It's a big weekend. There are fireworks and beer and barbeques outside right now (and I can smell all of them already), and the Tour de France begins tomorrow. It's celebration after celebration, and since you have grills to fire up and pies to eat this afternoon, we'll keep it short and sweet today.
Here are the biggest contenders for the Tour de France. yes, I left out some guys in the top ten of last year's Tour, but are we really counting on Rodríguez to light it up this year? If there is someone you think I've missed, call me out in the comments! Give them a grade! But in my eyes, here's the likely GC we are looking at in a few weeks' time.
Last year: Imperial. Won four out of five stage races he entered prior to the Tour de France, including the Critérium du Dauphiné. The only weakness he showed was in Tirreno-Adriatico, where he finished second. Then he won the first mountain stage, put in a stonking time trial, and generally beat people up all July long. Only Nairo Quintana could hang with him, and only some of the time.
This year: Back troubles and illness have meant Froome has only taken victories in the Tour of Oman and Tour of Romandie. At the Dauphine, he led early, appearing the strongest rider - if only slightly - until a crash before the final duo of mountain stages sapped him of power. He held grimly on for the first day after his crash, slipping to second on GC, but fell outside the top ten the next day.
Last year: Second in Oman, third in Tirreno Adriatico, fourth at the Tour de France. Always behind Froome, in other words.
This year: Well hello there, Contador we got used to before that pesky suspension. El Pisterelo has been much livlier this year, winning Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of the Basque Country and finished second to an unruly Dauphiné last month. More important, he looked almost the match for Froome in the mountains before Froome's crash, finishing in the same time as him on the first mountaintop finish. He'll be weaker than Froome in the TT, but the rolling nature of the penultimate stage should limit his vulnerability here. And don't forget, Contador has won a similarly rolling long TT in the Tour before.
Grade: A-. He's not Chris Froome, but he's as close as you get. This ought to be fun to watch.
Last year: Winner of the Vuelta a Andalucia, several podium spots in the Ardennes (for however much those count towards grand tour success). A solid spring. Then, 8th overall in the Tour after losing 11 minutes thanks to the worst timed mechanical on a windswept stage in the first week.
This year: Every year we seem to be asking "is this the year the legs fall off this old dog?", and every year our answer seems to be "not yet." Never quite a favorite to win the Tour, Valverde is nonetheless looking as sharp as he ever has. This spring he won the Vuelta a Andalucia and took wins or podiums in a number of hilly one-day races, including a victory at Flèche Wallone. Looks pretty much like last year, but this year he's also won the Spanish time trial championships for the first time ever. In other words, a safe bet for third.
Last year: Won Tirreno-Adriatico and the Giro del Trentino in the early season, then he skipped the Tour to win the Giro d'Italia, then lost the Vuelta a Espańa to an old man.
This year: Joking (halfway) aside, Nibali might have lost his life force to old man Horner last September. The Nibali of last year was at the front of every stage race he entered, even beating Chris Froome in a foul weathered and tough edition of Tirreno-Adriatico. But this year, the Astana rider has wilted, fighting to gain form all year and seeming the back foot until last weekend when he won the Italian national championship. Long expected to be one of the stiffest contenders to Chris Froome's title defense - at least through aggressive racing if not raw power - Nibali will be largely a question mark until the first real days in the mountains in a week and a half's time. Several weeks ago, he only managed seventh in the Critérium du Dauphiné, but he should go higher than that here. This is a man who has won Grand Tours before, after all.
Last year: A coming out year for the youngster we always knew would be good. Talansky doggedly fought his way to second in Paris-Nice, losing half to Richie Porte's superior climbing and half to his own youthful exuberance and distaste for following wheels rather than attacking. Tenth in the Tour was a confirmation of his trajectory.
This year: Led a palace coup at the Critérium du Dauphiné on the final stage and leapt from third to winning the whole thing. He looks stronger than last year, yes, but also still willing to take big chances. With the parcours having several shorter but climbing packed mountain stages in the third week, when he really starts to turn good, Talansky should have plenty of opportunities to be aggressive early and, perhaps, climb onto the podium by virtue of an exploit like the final stage of the Dauphiné.
Last year: 2nd in the Tour de Suisse, 3rd at the Vuelta a Andalucía, and riding his heart out to stay in the top five of the Tour, only to crack a little in the final week and drop to 6th (which was still a huge ride!).
This year: 6th at Andalucía, 3rd at Suisse, but better in the Ardennes. So, let's call this one about equal to last year? Hopefully he has a little more staying power, and with that he should be capable of a top 5.
Tejay van Garderen
Last year: Implosion in the first week in the mountains, which was quite surprising after his win in the Tour of California earlier in the season and his 5th place in the 2012 Tour. But after his Tour disappointment, he went back to Colorado and convincingly won the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Go figure.
This year: 2nd behind Froome in Oman was a good sign. A very good sign. But then Tejay fractured his hip at Romandie, knocking his preparation back a little. Luckily, he seems to be gathering momentum, if not tip top form. He got better as the Dauphiné went on, which is good because he certainly didn't look very convincing in the first mountain day there.
Jurgen Van Den Broeck
Last year: Oh, the bad luck. A decent spring campaign followed by a nasty crash in the first week of the Tour. But he has twice been 4th (2010, 2012), so he's got to be in the conversation.
This year: No crashes! Really, that's the best thing that could happen to Jurgen. He looked a little off top form in the Dauphiné but hitched a ride in the coup Andrew Talansky organized on the last stage and climbed his way up to a third place overall. Sadly, he's on a Belgian team with one of the top sprinters in the world, which means... crickets chirping in the way of real support in the mountains. But that's okay, he's used to freelancing and since he's the kind of rider who has to follow rather than make most of the big moves, it won't hurt him excessively.
Last year: Strong one-day spring campaign from cobbles to Ardennes, coupled with 2nd in the Volta ao Algarve and 4th in Tirreno-Adriatico. Then he surprised the cycling world by storming the Tour, finishing 11th overall after doggedly fighting til he started losing ground in the last week.
This year: Built for the high mountains he is not, but Kwiatkowski just keeps getting stronger, including a win in Algarve, 2nd in the Tour of the Basque Country, and an even stronger Ardennes campaign concluding with a third place at Liége-Bastogne-Liége. He's been quiet coming into the Tour this year, both in terms of results and words, but I'm betting he cracks the top 9 this year.
Last year: Won the Tour de Suisse for a second time, then stopped to help Valverde on the infamous echelon stage. Then made up for it by winning Stages 16 and 19. Oh, and the World Championships
This year: Quiet spring, followed by a third consecutive win in Suisse. So what do we make of it, and the world champion's chances in his first real run at the GC in a grand tour? Who knows if he can last three weeks, and his high mountain climbing is a notch below the big boys... but he was rather convincing in Switzerland, beating Mollema - who finished 6th in the Tour last year - by two spots. So, who knows, really?
Grade: C, until he shows me he can last 3 weeks