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The Battle for Yellow

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Who's going to win the year's best cobble-free race?

Le Tour de France 2016 - Stage Twenty One Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

As you’d expect in the build-up to the Tour, there’s lots to read about and listen to hear on the Podium Café. We’ve had a first podcast in which we think about the parcours at some length (we’re not fans) and start to look at the contenders - there'll be another one. Chris has already covered the green jersey event. I’m not saying his column was wrong, but he’s taking a holiday, which is probably for the best. Oh, and you can think about the implications of the Dauphine along with Conor. Now it is my turn to have a look at the leading contenders for overall victory.

Rider – Chris Froome

What do the bookies say? – 6/4 favourite

What’s he done lately? – Not much this year. In fact, he’s winless in world tour races, with a fourth in the Dauphine his best overall performance.

What’s he done in GTs? – Since the 2011 Vuelta, he’s finished 8 grand tours, in 2nd, 2nd, 4th, 1st , 2nd, 1st, 1st and 2nd. So that’s pretty good. Unless you think narrow failures to win the Vuelta outweigh victory in three of the last four Tours, that is.

How’s the team support? – Stellar. As ever, TeamSky’s Tour squad is enviable in quality, depth, and dedication to the leader. Even if they're killing cycling, you have to admire the way they do it.

What do the podcafsters think? – We don’t know, really. It isn’t a perfect parcours for him, but he’s demonstrated that he can win on anything. The question remains whether he can return to the form that he’s been in for previous wins – we haven’t seen it yet and we’re a little worried.

Verdict – I think he’ll be back to his best in July, and I think that’ll be good enough. But I’m not confident.

Rider – Richie Porte

What do the bookies say? – 2/1 second favourite

What’s he done lately? – He’s had a spectacular 2017, highlighted by wins Down Under and in Romandie, and a near-win in the Dauphine, as well as stage wins on road and TT stages.

What’s he done in GTs? – This is murkier. Last year’s 5th in the Tour was just his second top-20 GT finish, following his breakthrough 7th in the Giro way back in 2010.

How’s the team support? – Good enough, probably. Nicolas Roche strengthens last year’s team. He won’t have a train like Froome’s, but he won’t be expecting one, and can ride off the other bigs. His rouleurs for the flat are as strong, if not stronger, than Froome’s, something that’ll be useful in the first week.

What do the podcafsters think? – I’ve written a long piece on Porte, and concluded that he probably isn’t quite there yet. After the podcafst, I’d say I’m less optimistic than the others about his ability to climb with the best in the world.

Verdict – I said in my last piece I’m intrigued. I still am. I just don’t know what to think about Richie Porte. He is probably the second-strongest rider in the race but I wouldn’t be surprised if he won, or was beaten off the podium.

Rider – Nairo Quintana

What do the bookies say? – 7/1, the third and final guy at a single-figure price

What’s he done lately? – Failed to win the Giro, which he was expected to dominate. Finished a well-beaten second behind Tom Dumoulin, having previously won Tirenno-Adriatico.

What’s he done in GTs? – Second only to Froome in recent years, his record includes wins in the 2014 Giro and 2016 Vuelta, with five other top-5 finishes, including three Tour podiums.

How’s the team support? – Movistar have the only mountain team that can rival Sky’s, but there’s a question over Valverde’s dedication to his nominal leader. Depending on who makes the final nine, they may lack support on the flat stages.

What do the podcafsters think? – We worry about his ability to bounce back after a challenging Giro, and would have him at a longer price if we were bookies. Still, his climbing ability is clear and he’s in with a chance.

Verdict – Probably hasn’t had long enough since he stood on the second step in Milan. A podium possibility.

Rider – Alberto Contador

What do the bookies say? – 16/1

What’s he done lately? – Three consecutive GC 2nds in World Tour races (Paris-Nice, Catalunya, Pais Vasco) before a very disappointing 11th in the Dauphine?

What’s he done in GTs? – He’s won seven of ‘em, including two Tours. His last win was the 2015 Giro and since then, no podiums.

How’s the team support? – Mollema is a more than useful lieutenant and he’ll have some help, but with Degenkolb also needing support this won’t be as strong a unit as the others.

What do the podcafsters think? – Truth be told, we didn’t think he was worthy of too much attention, which is telling in itself. It is probably too soon to rule Contador out entirely… but the ruling out process can start now.

Verdict – Best days are behind him and he’ll struggle to compete here.

Rider – Jakob Fuglsang

What do the bookies say? – 18/1. Which is funny, really.

What’s he done lately? – He’s won the Dauphine, to the surprise of many, after a 2017 that until then was solid rather than spectacular.

What’s he done in GTs? – 7th in the 2013 Tour is his only top 10.

How’s the team support? – There’ll be a half-decent Astana team turning up, but I don’t think they’ll be supporting Jakob.

What do the podcafsters think? – We think he’s had his moment, and should remember the Dauphine win fondly.

Verdict – I feel like I’m being mean about Fuglsang. He’s a good rider and seems a likable bloke, but he’s not the fifth-likeliest winner of the Tour. Taking 18/1 is the definition of buying at the top of the market.

