The 100th edition of the Tour de France cycling race starts this Saturday and ends in Paris 23 days later after 2115 miles of cycling across France and through two mountain ranges.
Of the 198 riders entered, only a small number have a real shot at winning the race. Most riders are domestiques, helpers who protect the team leader, and not all team leaders have the range of cycling skills needed to win a Grand Tour, a 21-stage race stretching over three weeks.
Two of the strongest contenders for the top of the podium this year are Sky’s Chris Froome and Saxo-Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador. Both are primarily climbers who can ride tie trials; both can lead teams. Equally important, both have skill sets well suited to 2013’s route.
Last year’s route perfectly suited Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, a decent climber and excellent time trailer. That route included three individual time trials, the prologue and a TT stage before the first rest day and another as the final racing stage. Wiggins won both time trials and the General Classification, followed by his team mate Chris Froome. Froome looked to be stronger in the mountains but couldn’t match his team leader’s TT prowess.
Wiggins won’t be back for 2013. He withdrew from the Giro d’Italia in May with a chest infection; two weeks later his team announced that he also had a knee injury, and wouldn’t be ready to defend his Tour victory.
This year’s route seems better suited to Sky’s new leader Chris Froome, with one more mountain stage than in 2012 and one more summit finish, coming in the last racing stage. Even the last time trial suits the Sky rider, as it includes two tall hills.
Froome, who won the Critérium du Dauphiné in early June, showed that his time trialing has improved and his climbing is a strong as ever. Further, he marshaled his Sky team mates to provide perfect support; Froome proved he knows how to lead a team.
The Dauphiné was Froome’s fourth victory of the season; he also won the Tour of Oman, the Critérium International, and the Tour de Romandie. At 28, Froome is at the peak of his power, and 2013 has been the best year of his career; he seems perfectly positioned to add a Tour de France title to his palmarès.
Froome faces plenty of challenges, most notably from 2009 winner Alberto Contador who has returned from suspension and seems to be back on form. His Saxo-Tinkoff team is probably not quite as strong as Sky, but the differences are small, and if “El Pistolero” is on top form, nobody can climb with him.
Contador’s form is questionable, however. The Spanish champion did not win a single stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné, though he did drop back on a couple of climbs to assist team leader Michael Rogers. Still, Contador never showed the explosive repeated attacks which were his climbing trademark.
Contador finished tenth overall; he might have finished a little better than his team leader Michael Rogers, who took sixth, but Contador never looked to be a threat to Froome.
Still, three weeks of training might be exactly what Contador needs to hone his form to perfection; he certainly knows how to prepare for a Grand Tour, having won seven (though he was stripped of three of them for possibly doping.)
There are others in the field who present a threat: BMC brings two such riders, 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans and young American Tejay Van Garderen. Likewise two Garmin-Sharp riders, Daniel Martin and Ryder Hesjedal, must be considered. Katusha has Joaquim Rodriguez, Europcar a pair of potential threats in Pierre Rolland and Thomas Voeckler, and Francais des Jeux’s Thibault Pinot has an outside chance.
Evans is perhaps too old; he hasn’t shown the legs to stick with the best so far this year. He took third in the Giro d’Italia, but finished five minutes down—not a threat. Tejay Van Garderen won the Tour of California in May and took seventh in the Tour de Suisse in June; he looks to be the better option as BMC team leader, but the BMC team simply isn’t as strong as Sky, and perhaps on par with Saxo. This 24-year-old has yet to podium, let alone win a Grand Tour, but he likely will eventually. This could be his year.
2012 Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal had to withdraw from this year’s edition with health problems. He could be ready, or still recovering. Team mate Daniel Martin won the Volta a Catalunya, but he is young (26) and just starting to learn his strength. Good for a stage, not likely for the overall.
Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez is morphing from an ultra-steep climbing specialist to a General Classification rider. No one can match him on the ridiculously steep climbs but he has yet to prove himself as an overall rider who can lead a team on any kind of climb, or triumph in a time trial.
Both Europcar riders are strong stage threats, but for GC they lack both the team and the all-around ability. Thibault Pinot is young (23) and he is fast. He is another rider who surely will win some stages and perhaps some major stage races, but not this year.
Another possible pair: Blanco has been having a solid season and two riders, Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema, have shown the form needed to succeed in a Grand Tour. Gesink has ridden well in Grands Tours, but hasn’t won yet this year. Mollema finished second in the Tour de Suisse and looked good doing it; he is certainly a podium possible.
None of these riders can match Alberto when he is on form, and judging from the first part of the season, Contador cannot match Chris Froome.