Despite how it may come across in my various articles here at the Café, I am not in fact a negative or a cynical individual. In fact, occasionally, I can find it within my heart of stone to summon up a little optimism, and that is what I am doing just now. I will take a few of the favourites for the Tour de France, and focus entirely on their positive characteristics — why it is possible (probable!) that they will stand on the podium in Paris, clad in yellow and a grin from ear to ear. I’m doing this because, well, these are phenomenal athletes, who if they have a good race, all are capable of winning the damn thing. And there won’t be one rider who doesn’t deserve it. So. On to the riders.
Completely ignoring all the events of the previous week, the obvious first person to go to for this piece is the defending champion, Froome. This is a guy who quite simply knows how to win a Tour de France. He’s backed up by what is easily the best team (Rowe and Castroviejo for the flats, Bernal and Poels for the high mountains, Kwiatkowski and Moscon as utility superdomestiques and Geraint Thomas as a backup, it’s hard to find a weakness in Sky’s setup other than their jerseys), who will excel in the team time-trial. The TTT, in fact, is just one part of a route which cannot be said to hand a disadvantage to Froome. I’m mainly thinking of the first week, in which Froome has proven himself to be a master. Here are the time gaps before the first big mountain stage between Froome and the man who finished second in each of his Tour victories: 0:17 in 2013, 1:59 in 2015, -0:07 in 2016, 1:01 in 2017. Clearly, he is not likely to lose time in the early stages, which, given that this first week is souped up to quite some scale, with the TTT, cobbled stage, Mûr de Bretagne and hilly stage five. It is in fact similar in numerous ways to the 2015 first week, after which Froome had a huge GC advantage, something which he may repeat. As for the mountains, stage eleven looks like the best day for the Froome Statement Attack, if that’s going to happen, with his team able to give him excellent support on the more traditional Alpe stage. The extra week between the Tour and the Giro will also give him hope of completing the fabled double.
I seem to notice a distinct lack of optimism about the chances of the AG2R rider, and I honestly think some is warranted. Last year, he was every bit the equal of Froome on the climbs. There is no reason at all to think his climbing ability has diminished. He wasn’t a world-beater at the Dauphiné, but in fact his performance was better than in 2017. It is more than possible that he will be the guy who takes the initiative in the mountains. He’s got a reasonably strong team to help him with that too. Really, on the stages with any elevation, this is the guy to watch.
Quintana is a prodigiously talented climber — on his day maybe the best in the world. In 2015 I remember him skipping up La Toussuire to try to claw back time on Froome. In 2013 who can forget his final week exploits to shoot up the GC. The Monte Grappa time-trial in 2014. Lagos de Covadonga during his successful Giro. There are times where he has beaten them all, and after he won the Queen Stage of the Tour de Suisse, out came rumours that he is climbing better than he ever has. Not to mention, Movistar’s aggressive strategy could end up benefiting him. Sticking with his team, they have a way of punching above their weight in TTTs, as does Quintana in the individual format.
Ah, Richie Porte. Truly the best Grand Tour talent with the worst Grand Tour record. A fifth place in the 2016 Tour may be his best ever return from a three-week race if he doesn’t finally deliver this time, but if you focus on the positives Porte is the ideal guy for this sort of preview, because logically, he’s full of positives. In the final week of that 2016 Tour, he was as strong or stronger than Froome. On his day, he’s one of the best time-triallists in the world. In last year’s Tour, he showed absolutely no sign of inferiority to Froome until an unfortunate meeting of body and road in the descent of the Mont du Chat. And while it’s tempting to discard Porte because of his historical punctures, crashes and what-have-you, but the guy’s not made of tissue paper. If he is more likely to have an accident that isn’t his fault than anyone else on this list, it is only by an infinitesimally small margin. As for bad days in the mountains, he hasn’t actually had one of those since he moved away from Sky. In short: Porte is a prodigious talent and he has the form to come into this Tour de France and win it. He is not “due” some good luck, but neither is the bad luck he has suffered something which is bound to stick with him. He is a justified second favourite.
