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Maillot Jaune: Battle Royale Brewing at Le Tour

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Next in our line of previews is the fight for Yellow, and with a little luck this one could be truly special.

Joel Saget, AFP/Getty

What do we want in a Yellow Jersey battle, really? When people name the great tours of the past decade or three or ten, their answers tend to fall into a few categories. First there is a close race. Without knowing more, most people would take a close race over a beatdown. And yet a couple of the closest Tours ever occurred in the last eight years, and both of them were kind of annoying. The 39 seconds separating Andy Schleck from Alberto Contador represented the precise amount of time lost to a mechanical problem, and otherwise the 2010 Tour was a bit light on excitement. Oh, and two years later Contador's win was vacated by the CAS. Yay. The 2007 race, Contador's first win, was pretty riveting, once the race got done throwing out obvious dopers. After stage16.

Another answer might refer to a battle of charismatic heroes. If they're "great" then the race they're putting on must also be "great," right? Oftentimes, yeah, but Merckx is the greatest of all time, competing in an era with Ocana, Pou-Pou and other towering figures, and his narrowest win was by over eight minutes. Coppi and Bartali dueled in 1950 to a10-minute margin of defeat for a past-prime Pious Gino. There's more to a cracking Tour than big names.

One more great race may come down to how wide-open the competition is. LeMond's last two wins were at least three-way tilts The late 70s races of Thevenet, Van Impe, Zoetemelk and Poulidor were undoubtedly good fun. But 2006 was the most wide-open race in decades, and we'd probably all prefer to forget why or what transpired. When Floyd Landis is your only interesting rider, you're not looking at one for the ages.

So maybe it's not enough to look for one particular kind of potentially great race. But I know of one type of battle we'd all love to see: one where charismatic champions battle in a wide-open affair to a very close conclusion. And so far, at least, we've got the makings of such a race. Let's check in on the favorites, obvious and subtle, alphabetical by team...

Jean-Christophe Péraud, AG2R

History: Second last year, ninth in 2011. One other mediocre finish and a DNF when he crashed out after lying ninth.

Current Form: Guarded. His 31st at the Dauphiné is an improvement on last year(37th), and his season has been nearly identical to 2014, with a mediocre Romandie, a win at Critérium International, and a stop by the Pais Vasco, where he was third in 2014 and 16th this year. He's 38 years old, so one of these days an uninspiring run to the Tour will be bad news, but I'm not ready to say that just yet.

Why He Could: Could what, win? He can't. Last year was a bit heavy on the "default" factor. But as for a nice high finish, Péraud has been a remarkably consistent climber, with results like 15th at Galibier and 11th at the Alpe in 2011, his first Tour; 10th at Mont Ventoux two years ago; and sixth or better on all of the meaningful mountain stages last year. He's also perfectly fine in time trials, and really only blew it on the cobbles.

Why He Probably Won't: Péraud finished 7.37 behind Vincenzo Nibali, who as great as he is had the Tour fall in his lap. This Tour will be fought at a higher level in the mountains, and Péraud has never shown that ultra-elite climbing ability.

Verdict! He's one of the smartest top-ten bets you can make, but top five would be the best he can hope for.

Vincenzo Nibali, Astana

History: Defending Tour de France champion. Finished third in 2012 and sixth in 2009, his two other Tours as a team leader.

Current Form: Successfully defended his Italian national title Saturday for his first victory of the season. Before that, his Dauphiné was pretty unconvincing, matching pretty much the rest of his season. Like Péraud, laying low could explain it but you have to wonder.

Why He Could: Nibali is one of those people who just make me love cycling. His specialty is "everything that makes a cyclist" and his achievements should terrify every triathlete who thinks he can just cross over into road racing. The only thing stronger than the Shark's bike handling game is his mental game, which is rock-solid. Not just Sicilian limestone solid; I mean Tuscan marble solid. In a war of attrition like last year, he's the winner.

Beyond that, prior to the former winners falling down, Nibali was a clear podium contender. He came into that Tour with a nearly unbroken string of top-ten finishes in Tour stages that mattered, plus wins in the Giro and Vuelta which not only made him a statistical hero but which showed the inner grit that Tour winners need. There was no mystery regarding his ability to win a three week race, which he emphasized beyond argument by convincingly taking the final mountain stage to Hautacam.

Why He Probably Won't: Can Nibali really beat the best climbers in the world at their own game? Because that's what this Tour will require. And the attrition factor probably won't play into his hands so beautifully a second time.

