A quick overview of the contenders for the 2011 Tour de France.
Why he wins Contador has only ridden four Tours de France, winning three (2007, 2009 and 2010) and finishing 31st on debut in 2005. In 2008 Contador didn’t ride the Tour but did ride the Giro and the Vuelta - winning both. Few of his contemporaries could imagine pulling off such a feat and many pundits gave him little chance at the time. But when you are the greatest Grand Tour rider of a generation such a prospect holds few fears. Now in 2011, having won the Giro in May, Contador is once again striving to win a second Grand Tour in the same year. The Giro-Vuelta double is one thing but everyone agrees that the Giro-Tour double is a whole other kettle of fish.
Make no mistake - the 2011 Giro was a beast. The final week so brutal that it may even cost race director Angelo Zomegnan his job. Contador definitely had to dig deep to win - most riders had to dig just as deep to finish - but he was never seriously threatened on GC. There has been a lot of speculation as to whether he will have recovered enough to take out the Tour. And even more speculation as to how well his key lieutenants Navarro, Hernandez and to a lesser extent Porte will have recovered.
The thing that makes Contador such a brilliant Grand Tour rider is not just his climbing and his time trialling but his unmatched recuperative powers day-to-day. If any rider has the physiology to recover well enough to be competitive in a second GT it is surely El Pistolero. Equally, Porte was instructed to keep an eye on his watts and never truly exerted himself until the final time-trial. And while Navarro and Hernandez did plenty of work in the mountains in support of their captain, they were never put in a position where they had to bury themselves day-in, day-out. Why? There was no need. Contador was so dominant in this year’s Giro that both Hernandez and Navarro were able to keep much of their powder dry - leaving them with plenty left to burn in July.
Andy Schleck has been dismissive of the strength of the Saxo Bank team - once again demonstrating that tactically he is a goose. He has underestimated just how fresh the Saxo mountain men will be. He has raised the ire of two proud Danes in Sørensen and Sörensen. And he has underestimated the burgeoning brilliance of Richie Porte. For mine, the likely revelation in this year’s Tour will be Porte and the way Riis motivates him to ride out of his skin on behalf of Contador. Porte is that good, that it could well be his efforts that are telling in the end on behalf of his team leader.
Will Contador win? Of course he will. He’s a freak. A once in a generation Grand Tour rider. The rest of the field will be battling for second.
Why he doesn’t Only two things can beat Alberto Contador this year - fatigue and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). If Contador really did burn too many matches at the Giro the final week of this year’s Tour may just find him out. It’s not as brutal as the last week of the Giro but in Tour terms it is very tough. The competition at the Tour will be faster and fitter than anyone he faced at the Giro and if he were to falter, there are several riders with the form and strong enough teams to make him pay. Likewise, if the result at the CAS post Tour goes against him - even if he wins, he loses.
Why he wins The precocious younger of the two Schlecks is a supremely talented climber and has at his disposal an absolute juggernaut of a team. His brother Fränk plus Cancellara, Posthuma, Gerdemann, Monfort, Fuglsang and the two old hard-heads Jens Voigt and Stuey O’Grady. If he can’t win with these guys at his disposal he never will - especially given the question mark over Contador’s fitness post-Giro.
Schleck has twice finished second in the Tour, last year missing the top spot on the podium by only 39 seconds. This year he has bet everything on the Tour and in the process has kept any semblance of form well and truly hidden. Other than his 3rd place in Liège–Bastogne–Liège where he was steamrollered by the brilliant Gilbert, his form has been somewhat bewildering. He was appalling at the Tour of California and not much better at the Tour de Suisse but given the massive investment made in him by Team Leopard Trek, surely he and Brian Nygaard must have some secret plan that will have him on form come the Grand Depart.
Schleck’s job is pretty simple really. Stay out of trouble during the early stages and concentrate on finding his rhythm ahead of Stage 12 when the fireworks begin with the stage to Luz-Ardiden. I expect to see the Leopard Trek big boys have a crack on Stages 3, 5 and 6 when there is some chance of the crosswinds blowing and potentially putting the allegedly under-gunned Saxo Bank team of Contador under pressure. If the echelons form it will be the likes of Leopard, Sky and Rabobank who are best credentialed to make some hay.