Froome’s the favourite for the Tour de France after the Giro double, so clearly that’s not being taken as a huge detriment to victory chances, but I’ll remind you that Dumoulin only lost to Froome by a matter of seconds. Additionally, he hadn’t ridden a Grand Tour since winning the Giro twelve months previously, which will surely mean that he’s at least a little fresher than Froome. The course isn’t too unsuited to him either — of course he’d like a few more kilometres of time-trialling, but what is there suits him. I think the hilly nature of the time-trial will give him even more of an advantage than would a flat test, and let’s not forget that his team are the reigning TTT world champs. The first week and the longer mountain stages should be right up his alley, also.
I’ve always considered Adam Yates to be ever-so-slightly better than his brother. VDS rankings back this up over the last couple of years. So given the heights Simon could rise to in the Giro, it’s only reasonable to look to the skies for what Adam can do in the Tour. After all, he has a
middle step of the podium fourth place and the white jersey under his belt already, along with a reasonable amount of form — his venomous attack on the final stage of the Dauphiné springs to mind. His team, Michelton-Scott, are clearly right behind him too, leaving behind a veritable sprint threat in order to better support the young Brit — expect to see Mikel Nieve providing good support on mountain stage after mountain stage. GreenEDGE’s history in TTTs will stand to Yates, as should the cadre of powerful riders they bring along. Yates is not being talked about enough. He has a genuine chance of winning.
I’ve already said that I like Landa’s chances, even on a team so fire-powered as Movistar. I wasn’t lying. He was one of the top climbers last year, he’s now free to attack and while if I went looking for examples of dominant performances this year, I wouldn’t find too many of them, that does not change that the Basque is rightfully one of the favourites for this race. He is one of the top three climbers on this list and he has shown an ability to put in acceptable time-trial performances. Those skills, especially those on a TT bike, have not been so prevalent this year but I am convinced they will come to the fore in this race.
Over the last year, practically everything I’ve written about Nibali has been some variation of “surely he’s past it by now.” Time and time again, he has proven me wrong. I’m very grateful I didn’t write the Milano-Sanremo preview this year, because I’m pretty sure I’d have unleashed a fair amount of scorn on the idea he’d win the thing. Which would have ended very well for me. Anyway, yes, he comes to the Tour in a uniquely good position to win it, not having ridden his bike around Italy for a competitive month. He has shown in the past he can excel on the cobbles, his time-trial is always better than it is given credit for and he has the tactical nous to navigate the short stages even if he does end up isolated. Not that he should, with a trio of the best superdomestiques in the race in the Izagirre brothers (Ion is nominally better, but Gorka has really come into his own this year) and Domenico Pozzovivo. They should be excellent team mates not only for their skills in the mountains, but also because a leadership challenge from any of them seems fairly unlikely. I’ll remind you also that Nibali had Froome’s number on numerous stages of last year’s Vuelta. It would not take much improvement for the Sicilian to topple him.
Here’s a man who’s excelling with leadership. A crash on stage eleven last year cruelly put him out of the Tour while sitting fifth holding a Dauphiné win in his pocket, and he’s gone from strength to strength this year, netting second place in the Tour de Suisse with a stunningly good time trial, well beating Porte. If he can repeat that, he’s got a very good chance of a high finish.
This is an oddly low position in this list to put last year’s second-placed finisher, the guy who got closer to Froome than anybody in a Tour de France. He has three Grand Tour second places to his name in fact, and probably should have won Quintana’s Giro. If he recreates the time-trialling ability that he had back then, he’ll be a big threat. The ability to stick with Froome on mountains as challenging as the Col d’Izoard at this level is not an ability that has been shown by many cyclists. That Uran possesses it shows that he remains a contender.
Coming up! I go back to my natural habitat and tell you why each of these ten riders will, in fact, not win. So, er, stay tuned for that.