1. Joaquim Rodriguez, Katusha
He just turned 31, is one of the top five climbers in the world (I'm using my grading of climbers as opposed to Jose Rujano's) has been a fixture in the Vuelta for years where he has been the best domestique on the planet while finishing 6th and 7th the last two years, yet has never ridden the Tour de France. Naturally, he is being almost completely ignored in the pre-Tour hype. Don't believe me? Just read the Cyclingnews' blurb about his team-where he is not mentioned as the team leader. So all together now, let's say the name of this guy aloud so it gets picked up in the collective unconscious of the planet:
I mean no disrespect to Vlad Karpets. I am partial to all the Vlad's in the peloton (for reasons that I am unsure of) and I think this Vlad will do well: top 20 is my guess. But when the going gets really, really, &%$$#%^$# tough and just the last couple of riders are at the front going up the big Tourmalet or the little Mende climbs, J-Rod will be there, representing Katusha. It says here that going into the big TT on Stage 19, J-Rod could be in the top five and we'll all be talking about if he can hang on or how much time he'll lose on the stage. Maybe he'll get some respect then.
In fact we should already be respecting him. Cycling Quotient is already not only pegging this year as his best so far but they have him ranked 3rd overall, trailing only Evans and Contador. The VDS rankings have him at 10th best, surrounded by much bigger names. So while you are watching the mountain stages, give a shout for J-Rod as he opens a can of whoop-ass on his competition.
2. Amets Txurruka, Euskaltel
There's a passage in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, where old Ernest describes the difference between a fan and an Aficionado. The passage occurs, most appropriately, in Pamplona, Basque Country. The word aficionmeans passion and in the book only certain good (read: passionate as opposed to commercial) bullfighters stayed at the hotel that Hemingway's main character is staying. I am reminded of this passage when thinking of Amets Txurruka, the attacker with aficion on the Euskie team.
Still only 27 years old, Amets first came to our collective consciousness during the 2007 Tour where he won the Combativity prize as well as placed third in the Young Rider competition (after Contador and Soler). Now tell me why would we remember Amets from that race and we a) can barely remember any other winner of the Combativity prize in other Tours and b) he's done almost nothing since? Aficion, folks. Amets got it and it makes him memorable.
(Quick quiz: who won the Combativity prize in last year's Tour? Answer below.)
How memorable? Did you know that he's never won a Professional race? Yet we still know him. It's not like he's pants either. Just this spring while others were galavanting around Belgium, Amets was busy dominating the competition for the KOM prize of Pais Vasco. He was looking smooth and climbing like a banshee. Then this happened:
That wasn't your normal Frank Schleck unable-to-control-his-bike spill there. His front wheel just gave out on him going into that corner. That's not something you see everyday. Yeah, he finished the stage and yeah, he tired to ride the next day's (last) stage so he could finish the race even though it was stupid TT that he wasn't gonna contend for. But alas, he suffered a broken collarbone on the crash and couldn't get to the start house though from the reports he tried. Tough as nails, that kid.
Since Pais Vasco he's healed up and shaken some rust off for a 41st place at the Suisse Tour so I'm guessing we'll see plenty of him at the Tour. Plenty of aficion. I can't wait!
3. Levi Leipheimer, Radioshack
Radioshack for the Tour is a fascinating team. One can easily imagine five, possibly six riders from that team making the final top 20 in GC: Armstrong, Leipheimer, Kloden, Brajkovic, and Horner. They have crazy depth. But that's not the most fascinating aspect about them of course. No, the big question mark is this just Lance's team where everyone works for him and stays behind him or will the others get a chance to ride for themselves, possibly even with help from teammates? It's totally unclear if Lance will allow that, just like it was totally unclear before the Tour last year (and we saw that Lance didn't like it as the race progressed.)
But the team is really different without Contador and every rider on it choosing to continue with Lance and Johann. Possibly he won't mind if say Levi feels good and wants to attack. I choose Levi to highlight because he's my guess as the rider who might be Plan B and because he's near (and possibly over) the end of his ability to seriously compete for the yellow jersey.