Just like last year, Schleck must take time out of Contador in the mountains if he is to prevail - and that is no easy task. He must attack early and attack often. If he leaves it all until Alp d’Huez on Stage 19 he will have left it too late. And if he arrives at Stage 20 less than a minute ahead of Contador, El Pistolero will absolutely smoke him in the Time Trial. Game over. Déjà vu all over again.
Why he doesn’t Brian Nygaard is no Bjarne Riis; and Andy Schleck is no Alberto Contador. Riis knows Schleck better than anyone and he will be more than a little motivated to see Schleck brought undone. Riis will relish the opportunity for payback after the carnage wrought upon his Team by the deserters to Leopard Trek and he will not hesitate to turn the screws when he sees his former charge under pressure.
The other big problem for Schleck is his lack of tactical smarts. The way he and brother Frank were completely outthought and out ridden by Gilbert at Liège–Bastogne–Liège was just plain embarrassing. And Leopard Trek got it wrong in a bunch of other races including Paris-Roubaix. If Contador is El Pistolero, then Andy Schleck is Captain Feathersword. He tried to tickle Philippe Gilbert into submission in the Spring and failed miserably. Contador in July will be equally unmoved.
Why he wins The evergreen Australian has been in sensational form all year and has been without a doubt the best performed of all the genuine Tour contenders in 2011. His win in the overall at Tirreno–Adriatico was made even more special by his aggressive, bustling, brilliant win on Stage 6. Equally, the measured, mature, commanding way he went about wrapping up the overall win in the Tour de Romandie was exactly the kind of performance all of his fans will be hoping for in July.
Evans has at his disposal for the first time in 2011 three key ingredients that should make all the difference to his chances. Firstly, he has not just a decent team but a really well balanced team of genuine quality. Some excellent climbers, some big diesels for the flat and the TTT and a captain on the road who is riding his 16th Tour. Secondly, he has a maturity and a confidence born out of his time as World Champion that has finally allowed him to become the team leader he was always capable of being. Finally, he has had exactly the kind of preparation that he wanted - limited, quality racing with no Giro and no undue pressure from his team.
One of the best things going for Evans in this year’s Tour is that once again the Schlecks will underestimate the Australian. Andy’s ego is so large and he has been so constantly dismissive of Cadel’s chances that this may just present an opportunity or two for Cadel to exploit. Yes - another tactical mis-step by Captain Feathersword. In previous Tours, his opponents could count on Evans losing chunks of time in the TTT or being isolated in the mountains - that will not happen this year. Evans will be able to preserve precious energy in the same way his opponents have been able to in previous years and when the opportunity presents itself he’ll attack with the same panache he showed in Mendrisio - then seal the deal in the final time trial.
Why he doesn’t It’s a cruel thing for an athlete to have to recognise that as good as he is, as good as he will ever be, there is another athlete that is better. In the case of Cadel, that other athlete is Alberto Contador. Just like Poulidor was the eternal second and was always denied by Anquetil, Evans is once again likely to be denied by the best Grand Tour rider in a generation.
Why he wins At the start of the year it appeared that Ivan Basso was the man most likely. He was a rider redeemed with an excellently taken win at the 2010 Giro and despite a disappointing 32nd at the Tour, his plan to focus solely on the Tour de France in 2011 was well received by fans. Basso’s early season form was tidy enough - 1st at the GP di Lugano, 4th Overall at Tirreno–Adriatico, and 7th Overall at the Volta a Catalunya - and everything seemed on track for him to be a dominant force in July. Here was a rider with the pedigree to be the first real threat to Contador in a Grand Tour and cycling fans were licking their lips at the prospect.
So can he win? Yes. But a crash in training has cast a shadow over both his preparation and his chances after he fell heavily during a training camp at Mount Etna in May. He resumed racing at the Critérium du Dauphiné where he lost chunks of time to the other Tour de France contenders on nearly every stage. The bookies seem less convinced of his chances now than they did pre-crash but they would be making a big mistake to discount his chances entirely. Why? Because you can’t discount class. Basso is a rider that has finished 2nd to Armstrong in a Tour and ahead of Ullrich. Basso is a rider that can crush rivals on a climb. Not dance away from them like a Contador or a Schleck; but actually grind them into the road through riding at an infernal, uncompromising pace kilometre after kilometre.
Also in Basso’s favour is the strength of his team. Liquigas are always one of the best performers in the TTT and there is a chance that the Italian may take some time on some of his rivals. Equally in his favour is that there is just the one individual time trial in the 2011 edition (not his strongest suit) and this comes after the best part of a week of some truly epic climbing. Basso may be underdone. His preparation may not have been ideal. But in a bike race tough as the Tour, class will always out. And Basso has class in spades.
