Richard Browne gives us the benefit of his ample expertise to look forward through the next 3 weeks of Tour de France action
This weekend saw the start of the 99th edition of the biggest event in the cycling calendar. This year we have the Olympic cycling events as well, but as I prefer watching cyclists go up mountains rather than go round a velodrome, the next three weeks’ jaunt around France is the one grabbing my attention and posing all the questions.
Who will win? Can someone outsprint Mark Cavendish? Who will fall off their bike most spectacularly? Will we have a drug-free Tour at last?
The French paper L’Equipe has already set the ball rolling on the last of those questions, sniffing their EPO-trained noses in the direction of French team Europcar. More to come on that one, we think.
The race itself? Let’s get down to business.
Wiggins in it to win it
Bradley Wiggins is the form rider going into this year’s Tour, no question. He has won most of the competitions he has entered, namely the Paris-Nice race, Tour of Romandy and the Criterium du Dauphiné. Ask any road cycling fan and they’ll tell you those are no Mickey-Mouse contests.
His team, Sky, are also developing nicely. Able and experienced support comes in the shape of Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Bernhard Eisel among others, who will look to protect Wiggins in the transitional stages and propel him to the heights in the mountains.
Furthermore, the circumstances are in his favour this year. There are the usual tricky hilly stages and life-sapping mountain climbs to navigate, but there are also three time trials, in the Prologue tomorrow, then Stage 9 and Stage 19. Wiggins is one of the best against the clock, and that should allow him to put time into his less able rivals in that discipline. He is also helped by Andy Schleck, who tends to finish first or second in le Tour, having clumsily fractured his pelvis and so missing out on the event. He, likely more than anyone, would have threatened Wiggins in the high mountains, so his absence is no bad thing for the Brit.
So what could possibly go wrong? Wiggins is in great form, his team looks good, the course suits his all-round abilities and he is injury-free. Ah, injuries. He was taken out of last year’s race by a broken collarbone. The same could happen again, as no amount of training or teamwork can guarantee a crippling fall will not happen. One second you’re in the yellow jersey, the next you wake up in an ambulance.
The race is there for Wiggins to win and thus become the first British rider to achieve that honour. But he’s a British athlete, and that means something is bound to go pear-shaped.
Up to now I have not even mentioned the 2011 Tour winner, Australian Cadel Evans. He won the race thanks to a mixture of sensible riding for the most part and determined climbing and devastating time trialling when it mattered.
Since then, however, he has become a father and his racing form has dipped somewhat. Besides, he is now 35 and age does eventually get everyone. Just ask Lance Armstrong.
He mustn’t be ruled out though. The three time trials suit him just as much as they do Wiggins and he is as good if not better on the climbs than the Englishman.
Evans can also count on Philippe Gilbert and George Hincapie as able lieutenants in his team (BMC), so Wiggins can’t rely on his rival being isolated easily.
Wiggins, on form, is rightly the favourite. But Evans remains dangerous and, if he is not shaken off by the third week of riding, Wiggins will find that that is just when the Australian tends to come good.
Best of the Rest?
With the outlook of the course being as it is, Wiggins and Evans are likely to be the main men. That is not to say that there aren’t a good few talented riders aiming to intrude on their head-to-head battle.
Frank Schleck of Luxembourg has the opportunity to step out of his brother Andy’s shadow and have a real crack at the yellow jersey. He is one of the best climbers in the bunch and has more than enough experience of navigating the Tour’s perils.
Could he win it? Probably not. Without climbing buddy Andy around, it will be down to him alone to attack on the mountains and he’ll need to do something special to see off his rivals there. Besides, his time trialling is still way off the level of Wiggins, Evans and other contenders.
Jurgen Van den Broeck and Vincenzo Nibali are both men in good form and, barring injuries or freakishly bad performances, are likely to be at the top end of the standings when the peloton rolls into Paris. Van den Broeck is scarily consistent without being explosive, while Nibali has the all-round ability to worry his rivals.
Finally, what of the new, young French hope Pierre Rolland? Last year he won at the summit of the famous Alpe d’Huez to send the French press into raptures and picked up the white jersey for best young rider in the process.
Rolland has not exactly sparkled in races so far in 2012, but there’s nothing like a Tour de France to inspire riders from, well, France. Teammate Thomas Voeckler has been exceptional (if also a plucky loser) in past Tours, so perhaps – assuming Europcar don’t get done for doping – Rolland can step into his shoes and perform magnificently before cracking in the final week.
To finish, a quick look at sprint sensation Mark Cavendish’s bid to retain the green jersey for sprinters that he won last year. Over the last few years he has been largely untouchable when stages come down to a dramatic bunch sprint. That may not be the case this year, however.
One, Cavendish has lost some weight. That might not sound like a bad thing, but muscling your way to the front is a key part of sprinting and a few pounds either way can be crucial. Being lighter may give him greater stamina for the longer and bumpier stages though.
Two, his team. Sky’s primary goal in France is to deliver Wiggins into yellow. If they can get Cavendish into green as well, fab, but there’s no doubt the overall classification is the main target. Cavendish has previously had clockwork sprint trains deliver him to his launch pad, but Sky are going to devote more men to looking after Wiggins, so Cavendish will have to be more inventive.
Three, the Olympics. Cavendish has made no secret that his own main goal this year is winning gold in the London road race, a mere week after le Tour finishes. Will he be saving up some of his strength, or lose some focus in favour of his Olympic dream?
Should the Manxman not be at his brilliant best, his old rival (and former teammate) Andre Greipel is a decent bet to take his sprinting crown, as is Philippe Gilbert. Then there are the emerging talents of Marcel Kittel and Peter Sagan. All in all, the tussle for the green jersey is shaping up to be as exciting as that for yellow.
That’s quite enough by way of preview. Should the Saint Sport Editor find it in himself to tolerate more Tour ramblings, I’ll be back with a round-up of the first week of racing. (We’ll see. Ed.)