Verdict! Top three, though probably last of the podium finishers. Nibali should like the opening week very much, with its technical challenges and variety. As a defending champion he should be afforded respect and some space at the front, keeping him upright, even in Roadfurnituredam. But week three looks like just a bit too much for his climbing ability.

Tejay van Garderen, BMC

History: There seems to be some sort of rule that he finishes fifth in even-numbered years and out of contention in odd-numbered ones.

Current Form: Well, before the Dauphiné it looked a tad moribund, but then Tejay matched pedal strokes with Froome (who shows up to win even if it's a warmup race), eventually conceding a mere 10 seconds... in addition to the 17 second lead he held going into the day.

Why He Could: He probably can't. But van Garderen is a steady, respectable performer, and a steady respectable result is about what you can expect.

Why He Probably Won't: Bad course for him. Tejay climbs pretty well, but the crono is happier hunting for the American, and there simply aren't enough kilometers in that discipline this time around.

Verdict! Top Ten, not top five.

Thibaut Pinot, FDJ

History: Third in 2014. 10th in 2012 sandwiched around a DNF.

Current Form: Better than most. His win on the Rettenbachferner was inspiring stuff, and Pinot has been getting improved results across the board throughout compared to 2014.

Why He Could: Pure climbing greatness. I don't know if he's #1 (give me another minute there) but Pinot brings to the table the one skill this Tour route emphasizes above all others. His win in the 2015 Romandie queen stage came at the expense of most of the names on this list. That's one data point, and an early season one at that, but he's been very strong in Switzerland. For what it's worth. And that's not totally tongue-in-cheek; often times when a rider breaks out at the Tour, he has a couple conspicuous performances in his recent past, not unlike Pinot does. And in a way, if Pinot takes a podium this year, it will represent a breakout performance, even after last year.

Why He Probably Won't: The time trial. This may be an unusually light year for miles against the watch, but Pinot's ideal ITT distance would be approximately zero. Can he not only stay with Froome and Quintana, but put a couple minutes or so into them to flop-proof his (and his team's) time trialling? Tall order. On the plus side, if he were the type to grab yellow right out of the gate, all of France would be waiting for him at the border on stage 4. The environmental impacts alone would be devastating.

Verdict! Can I put four riders in the top three? I guess not. Pinot could seize a podium place if he goes bonkers in week 3 or if some notables go home early. I'll go with fourth.

Nairo Quintana, Movistar

History: One participation. Took second, plus the white and polka dot jerseys.

Current Form: Where it should be... I think. He was second to Contador at the Route du Sud and lost to Froome and Pinot at Romandie, but that was a while ago and he's emphasized training back in Colombia over road racing in Europe. Something of a mystery, then, but a reasonable approach as well.

Why He Could: Two years ago he outperformed Froome in the climbs, all while Froome was conquering the Tour in general. This was Quintana's debut Tour, at age 23. Last year, at age 24, he methodically won the Giro d'Italia in convincing fashion, navigating all that Giro stuff (nasty roads, cold weather, etc.) en route to a couple stage wins and a coronation. This is how the great careers begin, and this is the skillset of the Gods: pure climbing ability on the very highest roads. Quintana, already a husband and father and advocate on social issues back home, has a maturity beyond his years. No matter how tough this race is, he won't get ruffled. Oh, and he'll have some help.

Why He Probably Won't: There are three guys taking the start who've already won a Tour. They aren't going to roll over for the Boyaca Boy Wonder. With a strong team backing Quintana should limit his losses in the ITT / TTT stages, but he'll lose something to Froome/Sky. And finally, the first week could be very, very nervous for Quintana, even after test-riding the cobbles back in March.

Verdict! My pick to win, but a tenuous one. It should be close. I give him the nod as a result of not just all the climbing, but the heavy emphasis on the Alps, where he was especially good two years ago.

Alejandro Valverde, Movistar

History: Fourth last year, his best performance yet; seven starts, four top-tens.

Current Form: Another dominant year in one-day races, winning the Spanish championships yesterday following wins in La Fleche and Liege earlier this spring. Ninth in the Dauphiné, which is about where he normally lands before the Tour.

Why He Could: Win? I can think of only one scenario: he gets into an escape where people refuse to chase because Quintana is sitting on the wheels of the big names, and nobody wants to match up with Movistar's loaded lineup. Almost nothing I just said is actually plausible. But on the other hand, Valverde will LOVE the first week. Maybe even own it, if he can get through 14km on his aero bike.

