The Tour de France is here again—the most-promoted, most widely known bicycle race on the planet.
Winning the Tour de France is one of the highest achievements a cyclist can aspire to, and certainly the win that brings one the greatest amount of fame and prestige.
This year there are only a few riders with a serious chance at winning the Tour—by analysis. As 2014 showed, anything can happen. That year a long-awaited three-way fight between Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, and Vincenzo Nibali turned into an easy win for Nibali as separate accidents sidelined the other two.
Barring a repeat of such carnage, 2016 again features a three-way fight for the overall, or General Classification victory.
Two-time winner Chris Froome, two-time winner Alberto Contador, and two-time runner-up Nairo Quintana are, by the numbers, the prohibitive favorites for the podium places, with Froome most likely to ascend to the top step.
The Tour de France is composed of 21 separate stages—21 days of racing, with two rest days. Despite all the calculations done ahead of time, it is not until 23 days from now that the real winner of the race will be clear. Still, analysis says what it says—and it seems to say Chris Froome is the favorite.
Strong Chance for a Third Win
Team Sky’s Chris Froome has already proved himself capable of winning the Tour de France—twice. All signs seem to say he will repeat again in 2016.
The 31-year-old Kenyan is arguably the strongest rider in the field for the third—possibly fourth—year in a row. Froome won the Tour outright in 2013 and 2015, and was favored to win in 2014, when accidents wiped out the top contenders. One could reasonably suggest that Froome was also stronger than then-Sky team leader Sir Bradley Wiggins when Wiggins won the Tour in 2012 while Froome finished second.
Chris Froome has showed his form this year with wins in the Tour Down Under and the Critérium du Dauphiné, plus a stage win at the Tour de Romandie. Matched against his top Tour rivals in the mountain stages of the Dauphiné, Froome dominated. He has to be considered the most likely overall winner this year, as he has been in each of the past three years.
Team Sky has also been the strongest in the field each of those years.
This year the British squad is somewhat weakened as Froome’s lieutenant Richie Porte has departed Team Sky for Swiss/U.S. squad BMC. Porte felt he was strong enough to win if he had a team supporting him, and knew he would never get as chance with Froome taking the leading role.
Even so, Team Sky looks to be the dominant squad yet again, which dramatically increases Froome’s chances to take the overall win.
Froome faces a strong field of rivals, but none are on his level, in terms of either team or leader.
Nairo Quintana’s Best Chance?
Chief among Froome’s challengers is Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, a 25-year-old Colombian climbing ace who has finished second in the Tour twice, in 2012 and 2015—and in 2015, finished one minute behind Froome, a minute Quintana lost when he missed a break in the peloton on a first-week road stage, not because he couldn’t keep up in the mountains.
Quintana lives in the city of Tunja, Colombia at 9200 feet above sea level; he, as are most Colombian riders, is a climbing specialist, which makes this year’s Tour a perfect fit.
The 2015 route includes an seven mountain stages, uphill time trial, and eight uphill or mountaintop finishes. The route could not have been more perfectly crafted to suit Chris Froome—but it is equally perfect for Nairo Quintana.
2016 started well for Nairo Quintana, with overall wins in the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie.
Quintana faced Froome early in June at the Critérium du Dauphiné, an eight-stage race in France which many riders use as a warm-up for the Tour. Froome won, while Quintana didn’t make the top 20.
However, Quintana contested the five-stage Route du Sud a week later, and won the race; possibly he was not at the peak of his form at the Dauphiné. Quintana has been training in the thin air of his hometown, to better prepare himself for the decisive Alpine stages of this year’s Tour.
One area where Froome has a clear if not huge advantage is in his team mates. With Sergio Henao, Vasil Kiryienka, Mikel Landa, Mikel Nieve, Wouter Poels, and Geraint Thomas on tap to protect him in the mountains, Froome should rarely be isolated, even without Richie Porte.
Quintana has a decent squad behind him, including Alejandro Valverde, Winner Anacona, the Izaguirre brothers, Daniel Moreno and Jesus Herrada. Still, the edge, however slight, goes to Sky.
Contador’s Last Chance?
Many might argue that Chris Froome’s toughest challenge comes from Spain’s Alberto Contador, who rides for Tinkoff-Saxo. Contador is unquestionably the strongest stage racer of the era. Between 2007 and 2012 he won one or two Grands Tours each season (though he was disqualified from three of those races for doping.)
Contador has seven Grand Tour General Classification victories between 2007 and 2015 (plus three more which were disallowed;) only in 2013 did he fail to win a Grand Tour in that span.
However successful he has been, Contador seems to have lost a bit of the snap in his legs in the past few seasons. At age 33, he is entering the final stage of his career; he is still one of the best climbers on the WorldTour, but he no longer has the ability to mount the repeated attacks which broke so many of his opponents in his Grand Tour wins.
Contador announced his presence loudly in the opening uphill time trial of this year’s Dauphiné, opening a wide gap over Froome and the rest of the field—but the Tinkoff rider was not able to match that performance on the longer climbs of the later stages. he finished fifth overall.
This doesn’t mean that the Spanish rider will not be able to match Froome at the Tour. Contador could have used the Dauphiné to hone his competitive edge to its sharpest, while Froome might have peaked early and be lacking during the Tour brutal final week.
Even if Contador is stronger at the Tour than he was at the Dauphiné, he still doesn’t have the team mates to back him up—at least not compared to Team Sky.
Contador has Robert Kiserlovski, Roman Kreuziger, and Rafal Majka to protect him in the mountains—but this same crew could not protect him during the Dauphiné. While these are three tremendously strong riders, the rest of the team is not quite at that level, and are not likely to be there at the decisive moments late in the final mountain stages.
Barely a Chance
There are a number of riders strong enough to contest the podium, or even the overall should something befall the top three, but should Froome, Contador, and Quintana stay healthy, it is unlikely that any would mount a serious challenge for the yellow jersey.
Ag2R’s leader Romain Bardet finished second in the Dauphiné, only 12 seconds behind Chris Froome. He is an exceptional climber, but neither he nor his team can match the top challengers over three weeks.
Richie Porte finished third in the in the Dauphiné, 21 seconds out of first. He showed himself able to stay with Chris Froome when the Sky rider launched an attack which dropped Contador, but could not keep up on later stages. Also Team BMC may be facing some internal tension: while Porte is the team leader, Tejay Van Garderen has aspirations to make a bid for the win. Neither Porte, Van Garderen, nor BMC as a team has yet shown the kind of firepower needed to contest the General Classification.
2014 winner Vincenzo Nibali just won the Giro d’Italia, and has said he wants to focus on the Olympics. He is not likely to be more than a super-domestique for team leader Fabio Aru. Nibali, Tanel Kangert, Jakob Fuglsang, and Paolo Tiralongo are decent riders, but not on the level of Sky.
Etixx-Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilippe has been on a tear this year, winning the Tour of California and Best Young Rider in the l Critérium du Dauphiné, second in La Flèche Wallonne, sixth in the Amstel Gold Race, and eight in the Brabantse Pijl.
Alaphilippe, 24, could challenge for a podium position; more likely he will contest Best Young Rider and finish in the top ten.