(Road Bike Action & AFP; Photos: Bettini)
Cycling’s premier event, the Tour de France, kicks off this Saturday, July 4, and it’s poised to be one for the ages. Here are RBA‘s top 5 riders to watch who will be battling it out for the overall win over the next three weeks…
VINCENZO NIBALI, ASTANA
The reigning champion does not have the same approach to the Tour build-up as some of his rivals. As was the case 12 months ago, Nibali has seemed slightly behind in his preparation compared to some of the other contenders. He finished only 12th at last month’s Criterium du Dauphine as he struggled to keep pace on the high mountain stages. But his daring and ambitious break on rolling terrain on the Dauphine’s sixth stage proved he has the ability to think out of the box and take opportunities when others are expecting a quiet day in the saddle. Perhaps the best contender tactically, he will be looking to the cobbles on the fourth stage to make his mark again.
ALBERTO CONTADOR, TINKOFF-SAXO
The most experienced of the contenders, Contador is aiming for an ambitious Giro d’Italia-Tour de France double. He won well at May’s Giro despite a late push from Italian Fabio Aru. But the last time Contador tried this, in 2011, he came up short at the Tour, finishing just fifth having won the Giro — although he was later stripped of both results as he was banned for two years for failing a doping test. It’s a tough ask to take on the Tour just over a month after finishing the Giro, particularly against rivals whose whole focus has been the ride around France. What’s more, the tough final week of the Tour, when fatigue is likely to hit Contador, could really work against the Spaniard.
CHRIS FROOME, SKY
For many, Froome remains the man to beat as he has consistently shown over the last three years that he is a cut above the rest when on form. He has not managed to repeat his consistent brilliance from 2013, when he won the Tour of Oman, Criterium international, Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine before breezing to Tour de France victory. But even so, he won the Tour of Oman and Tour de Romandie in 2014 and this year triumphed at the Vuelta a Andalucia and Criterium du Dauphine. He may not be as dominant as he was in 2013, and nor is his Sky team, but Froome does scare the competition and when he attacks, people panic.
NAIRO QUINTANA, MOVISTAR
Probably the best climber in the world, this year’s route suits Quintana to a tee. There is just one individual time trial and it’s a mere 13.8km long, which should greatly reduce his time losses there. What’s more, he tends to come on strong in the final week of Grand Tours, right when the majority of mountain stages take place. If Quintana is in contention going into the final week, he will have his rivals worried as the Colombian has the least weight to drag up steep slopes. He proved in winning last year’s Giro d’Italia and coming second to Froome in the 2013 Tour that he has what it takes, even at just 25 years of age, to claim the most sought-after prize in cycling.
TEJAY VAN GARDEREN, BMC
The Montana native, who now calls Colorado home, will be the top American favorite heading into this year’s Tour de France. Van Garderen finished in 5th place back in 2012, and he also won the coveted white jersey as the race’s highest-place young rider. He’s has a string of up-and-down seasons since then, but has always shown plenty of promise. His strength is in the mountains, and he’ll be eager to show that off towards the end of the Tour as the peloton enters the high Alps. He’s also got a fairly strong BMC squad to back him up, which should also help him in the mid-Tour team time trial. And the best news of all for Van Garderen’s fans is that he went nearly toe-to-toe with Chris Froome up a tough summit finish just a few weeks ago in the Criterium du Dauphine.
THIBAUT PINOT, FDJ
France has been crying out for a potential Tour contender for years and now they have several genuine hopes. Jean-Christophe Peraud finished second last year but is already 38 and he did so in a field shorn of some of the best. A better prospect is Pinot, who was third last year. He is just 25 and probably the strongest Frenchman in the mountains, while a modest time-trialist. He showed good form in finishing fourth at the Tour of Switzerland where he won the one serious mountain stage, only to come undone in the final time trial. Should Pinot not be in contention then Romain Bardet, sixth last year, is another star of the future and he too showed great form in a winning a stage — a mirror image of the Tour’s stage 17 — at the Criterium du Dauphine. Final victory might be beyond the French this year, but a podium finish is a realistic goal.