If Conor drew the short straw in having to predict a winner in the entirely unpredictable KOM competition then I was saddled with a much simpler task. The U25 category has a pretty short list of actual contenders every year. That doesn’t mean the result is never surprising just that the number of possible winners is pretty much as short as the real list of contenders for Yellow.
The White Jersey has not always been a great predictor of future winners, the record is a bit more hit and miss than that, you have winners like Lemond, Fignon and Ullrich but also names like Eddy Bouwman, Benoit Salmon and Vlad Karpets. It is very rare though that winners don’t go on to be decent GT contenders at least. The quality of the White contenders also tends to vary from year to year but there is a pretty clear pattern in the last few years: we’re likely to see two U25s in the top 10, one of them on or near the podium. After that the fallout is more varied and timegaps usually pretty huge with the fifth ranked around 40th on GC and 3rd & 4th somewhere in the 30s. On good years with deep fields one or two may be a little higher but the overall picture is the same. We’re looking at two riders who are really competitive and others whose ranking probably depends more on their roles in their respective teams than on their pure ability.
THE BIG FOUR
For this year I think we are looking a four candidates for those two spots. In alphabetical order:
Emanuel Buchmann - Bora-hansgrohe
Interestingly all the four recently rode the Dauphiné so we have them fresh in memory. Buchmann was probably the most impressive there, not least in the progression he has made. Ever since he won German Champs in 2015 he has had a wunderkind label but he still hasn’t gone overboard. He has instead gradually improved to the point where he is ow consistently hanging with or near the best and it’s clear from his TdF appearances that 3 week recovery is already his strength not a weakness. There are fewer standout hype-inducing results than for example Yates has but a white jersey here could change that.
His team role might be his biggest weakness. In the shadow of Sagan he will in the worst case be a slave under the Slovakian victory chariot and best case be left on his own to perform unassisted. Having to work for Majka, should he prove to be as solid as he looked in California and Slovenia, might work either way for Buchmann. He’d have to rely on a very weak field to actually win but lieutenants work can actually carry you pretty high up in the White ranking.
Pierre Latour - Ag2r La Mondiale
Latour is the least proven of my four and also the other candidate to be in a tricky team position as he will no doubt be in the service of Romain Bardet if all goes to plan. He might also be the one of the four who would have preferred more and bigger climbs to really have a chance. I’d say he is the rider most likely to grab some fortuitous time that will springboard him up the rankings and in honesty he’ll probably need something like that to actually win.
Louis Meintjes - UAE Team Emirates
This is the obvious winning candidate after the Dauphiné. With little timetrialing there really is nothing that speaks against him. He has a GT record at this point that shows he is a three week man, the form is there (if he didn’t peak too early), he will have quite adequate support and not that many distractions from his team who will mainly be hunting stages besides helping him. You get the sense that his performances are getting more and more dependable with age too, he has had a tendency to disappear in some races where you thought he’d be great but that might also be because he has been doing big races from quite a young age.
Simon Yates - Orica-Scott
This is not the Yates that won White last year, this is the other one. I think? Anyways he is one of the several Yateses and he’s set to co-captain Orica with Esteban Chaves who looks like he is eligible for the White jersey but really isn’t at all. "Look, it’s all very confusing" as his DS Matt White would say.
A bit of an anonymous Dauphiné seems to have put punters off Yates but that seems a bit premature to me. Perhaps he his simply the rider who has peaked correctly and who was keeping his powder dry in June. If that was the case then he is perhaps an equal or bigger favorite to Meintjes. Always hard to pinpoint the ceiling for the Yates boys and whatever preconceptions we had when they signed with Orica have continuously been turned on their heads to the point where we don’t really know what it is the one or the other can or cannot do. A sixth place in the Vuelta looked like it heralded a lot more so this Tour should be interesting to follow. The biggest danger might be if Chaves turns out to be on some crazy form that he kept hidden in the Dauphiné. If that happens then Simon’s role might change a bit. Orica seems like they would be better served by using the two as a double edged sword though and not hold one back in favor of the other and indeed that is pretty much how they have acted in the past.
Best of the rest
After those four there is a pretty steep dropoff unless something totally unexpected happens. The French have two more youngsters to pin their hopes on, the two TdF debutantes Lilian Calmejane and Guillaume Martin. Both of these feel like massive longshots. Calmejane is so far a different type of rider and doesn’t quite have the level of climbing needed and Martin is still too early in his development be a factor. Martin, who rides for Wanty Groupe Gobert, is perhaps the successor to Fignon "The Professor" in French cycling. A philosophy student who has an atypically intellectual outlook on life for a top cyclist he could see some big results if he finds his grove. Much has been made of Calmejane’s Tour debut, especially since Direct Energie dumped Coquard from their line-up, but the reasonable expectation is that he aims for some god stage results. He hasn’t really looked like a GC guy at any point, his riding style is too aggressive and punchy for that, but he could end up with a decent ranking all the same. Maybe fourth place, an hour and twenty minutes behind the overall winner?
The guy most likely to end up with a strong White jersey placing solely on the back of being a strong domestique is Orica’s Damien Howson. He won’t have many chances for himself but given his development he is going to be a key rider late in the stages for Chaves and Yates and that could translate into a top 5 finish. At this point Howson is really looking like someone we’d like to see free to ride for himself in a Vuelta or Giro but it’s unlikely to happen on Orica, a team with multiple GC contenders that look likely to fill up all three GTs in the coming years.
What about Alexey Lutsenko? Well what about him really. He shouldn’t really be mentioned here in normal times. But he has been Astana’s golden child for so long and at some point he could well live up to the promise. He’s an intriguing guy who sometimes shows glimmers of greatness. I wouldn’t put any money on it but why not?
And then there is Benoot.......
I would probably be admitted to hospital for checkups if I didn’t mention Tiesj Benoot at some point given that I am a registered fanclub member. If it hadn’t been for the Dauphiné I really wouldn’t have though, he just hasn’t struck me as being anywhere near a GC rider at this point but in June he showed some glimmers of it. He will of course mainly be targeting stages along with Wellens, De Gendt and Gallopin but you can’t help suspect that he will be keeping one eye on seeing what he can do in the overall, he feels just curious enough not to let it go completely.