You've read up on the usual suspects expected to win the Tour de France, but they aren't the whole story, at least not until they are. This is, in fact, such a tough course that we might see a more wide-open race. And of course luck, or the lack thereof, can also reshuffle the deck, though we hope not. In any event, it's definitely worth taking a look at the next tier of Tour contenders, even if their best hope is to fill out the top ten.
Name: Romain Bardet (AG2R), Fabio Aru (Astana), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Tejie van Porteren (BMC), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Warren Barguil (Giant), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Geraint Thomas (Sky), Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff), Bauke Mollema (Trek)
Considered but eliminated: Jakob Fuglsang, Daniel Martin, Jarlinson Pantano, Louis Meintjes, Tom Dumoulin, Ilnur Zakarin, Wilco Kelderman, Mikel Landa, Matti Breschel, Rafal Majka, Haimar Zubeldia. All of these riders either were in the conversation in the past or may be in the future. Well, one is in there out of habit. See if you can guess who. But besides him, all of these guys are people you can picture being persons of interest, but too far down the expectations/ability ladder to expect them to threaten a podium place. A couple -- Zakarin and Landa -- rode a chunk of the Giro, so their presence in France is a bit beyond their original plan, which doesn't spell success for guys at their experience level.
Team: AG2R, Astana, BMC, Movistar, Giant-Alpecin, Katusha, Sky, Tinkoff, Trek. All the big teams basically.
Past TdF Placement: Nibali is a former winner, which alone gets him on the list. Kreuziger was fifth once (2013) and has three top tens. Mollema was sixth and seventh previously. Bardet sixth and ninth. Van Garderen has two fifths. Valverde was third last year and fourth before that. Barguil was 14th in his debut last year. J-Rod was third in his prime.
Stage Victories: Sure. J-Rod won twice last year, and Nibali took the La Toussuire stage -- after winning four stages in 2014 en route to his dominant win. Valverde won a Pyrenean stage in 2012. And so on.
Other Jerseys: Tejay (white) and Bardet (combativity) top the list.
Other Grand Tours: Valverde, Aru and Nibali have all won the Vuelta. Nibali has a couple Giro wins as well. J-Rod has... come close a few times.
Aru is a pure climber, and people might say the same about the two Frenchmen, Barguil and Bardet, a/k/a the Bar Bros. Certainly J-Rod in his prime was the world's top pure climber on any given day. [Of course, as I've said in the past, the "pure climber" label is a nice way of saying a guy can't time trial.] Nibali is regarded as a jack of all trades, though at his best he soars with the angels at high altitude. Unfortunately for him, it was only six weeks ago when we last witnessed that, so what he has in the tank is a major question when it comes to the monster climbs that await.
Valverde and Porte are guys who can surprise you in the major climbs. Mollema is a guy whom you'd expect to see up there, except that every so often he isn't. Now 30, Mollema tends to do exceptionally well in the Pyrenees but not the Alps. There are always riders who prefer one set of climbs over the other, given the stylistic differences. This year's course will not be kind to the Pyrenean specialists.
Van Garderen is more of a grinder, who banks on hanging in there day after day as opposed to just blowing dudes away... though his Tour de Suisse campaign was wonderfully aggressive (after his "jour sans" that removed him from overall contention). He also nearly won once on Alpe d'Huez, though again he'd been allowed to break free since he wasn't contesting the GC. Against this elite field, my guess is he'll do well just to hang on. Same for Thomas, who I probably should strike from this list altogether but for the buzz around his Tour last year and the Skybot program which keeps alive the possibility of converting every trackie into a maillot jaune.
And Kreuziger... is a complete wild card. He hasn't ridden a Tour-only program since 2013, when he came in fifth, and the Tinkoff squad, while dedicated to Contador, might change their mind pretty quickly if the 33-year-old champion shows any signs of weakness (which he probably won't). More likely they will ride together, and we will pause to note that they did exactly that in 2013 on the most recent Mont Ventoux stage, finishing together in fifth and sixth on the day.
