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Tour de France: Five Riders I Want To Watch

Fabian Cancellara, Tour de France

We’re counting down to the Tour de France, and there’s just four days left to go until Saturday’s opening stage in the Vendée. Every year, I have my little list of riders that I’m looking out for. They’re usually not the top contenders, since I’ll be watching the top guys anyway. These are my stealth undercover guys, the riders who may not do anything of interest, but it's July and you just never know. Here are five riders I want to watch kick ass in July.

Damiano Cunego, Tour de France

Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD)

Yeah, yeah, you knew this one was coming, right? Cunego comes to the Tour this year talking general classification. Oh Damiano, really? You’re really falling for the Yellow Jersey lure again? Well, I suppose there are worse ambitions to have. And Cunego did win the White Jersey once. Like, forever ago. And he won the Giro d’Italia even more forever ago. Still, I can’t help but watch the little Italian from Varese and hope that one way or another he gets the big result that keeps eluding him. I mean, the Tour de Suisse, he lost it on the last day? Heartbreaker, right there.

I’m trying not to watch Cunego too closely, as if there’s some kind of cycling version of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty. If I watch, I will change the outcome. Jinxy! So, I’m watching out of the corner of my eye this time. Maybe it'll hope. A girl can hope, anyway.

Tejay van Garderen, HTC-Highroad, Tour de France

Tejay van Garderen (HTC-Highroad)

I think it’s fair to say that van Garderen is one of the next big riders in U.S. cycling. I hesitate to say it emphatically, because van Garderen puts so much pressure on himself to perform, and I’d hate to add to the burden. He was deeply disappointed after his ride on the Sierra Road stage of the Amgen Tour of Cali. Not one to let himself off the hook, he said he tried to follow the top riders too long and blew himself up. He’s not making excuses, this young American.

Van Garderen, who spent his early years in the sport in the Rabobank Development Team, can race a bike something fierce. In 2009, he finished second overall at the Tour de l’Avenir. In 2010, he was third overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné. At this year’s Tour de Suisse, van Garderen finished second in the prologue behind Fabian Cancellara, who pretty much totally owns the prologues in international cycling. Van Garden was a tad disappointed with his ride at the Amgen Tour of California, which he started with ambitions to win, but still finished a credible fifth overall. At 22 years old, van Garderen has time, but I doubt it’ll be too much longer before we see him go big.

Sylvain Chavanel, Quick Step, Tour de France, Yellow Jersey

Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step)

Chavanel was one of my favorite riders of last year’s Tour de France. He won two stages and wore the Yellow Jersey. Chavanel was also one of my favorite riders of this year’s classics season. His ride at the Ronde van Vlaanderen made me swoony and remains one of the big what-if’s of this cycling season. What if Chavanel had committed to the escape with Fabian Cancellara? What if he’d ignored his team-mate Tom Boonen in the field and gone on a raid? Well, he might have won. Or, he might have gotten second to Cancellara, and endured months of criticism for aiding the enemy. Really, sometimes you just can’t win.

But that’s all in the past, and we can look for Chavanel to go on the attack in the early stages of this Tour and hope to snatch another stage win and maybe a few more days in Yellow. For a French rider, it doesn’t get much better than podium time in July at the home race, which also happens to be the biggest race on the international calendar.

Cadel Evans, BMC Racing Team, Tour de France

Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team)

Anyone remember the time when Cadel Evans attacked on the Col de l’Aubisque? It was a long bomb, Hail Mary move. Evans was riding his first Tour de France, and he had fallen out of the top ten. The attack succeeded, and Evans rode the break all the way to the line. He finished eighth that year, which was the last of the Armstrong Tours. Armstrong, Ivan Basso, and Jan Ullrich stood on the final podium in Paris. I’ve always remembered that attack, despite the conventional wisdom that Evans was a wheelsucker, a rider who never attacked the field and never won.

Of course, the big win at the World Championship in Mendrisio changed the public view of Evans forever. There, he attacked on the final climb of the road race with such ferocity that no one could follow. Evans won his rainbow jersey solo, a claim not too many riders can make. As World Champion, Evans won one for the ages, the Giro d’Italia stage raced over the sodden Strade Bianche of the Chianti Country. He nearly wiped it in the final corner, but kept the bike upright, and took Damiano Cunego in the final sprint. It was another in a string of heartbreakers for Cunego. Has anyone counted up his second placings? They have to be rather vast in number, these days. Anywho, Evans, he nailed that sprint and nailed it good. That win had style.

This year marks one of the final chances for Evans to finish high in the general classification at the Tour de France. In 2007, Evans finished second, just 23 seconds behind winner Alberto Contador. True confessions? I had to look that one up. I’d forgotten just how close that Tour was. Last year, a crash put an end to his Yellow Jersey dreams, and Evans finished 26th in Paris. The Tour climbs the Col de l’Aubisque again this year. May it bring Evans luck.

Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin-Cervélo, Tour de France

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo)

Every year, Jonathan Vaughters brings a surprise general classification rider to the Tour de France. Of course, if we guess who it is, it isn’t such a surprise, now is it. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most surprising of them all? Anyway, I don’t think Hesjedal is really a surprise talent at this point, what with the Amstel Gold Race podium and the Vuelta a España stage win. Oh, and he did finish seventh in last year’s Tour de France.

Back in the day, Ryder Hesjedal raced mountain bikes. Together with Roland Green, Hesjedal was one of the bigs of the mountain bike scene. Older at the time, Green tended to take more big wins, but the two riders were tight, since they both came out of Victoria, BC. Anyway, long story short, Green often said that Hesjedal was the more talented of the two of them and that someday, he would win the Tour de France. Well, it hasn’t happened yet, but I’m looking forward to seeing how Hesjedal follows up last year’s success. Why not a surprise podium for Garmin-Cervélo? I like surprises, especially in July.