The odds for Bradley Wiggins to win the Tour de France are high - in the neighborhood of 5:4. Cadel Evans is not as favoured by the bookies, but he still enjoys odds around 2:1. This underlines what we have stated numerous times about the Tour route this year - it will favor an all-rounder, an individual who can limit losses in the mountains and crush the time trials, Indurain style. As one drops further down the bookie lists, the odds for anyone with a hint of climber range from 20:1 to 30:1. Big returns for risky bets.
But, we would not want to reduce this fabled race into a forgone conclusion, would we? For many things can happen in the 3,500 kilometers between Liège and Paris and races rarely unfold exactly as we anticipate them to. For these reasons we actually hold races and watch each day eager for intrigue to unfold on the road.
This year's Tour de France route? It is not kind to the climbers. But in no way does it preclude one from winning. To do so is less straightforward than in other editions, but it can indeed be done. Follow along for an in-depth preview of just how this can be done.
The first step for a climber to win the Tour de France is obvious, so we shan't dwell on it much. One must not implode in the 101 kilometers of time trials along the route. But time must be gained somewhere, and the three summit finishes are not the only places where this is possible. And because climbers will need at minimum three minutes over Wiggins and Evans to have a chance of winning, attacks in the final kilometers of a summit finish are not likely to yield sufficient time. Especially with only three summit finishes, two of which offer the potential for only small time gains.
No, a climber must be more inventive, drawing out his rivals early on a stage or two and going forth with more than one climb between him and the finish. How exactly can he do that?
The most obvious point of attack is the summit finishes on stages 7, 11, and 17. At first glance, none of the finishes are particularly impressive from a climbing point of view. All three finish atop category 1 climbs, a notch below the legendarily difficult hors catégorie summits like the Tourmalet and the Col de la Croix Fer featured earlier in stages this year.
Stage 7, while appears promising at first, but is not likely to be decisive. The climb to La Plance des Belles Filles may only be 6 kilometers long, but it has an average gradient of 8.5% and numerous sections of over 10%. Extra nice is the final kilometer, where the gradient kicks up to a maximum of 14%. Saving the best for last, this climb is. But this is the first real mountains stage and is only preceded by a pair of category 3 climbs, the second of which summits 40 kilometers from the base of the finishing climb. The sprightly climbers may pull out some time here, but don't expect it to be more than about 20 seconds. Everybody is still fresh and there simply isn't enough climb to pull out large time gaps.
Stage 11 is far more enticing for the climbing types. The stage is shorter - a mere 148 kilometers - and may provoke the kind of aggression we saw on the road to L'Alpe d'Huez last year. Remember that stage? Contador and Andy Schleck went on the offensive less than 25 kilometers into the stage(!). Hostilities should not begin that early this time with an extra 30 kilometers of road to deal with, but the final 80 kilometers could draw out surprises if one is bold. The HC Col de la Madeline serves to soften up legs and is followed shortly afterwards by another HC climb, the Col de la Croix de Fer. A constantly changing gradient makes the climb harder on the diesels, though Wiggins and his Sky teammates appeared to have no troubles controlling affairs on the similar climb of the Col de Joux Plane in the Dauphiné. This is the type of climb that a climber like Gesink could get away on, though, and the rest of the stage looks promising for consolidating any initial gaps.
Immediately following the descent of the Croix de Fer is the Col du Mollard, which provides 5.7 kilometers of climbing goodness. As soon as this climb is summitted, there is a 13 kilometer descent before the road immediately tilts upward again for the 18 kilometer climb to the finish atop La Toussuire. The constant climbing and descending makes this stage one of the best prospects for a long range attack like Andy Schleck pulled on the road to the Col du Galibier last year, especially if someone is a good descender. And with fewer valley roads in between climbs, this stage is even more promising than last year's stage 18... If I sound excited for this stage, that would be an understatement.
The final summit finish on stage 17 could see time gaps consolidated, but does not offer the same kind of long-range and large time gap potential of stage 11. The HC Port de Bailes is hard, but the descent is may be hard to hold a gap on. The finishing climb(s) up to Peyragudes are not particularly steep and are steady, the 7-8% gradient only broken by a 3 kilometer descent about two thirds up the climb. If the race isn't split up too much when that descent appears, the chance to recover will help charge everyone's batteries for the final 5 kilometers, only 4 of which actually go uphill. Expect time gaps under a minute here.
But if gaining time were as simple as winning (or doing well on) the summit finishes, racing would become boring and predictable. Not every mountain stage finishes atop a climb, which provides sometimes spectacular racing. Remember the stage into Gap last year? Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans forced the pace over the top of the Col de Manse and even more on the descent, gapping Fränk and Andy Schleck by a minute. And who can forget Vincenzo Nibali's plunge off the Monte Grappa in the 2010 Giro d'Italia?
One more stage with the potential for a long-range escapades is stage 16 to Bagnères de Luchon. Four climbs are on the menu, beginning with the HC Col d'Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet and followed by the Category 1 Col d'Aspin and Col de la Peyresoude. Four historic alpine passes followed by a 16 kilometer descent to the finish. And oh what a descent it is! Le Tour followed a similar route in 2007 and Alexandre Vinokurov won. Behind him, Alberto Contador and Michael Rasmussen battled, holding off a chase group including Levi Leipheimer and Cadel Evans. Really, you should go watch the descent. It's swoopy and tight and twisty and offers the chance to shake a less-confident descender. Paging Samuel Sanchez and Vincenzo Nibali.
But the descent off the Peyresoude is not all that makes this stage special - it is the back to back to back climbs in the final 100 kilometers. If this stage is raced hard, Nibali, Sanchez, or even Fränk Schleck could attack on the Aspin and gain time all the way to the finish. Now, if only we have a soul brave enough for such an escapade...
In part the ability of climbers to do such damage will be constrained by the might of Wiggins' Sky team. In Paris-Nice, a series of riders who would be overall contenders on other teams slowly strangled the peleton on the stage over the Col du Joux Plane. For some, it harkened back to the days of Lance Armstrong's "Blue Train" that ushered him to seven consecutive Tour de France victories. Wiggins will have his team force a pace that might deter attacks until the last few kilometers, by which point it might be too late to make meaningful inroads. But how will Sky hold up against the higher level of competition at the Tour?
The other factor to watch out for is Cadel Evans, even if his team support is a notch (or two or three) below Wiggins'. Evans, as he made devastatingly clear on the first stage of the Dauphiné this year, knows how to read a race. He can turn a race on its end and exploit opportunities which do not appear to most. Remember the seconds he gained at the finish atop the Mȗr de Bretagne in last year's Tour. But, Evans has another capability we talk less about - he is a fearsome descender. People may rave about Nibali's descending prowness, but if you watch here you will be singing the praises of this former mountain biker too.
If a climber does not establish a big gap over the top of the last climbs on stages 10 and 16, Evans could very well bring them back or severely curtail their time gaps. And Evans? He isn't afraid to attack on a descent either. He did distance Wiggins for a while on the final descents of stages 5 and 6 in the Dauphiné. Even though he is good in a time trial, he may be just the rider to go for a long-range offensive to unseat Bradley Wiggins.
Gesink photo by Doug Pensinger, copyright Getty Images Sport; Sky photo copyright fotoreporter Sirrotti; Cadel Evans photo by Michael Steele, copyright Getty Images Sport