Why He Probably Won't: After week 1, he doesn't do anything better than his own teammate Quintana will. Well, maybe time trial, but I said after week 1, and they'll be teammates in the only remaining crono. Anyway, fourth in last year's field is a pretty convincing argument why he's not a strong contender.

Verdict! Top ten. Probably a few days in yellow early on, and some excellent teamwork on behalf of his young Colombian ace teammate.

Simon Yates, Orica-GreenEdge

History: DNF last year, though it was the team's choice to pull him after he'd been included late and got in a couple long breaks. Enough for a 21-year-old.

Current Form: Fifth at the Dauphiné, sixth in Romandie, fifth in the Pais Vasco. Consistently excellent results in the one-week stage races, for his or any age, and against the same people he'll face in France.

Why He Could: Because sometimes magic happens, and a guy grows wings and soars way beyond where anyone expected. OK, that sounds like a fantasy from the heavy-EPO era, and in reality Simon's class as a climber, while already outstanding and sure to improve, is probably still a work-in-progress. Still, it's a good course for him, and Orica-GreenEdge are bringing some tempo-setters. And never underestimate the chance of the peloton chasing down the wrong Yates twin.

Why He Probably Won't: A few fifths and sixths aren't a sign of imminent Tour dominance against a strong field. Simon coped well last year, so maybe the Dutch road furniture and the cRaZy Breton stages won't cause him much trouble. But surely he didn't learn everything he needs to know in his first two weeks as a grand tour rider?

Verdict! The dominance of British cyclists isn't going away anytime soon, is it? I'll say 10th for Simon, but it's a wild guess and his real range is probably anywhere from 5th to 20th.

Andrew Talansky, Team Cannondale-Garmin

History: Tenth and a DNF in two starts, including last year's crash-ruined affair.

Current Form: Hm... Tenth in the Dolphin race, which is a big step down from last year's exciting and unexpected win. His allergies forced him out ot the Tour of California, which had to be pretty disruptive. But the Bulldog was eighth on the Mont Blanc stage, so if he has to ride himself into form, it's a pretty short journey. Sometimes this kind of buildup winds up working out splendidly.

Why He Could: The kid's tough. Also he's not really a kid anymore. Now 26, Talansky is approaching the make-or-break portion of his career. Time trialling is a strong suit, and while that matters less than usual it's not nothing. [His TTT support looks solid, of course, since Garmin have usually prioritized TTT stage wins.] Can I picture him gutting out a great performance in the Alps? Yeah, kinda.

Why He Probably Won't: It's really, really, really too bad he got injured last year, when he was on cracking form and the top two guys went home. That could have been something. This year the going will get tougher. A more realistic goal is a top ten and momentum heading into 2016, when maybe ASO will throw a few more crono KM his way.

Verdict! If he stays out of trouble in week 1, borderline top 10.

Pierre Rolland, Europcar

History: Six participations, 8th in 2012.

Current Form: 25th at the Dauphiné but with top tens on two of the three key mountain stages, and an autobus finish for the other. Given his performance the next day I think it's safe not to read too much into that. He also won the Vuelta al Castilla y Leon, albeit against lesser competition.

Why He Could: His two career stage wins at the Tour were atop La Toussuire and Alpe d'Huez. So yeah, the climbing part, he can do that. His career reads more like steady performer than breakout star, but he should like this year's route quite a bit.

Why He Probably Won't: Hopeless in the time trials, individual and otherwise. Also, two breakout stage wins in six years isn't quite on the level of potential winner.

Verdict! Rolland will hang around. Top 12 or so.

Joaquim Rodriguez, Katusha

History: Three performances, two top-tens (including third) and... 54th last year... but that had more to do with crashing out of the Giro with broken bones and being thrown into the Tour to "save" his season.

Current Form: Very solid: eighth in the Dauphine with some nice stage performances, and another strong classics season. Dominated the Pais Vasco. Nevertheless it's been a pretty calm, quiet approach to the Tour for Purito.

Why He Could: In his last healthy Tour he more or less hung with Breakout Nairo on the third week climbs, finishing third. Remember how he was more or less the world's best climber last time he was in the spotlight? Yeah, he's 36 now, but until he proves he's done, he's not done.

Why He Probably Won't: Katusha aren't supporting Purito like some of his rivals are propping up their guys, and isolated is no way to fend off the demons he'll be dueling with all through July. He'll need to be on the form of his life.

Verdict! Do I already have five guys in the top five? Can I add one more?

Robert Gesink, LottoNL-Jumbo

History: Five starts, three finishes, one top-five.

