leon Sanchez Gil (24/11/1983) has shown well in the short stage races, and indeed, should in the normal way of things be a solid contender for the White Jersey. But Sanchez suffers from a fatal flaw: he is team mates to Alejandro Valverde, who this year chases the Yellow Jersey and has already shown his form by winning the Dauphiné. (Whether he has peaked too soon is another story for another day.) In any case, while Luis Sanchez might have the talent to chase White, team tactics make it unlikely he will do so. Look for Sanchez to do hard work for team leader Valverde. Rating: One Star!
Last year, Rémy Di Grégorio (31/07/1985) ended his first Tour with a crash in stage 4. His talent and past accomplishments in the crono warrant him a mention here as a possible White Jersey winner, but he is more likely to chase a stage win in the mountains, or better still the mountains classification. He has said that his main focus for now is developing his climbing talents. Français des Jeux will chase the general with Sandy Casar, and Di Grégorio may well be drafted into Casar's service. Since Di Grégorio has some talent as an all-arounder, he's worth a mention in the White classification, but is a far better bet for a mountain stage win or the Pois. Rating: One 1/2 Stars!
Note on the White jersey qualification: Riders who were under the age of 25 on 1 January 2008 are eligible for the prize.