Why he doesn’t If Basso had the same team at his disposal as he did at last year’s Giro he would be a massive threat. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t. Nibali is not riding and Kreuziger is now a rival at Astana. Liquigas are light on in the climbing department at this year’s Tour and Sylvester Szmyd is really Basso’s only true mountain lieutenant. In a climber’s Tour like this edition, that is a major disadvantage. Then there is the big question mark over his condition. His preparation has been far from ideal - the only thing in his favour is that he is a notorious slow starter who always grows stronger as the race grows longer. Under normal circumstances his physiology is ideally suited to the tough, climbing final week of this year’s Tour. Unfortunately for Basso, his misadventure on Mt Etna in May could ultimately be the thing that cruels his chances.
Robert Gesink This super climbing talent from the Netherlands is just about every pundit’s smokey for this year’s Tour. A real podium chance and a genuine outside chance for the win, Gesink has an excellent team at his disposal. The 2011 Tour is ideally suited to a rider of Gesink’s capabilities. And with Alp d’Huez included in this year’s parcours, expect a brazillion orange clad Dutchys to be on hand to cheer him to victory atop the fabled finish to Stage 19. Gesink is a rider for the future and maybe, just maybe, the future starts this July.
Brad Wiggins Wiggins has had a text book preparation for this year’s Tour. 3rd Overall at Paris–Nice, 1st Overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and then 1st at the British National Champs. The Brit is a brilliant rider when everything goes right. In 2009, everything went right at the Tour and he finished 4th. Last year, lots went wrong and he finished 24th. Wiggins’ plan for 2011 will be to use his finely tuned engine to measure out the climbs of the final week and to time trial his way up the slopes and onto the podium. The big risk is if he tries to attack on the climbs himself or gets suckered into trying to respond to the attacks of the likes of Contador or Schleck. If he does, in all likelihood he blows up and loses time. No podium for Wiggo and he’ll be lucky to finish top 10. If on the other hand he sticks to his game plan and only marks the moves of riders like Van Den Broeck, Danielson or Vino, he stands a chance of finishing in the top 5. His team are good enough to get him into contention. The big question is whether Wiggins is good enough to pay a dividend on all their hard work.
Jurgen Van Den Broeck Fifth place last year, Van Den Broeck looks unlikely to do better than that this year. As in previous years, Omega Pharma-Lotto are far from looking like a team capable of supporting a GC contender all the way to the top step of the podium - something Cadel Evans knows only too well. The Lotto squad are a real mixed bag this year - with the brilliance of Gilbert (who should all but dominate the first week), the ambitions of Greipel (who finally gets his cherished start at the Tour after years playing second banana to Cav) and the usual collection of Belgians who won’t be much use at all to Van Den Broeck in the mountains. Then there is the TTT. Oh dear.
Samuel Sánchez Sammy Sánchez was somewhat of a surprise with his 4th place last year. Make no mistake, he’s a super talent. And he’s more than capable of winning on all kinds of terrain. He’ll have super support in the mountains but there are two significant chinks in the armour of the likeable Spaniard this year. The TTT will do him no favours. And there is every chance he and his slightly built Basque brothers may fall foul of the echelons that could form along the coast in the first week. He’ll make up time in the final week through his climbing and even more with his daredevil descending. Top 5 a distinct possibility once again. Top step of the podium unlikely.
Horner, Kloden and Leipheimer The veteran trio may just surprise us all at this year’s Tour. Horner was sensational at the Tour of California and Leipheimer wasn’t far behind. Excitingly for Chris Horner, he’ll be given the opportunity to have a real crack at the overall - an entirely appropriate reward for his excellent 10th at last year’s race. Kloden has been in his best form for years. 1st Overall at the Tour of the Basque Country, 2nd Overall at Paris–Nice and with a couple of ITT victories as well, Kloden is in the kind of form that could see him on the podium at the Tour for the third time. Leipheimer has promised much at the Tour but has never really delivered - his best result was 3rd behind Contador and Evans in 2007. With Brajkovic also one of Radioshack’s four-pronged assault on this year’s Tour, I get the sense that Levi may end up cast in a more tactical role by Bruyneel, especially in the final week. What does that mean for Levi? Top 10 if he’s lucky.