Current Form: Ah, who knows? And of course that's the major question. He didn't look terribly strong in the Tour de Suisse, so I'll keep expectations low. Needless to say, after broken bones and heart trouble, just being in the discussion is a positive trend.

Why He Could: Once upon a time, the Condor of Varsseveld looked like the next great Dutch climber, a real threat to do something. At his best Gesink is aggressive and fun to watch, with no real weaknesses. But I have to try real hard to remember the last time he summoned all of his natural gifts.

Why He Probably Won't: I think I spent most of the "why he will" section arguing why he won't. Because life isn't fair. How's that?

Verdict! As much as he would love to stoke the home crowd with a stage win, his chances for one of those come much later. Victory for Gesink looks more like a redemptive week 3 stage win than a high GC finish. Hell, just finishing in good health would be something to toast in Paris.

Chris Froome, Team Sky

History: Winner in 2013, second in 2012, crashed out last year. 83rd way back in the Aughts.

Current Form: Unquestionably excellent, following his Dauphiné win, which included the last two mountain stages. His buildup has been more or less perfect.

Why He Could: Because the only person to beat him on the roads of France since 2008 is his own (now retired) teammate Bradley Wiggins. The whole chatter about the course is that it will diminish Froome's time-trailling ability, and it will, but he won't lose until someone beats him on a climb.

So will anyone? Froome doesn't have a lengthy dossier but it already includes wins at Mont Ventoux and Ax-3-Domaines. He was seventh on Alpe d'Huez but that was with a comfortable lead over Nairo and J-Rod on GC. He's also been third at La Toussuire and second at Peyragudes. And how many times in lesser stage races have we seen him ride away from the competition as the race nears another MTF? The evidence that someone else is a better climber than Froome, when healthy, is close to nonexistent. Nairo has a case to make. Contador hasn't really gone head-to-head with Froome. That's really it.

Why He Probably Won't: More road furniture issues? He never did race across the cobbles last year, pulling out shortly before they began with his wrist fracture. It goes without saying that Froome has to stay upright this time, but he's done it before.

Verdict! My other pick to win. I'll stick with Quintana for now, but Froome is probably more of a consensus favorite.

Alberto Contador, Tinkoff-Saxo

History: Crashed out last year. Before that it was three wins, a fourth and a fifth, though the fourth and one win were nullified later. Anyway, you all know his story at the Tour.

Current Form: Won his last two stage races, one of which was a little thing down in Italy which you might remember.

Why He Could: Contador is always a necessary ingredient to a great Tour these days, but in 2015 his presence brings yet another dimension -- can a rider do the Giro-Tour Double in the modern era? Pistolero wrote the first chapter already, and after a brief break he turns to the bigger challenge. There is nothing Contador doesn't know about winning grand tours in general, and the Tour in particular. He is smart, clever, willing to take risks, and at his age (and with his record) the fact that he comes in as less than the favorite, with the Giro in his legs, means he has absolutely nothing to lose. Without running through his whole Tour history, suffice to say that although he lacks stage wins (three total), he's nearly always in the top handful on every stage of consequence, putting time into most or all of his rivals.

Of greater note may be his 2011 season. Make of it what you will, given that it's all been wiped out, but I think we can assume he wasn't engaged in any special form of cheating while his clenbuterol case was pending. So personally I look at those nullified results as good data. Due to his legal problems, Contador went and rode the Giro, which he promptly won, and when the legal process moved too slowly to stop him from riding the Tour, he did that too. Contador crashed four times early on, effectively placing him out of contention absent something strange, and after battling back up the GC he faltered on the Galibier, then regained some time on Alpe d'Huez. In general he was very good, despite the crashes and the Giro in his legs. A bit up-and-down, not dominant by any means, but unusually aggressive, and if he comes out of the first week healthy, maybe he has a Giro-Tour record that shows us what he's capable of here?

Why He Probably Won't: 2011 was four years ago. Can he bounce back at age 32 as well as he did in his clearly-prime years? Maybe. But even if he does, can Froome or Quintana be stopped? My impression of Contador in general these days is that he excels at short digs which will eventually break lesser (Giro-quality) riders, but that act won't work on Froome or Nairo, and maybe not a handful of other guys listed above. A more balanced course would surely have improved his chances, but if this Tour comes down to just a ton of climbing, I just don't see that as Contador's greatest strength.

Verdict! Definitely battling for the podium, though I wouldn't rule out a week three fade. Pretty sure top-five bet.

Rafal Majka, Tinkoff-Saxo

History: One start, 44th overall but took the polka dots.