Actually there's a third reason to pick Levi: this course sets up for him really, really well. Three things: he's very good at peaking for the third week of a Grand Tour, he's had a lot of success in the Pyrenees over the years, and that last TT is right up his alley: he should crush it.
If he is not too old, that is.
I wonder of the Tour of California was a big letdown for him since he lost it after making it his #1A goal of the year, and he lost it to a rider who, while very good, hasn't been a Tour contender for a few years now. (Before Mick Rogers fans start beating on me, I am making a worst case scenario for Levi here. I do think Rogers will surprise a bunch of us and is a real podium threat.) So I am wondering if in fact Levi has lost a little too much to age. We'll see come the top of the Tourmalet.
4. Daniel Oss, Liquigas
If you have only been paying superficial attention to the cycling season before the Tour, chances are Daniel Oss has flown beneath your radar. That's okay, the kid (23 years old) has not won any great race and is not billed as The Next Great Rider (unlike Boasson Hagen say). Last year was his first as a pro and while his team talked him up some, his results were nothing to write home about. (It must be noted retroactively that he finished the year with two fourth place finishes at Missouri.)
Come this year and he immediately started getting good results, including a 10th at the Tour of Oman and 15th at Strade Blanche. But what really got our attention was his performance at Milan Sanremo where he drove the remaining bits of peloton and his sprinter, Daniele Bennati, to the finish line showing amazing strength and determination for one so young. A week later he finished 5th at Gent-Wevelgem. All in all it looks like we'll be talking about this kid in the cobbles races for years and years.
At the Tour Liquigas is fielding a GC-heavy team. No split team this year with any sprinters: this team is made to compete in the high mountains for the overall win with Basso and Kreuziger. Oss, in his first Grand Tour, is just a domestique. If a Leeky rider manages to capture the yellow jersey, look for Oss to be leading the peloton for dozens of kilometers at a time. Otherwise he may get his change at a stage win and the possible wins for him could be the cobbled stage three or any of the transitional stages. Get to know him: we'll be talking about him for another decade.
5. Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin-Transitions
I guess all teams have their odd sides. Their weird quirks that make you wonder why they do the things they do. Garmin is no exception. Hardly: I find them close to bizarre, but in a good way. Their Tour team is lead by a former career domestique guy (Christian Vandevelde) who keeps hurting himself while prepping for the Tour in the Giro. Their road captain is a guy who said that he was competing for the win at the Dauphine Libere with a straight face-even though he's shown no natural ability to be a mountain goat in his career. (Of course David Millar lost. On the other hand we saw Millar try his hand at cobbles racing for the first time and it sure looked pretty clear that he may have missed his true calling as a bike rider.)
Also on the team is a guy who everybody thinks as zany and is topped by their boss as a possible big-time stage racer-Dave Zabriskie-but who doesn't seem to have it in him to be the leader that the team hopes he his. Besides the GC guys they have three riders dedicated to the sprints plus a cobbles hardman: a classic split team for the Tour. Split teams from my recollection, have a hard time accomplishing their many goals and sometimes I think of them in a paraphrase to that US pro football adage that if you have a quarterback battle for the starting position you don't really have a decent quarterback at all.
One rider who I haven't mentioned is their second best rider on the year, Ryder Hesjedal. This will be his third Tour and sixth Grand Tour in all; he's no neophyte even if he is still 29. He also had a breakthrough of sorts at last year's Vuelta winning the mountainous stage 12 and placing 2nd on the mountainous with a downhill finish stage 10.
So where shall we see Ryder in this year's race? Mainly as the prime domestique for Vande Velde and as one of the early members of Farrar's sprint train, but mainly helping in the mountains. But a good thing about his boss Vaughters: as we saw in last year's Tour where while Vande velde had a decent ride but Wiggins had a better one, the team is very supportive of whoever is the hot rider so I can imagine Ryder seriously competing for a transitional or mountain stage or two and possibly becoming the #1 GC guy on the team. No, I don't expect a podium place for him but we will see him when the road goes uphill. Like the guy who I opened this post with, J-Rod, Ryder is already having a career year. Expect that to continue in July.