Rider – Alejandro Valverde

What do the bookies say? – 20/1

What’s he done lately? – Utterly dominant in the Ardennes, again, winning his fifth Fleche and fourth Liege. Also won Pais Vasco, Catalunya and Ruta del Sol. A brilliant season.

What’s he done in GTs? – His sole win was in the 2009 Vuelta, but he has 11 other top five finishes. No, that isn’t a typo.

How’s the team support? – See Quintana. Piti isn’t supposed to be the team leader, but the team is decent. In any case, he isn’t a man who needs a lot of help.

What do the podcafsters think? – Chris talked us into his chances. Given the parcours, his form this year, and his record of success, it is hard to imagine him finishing outside the top five. Oh, and we said that we don’t like him.

Verdict – Ugh. He’s going to do well, isn’t he?

Rider – Adam Yates

What do the bookies say? – 20/1

What’s he done lately? – (Furious checking of which Yates is which)… he’s been solid without being brilliant, highlighted by a second in Romandie. Dropped a little too easily for my liking in the Dauphine.

What’s he done in GTs? – He’s only young, but rode well in last year’s Vuelta to grab the young rider’s prize and 6th overall, plus a stage.

How’s the team support? – A lot depends on the form of Chaves, who if fit would fancy his own chances. Kreuziger’s engine will assist and the overall team is good enough.

What do the podcafsters think? – I suddenly and inexplicably decided he was too old to win the young rider’s competition, but he’s got a good chance in that. We don’t particularly rate him for the overall.

Verdict – Would be good for him to show he’s a potential winner, particularly given Orica’s enviable range of young-GCers. For this year, stages and white are more realistic than a podium.

Rider – Roman Bardet

What do the bookies say? – 25/1

What’s he done lately? – Would have hoped for a brighter start to 2017, with 6th in both Liege and the Dauphine the highlight to date.

What’s he done in GTs? – was 2nd, admittedly at some distance, in last year’s Tour. He’s only completed four GTs, all Tours, and all top-20s.

How’s the team support? – As I keep saying with AG2R this year, better than you’d think. Latour and Frank are more than capable climbing lieutenants and Naesen is one of several strongmen for the flat.

What do the podcafsters think? – We think he’s probably not riding well enough to repeat last year’s performance.

Verdict – He’ll enjoy the steep descents but the parcours isn’t ideal and even with fewer TT kms than usual, he’s going to struggle to repeat last year’s performance.

Rider – Fabio Aru

What do the bookies say? – 33/1

What’s he done lately? – Returned from a nasty knee injury picked up in training to finish an eye-catching fifth in the Dauphine. Before that, was prepping for the Giro and hadn’t picked up any wins of note.

What’s he done in GTs? – At 26, he’s coming into his peak and he’s doing it with some great results behind him. His win in the 2015 Vuelta is the highlight of four top fives. Needs to improve on last year’s disappointing Tour (13th).

How’s the team support? – It is Fuglsang, probably working for him, and a few decent climbers. Good enough, if they can avoid a leadership soap opera.

What do the podcafsters think? – I’m still driving the Aru bandwagon, but I think I might just get Chris and Conor aboard. Maybe.

Verdict – Needs to salvage his season and looks to be climbing well enough to do so. Not an ideal parcours and his fitness for a three-week race remains a question. Still, his climbing should get him into the top five.

Others worth thinking about:

Louis Meintjes – with Yates, the pick of the white jersey contenders. Seems to be close to the best, but rarely stays in the truly elite selections. Lower top-10 likely.

Johan Esteben Chaves – Disappointing 2017 (injuries) for the GC find of 2016, but if he’s healthy can co-lead Orica with Yates.

Rafal Majka - Leads his team (in GC terms) and is coming nicely into form with 2nd in California and a win in Slovenia. He's going to enjoy the parcours and I would say I'm sweeter on his chances than most are. Top 10.

Dan Martin – Conor thinks he can make a Tour podium. I don’t. Still, he’s got a parcours to suit, is climbing beautifully, and went well in the Dauphine. Just needs to put it together for the full three weeks. Could crack the top five, which would be a first for Birmingham’s finest.

Ion Izagirre – You know who this peculiar parcours suits? This guy. Has looked good in the two Swiss week-long races and in the Ardennes, and now leading for the first first time, could nick a top ten and should certainly improve on his best GC performance (27th in the 2015 Giro).

Robert Gesink, Sergio Henao, Mikel Nieve and Warren Barguil are among the names I didn’t mention that might sneak a top 10.

Podium verdict:

Despite concerns over his form, I think we’ll see Froome, backed by a strong and loyal team, stamp his authority on this race and make it third consecutive victory. If he’s beaten, I think it’ll be bad luck rather than a competitor out-performing him. Of the remainder, I have Porte to finish second and Valverde third. I’d like it to be Aru, but I think that Valverde is simply going to be too strong.

Just for fun top 10 (no Bardet or Contador!):

  1. Froome
  2. Porte
  3. Valverde
  4. Aru
  5. Martin
  6. Majka
  7. Izagirre
  8. Yates
  9. Quintana
  10. Meintjes