Current Form: Laying very low. Maybe a bit too low. Seventh in Romandie, which isn't bad, and finished with Quintana and Froome on the queen stage. Tenth in the Tour de Suisse, with no outstanding performances.

Why He Could: Er, well, he won the KOM jersey last year after being dragged off the beach following an excellent seventh in the Giro. He complained about his Tour selection as a possible threat to his health after a murderous Giro, but complied and reported for duty in Yorkshire. He then proceeded to futz around for half the Tour trying to find his legs, dropping big chunks of time, before things clicked back into place. Before reaching Paris he had the audacity to win two mountain stages and just miss a third, finishing second to Nibali at Chamrousse. It was, in all, an astounding performance, and it mainly had to do with climbing.

So, as he rides for Team Contador, how does he play his own winning hand? First, by being very patient. The TTT squad will help his case, and the early skirmishing will be more for pride than meaningful time gaps. By the end of the Pyrenées Tinkoff-Saxo should know whether Bert has a win in his legs, and if not, with so much work still left to do in week three, it will be Majka's time to shine.

Why He Probably Won't: Majka's results are hard to argue with... except they're the results of a guy who finished more than two hours down on GC. His first win came from an escape. His second stage win was more like a great mountain victory, racing with the favorites and accelerating away to victory, but even there, if he had been two minutes down instead of two hours, would he have managed to get away? No way of knowing. And as I've said many times regarding data from last year, if Froome and Contador and Quintana stay upright, this is a whole new ballgame.

Verdict! Perhaps just outside the top ten. I don't like how he's looked of late, and if Contador is going well they'll just make him play domestique. Still, Majka has the look of a potential podium finisher in the not too distant future.

Bauke Mollema, Trek Factory Racing

History: Two top tens in his last two starts, plus a debut-ish debut and a DNF. Sixth in 2013.

Current Form: Tough to say. He was going well in the Pais Vasco when he got taken down in a nasty high-speed crash, and has struggled to get going again since. As I mentioned with Talansky, sometimes these interruptions leave a rider peaking late in the Tour and that winds up being to his advantage. Sometimes.

Why He Could: Mollema's specialty is climbing, particularly in the Pyrenées.

Why He Probably Won't: This race will not be won in the Pyrenées. His history in the Alps is a bit less impressive. Toss him in with Majka as someone who will be hunting podium finishes before long, but maybe not in 2015.

Verdict! I think I already gave it away. Top 15.

Haimar Zubeldia, Trek Factory Racing

History: Another of cycling's immutable laws is that Haimar Zubeldia will finish in the top ten of a grand tour. Zubeldia has completed a record 72 Tours and finished 8th in 2014. His best is fourth in 2007, since his victory over Zombie Maurice Garin in 1942 was nullified.

Current Form: Meh. Not that it matters.

Why He Could: I don't think the law says he can win. I suppose it doesn't say he can't though.

Why He Probably Won't: His strengths in the crono will be neutralized a bit this time around. Plus he's working for Mollema until the Dutchman blows up in the Alps and cedes leadership back to Zubeldia. Once again.

Verdict! In order to maintain the time-space continuum, Zubeldia will go completely unnoticed all the way to a top ten in Paris.

*****

A few honorable mentions:

Rigoberto Uran, Etixx-Quick Step: Doing the double! Only in his case it might be the double-14th, as Uran, recognizing the limits of his sanity, has suggested that his Tour effort might be more about third-week stage wins. But hey, in the Giro he looked like he was peaking for... something other than the Giro. Also don't underestimate the potential for Uran being inspired to join his friend and compadre Nairo on an Alpine rampage.

Adam Yates, Orica-GreenEdge: I'm not good at keeping track of pedigree, but is Adam supposed to be the better climber? I'm sticking with Simon based on having started a Tour before, but either way. One of them is going to make our lives a bit more interesting in July.

Warren Barguil, Giant-Alpecin: The Next Big Thing in France makes his debut at last. I've spilled enough virtual ink appreciating the careful way the team has managed this moment, and I don't see much in his season to get me irrationally excited, but even that is probably for the best.

*****

So what type of race will we see? Of the three categories of Great Tours I started off writing about, I bet we get two of them. My money is on a close battle between two charismatic champions, Froome and Quintana. The Battle Royale probably doesn't happen unless one of those two drops out and the rest of the contenders raise their game and train all their energy at stopping the remaining favorite. The Tour so often fells top riders and changes the script on us, but fingers crossed this time around, with a little luck, we really could have just about everything you want in a great race.