Time Trialling Ability
Porte is probably the class of this group, amidst a career of time trial successes, including a handful of respectable wins (e.g. Col d'Eze) and a long list of high finishes. Nibali, van Garderen, Valverde, Thomas and Kreuziger also can claim some prowess here. Most or all of them can expect to improve their overall position in the two time trial stages, though none of them is good enough to expect to make up time on, say, Froome.
The real question here is, how many of the other guys eliminate themselves from overall contention against the watch? That's been the flipside of the J-Rod story for as long as we can remember, and at age 37 that's not going to suddenly change. Mollema has also had some disastrous days against the watch, including his last effort at the Tour in 2014, though a year earlier he was just fine. Bardet will struggle to stay close, at least in the first ITT if not the uphill one. Barguil's crono record is thin, and that might be a good thing, because the data we do have isn't pretty.
Aru is probably somewhere in between the poles. A tiny Itali... excuse me, Sardinian in the Tour is always going to be an underdog against the watch, but his record is respectable enough in stages that would have mattered to him.
Mostly this race rewards climbing, so the marginal entries from this list can probably lose all hope. Thomas, I'm looking directly at you. Tejay's past successes have been at Tours with more balance and crono-heaviness than this year's edition, and Porte hasn't shown he can hammer out the massive climbs day after day either. Also toss out Valverde, coming off the Giro, although he usually makes me look foolish when I lose faith in him. The same can be said for Nibali -- this isn't the year to do the double. And anyway the Shark and the Green Bullet are on support duty.
That leaves six guys whom I consider quite interesting. Rodriguez, for all his warts (age, crono), is the kind of guy who would LOVE this course, with its uphill ITT and general climbyness, and anyway the guy won two stages last year. But he's been terrible for much of 2016, raising questions about whether the wheels have come off. Mollema lacks Purito's peak-era quality but is still in his own peak, and should maybe kinda do OK this year? The Alps days are not like your typical Alps turn, and there are Puy-de-Dome, Pyrenean and Provencal stages to give him a chance.
The Bar Bros are not exactly replicas of each other. As exciting as Barguil's climbing may be, he's 23 with a single Tour under his belt, and this year's punishing course won't benefit guys still building their bodies for the rigors of grand tour racing. Bardet, on the other hand, is one year older and two years farther along in his development, with some very convincing results. Yes, he was a cut below Froome and Quintana last year, and his ninth overall probably better reflects where he is than his sixth in the diluted 2014 Tour. But I like the fact that he won a stage in week three, and came back to place fifth at La Toussuire (before conceding time on Alpe d'Huez). He's had an impressive 2016 so far, and even if he can't win the Tour, I feel confident in his ability to move up the ladder a rung or two in terms of quality, and probably GC placing.
Kreuziger, like I said, is a wild card. His 17th in the Tour last year seems dismal until you remember that he did the Giro beforehand. He was fifth in his last all-in Tour, the difficult 2013 race. He can coexist just fine with Contador, since they have Kiserlovski and Majka to be more like domestiques (if Kreuziger is ranked high). In my book he is among the most easily overlooked GC guys at this Tour.
And finally Aru. Astana are going about it the right way, having him do a Giro-Vuelta year before going for it at the Tour. They got one win and a second place out of Aru from that, and a Giro win from Nibali as they switched roles for 2016. Aru is the most highly decorated rider on this list (besides Nibs and Valv) and is exactly the type of cyclist for this course. If he somehow becomes an expert in how to ride the Tour de France as soon as his wheels touch the ground, he can do big things this year.
Verdict: Can "He" Win?
Yes... and no. Yes because you never know how many mishaps can befall the expected leaders. But if the end result is "not many" or even "none," then none of the guys on this list would have any business winning this year. Aru is the most credible threat... and it's his first Tour de France. It just doesn't work that way for anyone outside of the Merckx category. Even Contador had one Tour under his belt before his ascension in 2007.
I don't think you will see any of the 11 riders I focus on in this post on the podium in Paris. Same goes for Breschel. But I do think we will be talking about several of them, a lot, along the way.