It’s that time again; here’s the lovingly tooled VCSE Tour preview

Tour de France 2015

Why bother shelling out a tenner for 228 pages of official guide when you can get the VCSE lowdown on this years Tour for nothing? 

Last year we had Yorkshire. Everyone said it was going to be good; even me (although I added a typically English caveat; weather permitting). And the sun did shine and it seemed like anyone who had ever shown the slightest interest in riding a bike decided to find a spot by the roadside. I know, I was there. The grandest of Grand Departs has spawned its own three day stage race and made Utrecht’s job of hosting this years edition twice as hard. So why then as a (proud) Brit am I feeling a greater sense of anticipation ahead of this year’s Tour than last?

There might be another British* rider in yellow besides Chris Froome

While a lot of Brit fans were waiting to see who would be backing Froome over the next three weeks here in Essex we were looking to see if ‘our’ World Tour rider was going to France (via Holland). It’s easy to forget that Alex Dowsett’s ‘day job’, when he’s not breaking hour records is riding for Movistar. In the last couple of weeks the more eagle eyed among you might have spotted him on the flatter stages at Dauphine and the Route du Sud providing close protection for Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana. I still suspect Dowsett smarted from his omission from the Movistar squad for last years race that would have passed through some very familiar Essex roads on stage 3. Poor health was cited at the time but other than the obvious home ties last year it was harder to see why he would have been selected. This year is a completely different story. Besides the ‘obvious’ item on his 2015 palmares, Dowsett took overall at the Bayern Rundfahrt and he’s coming off another national TT championship win. The opening stage prologue isn’t quite the quintessential ‘ten’ of the Brit club scene but I think Movistar have picked him to have a go at taking the jersey. It won’t be easy but other than Giant’s Tom Dumoulin I can’t think of another rider that stage 1 couldn’t have been better scripted for.

A wide open green jersey / points competition

ASO have tweaked the points allocation again this year and that should suit the ‘pure’ sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Nacer Bouhanni. The big blonde German elephant in the room though is the missing Marcel Kittel. Is it illness? Lack of form? There have even been suggestions that Kittel has succumbed to the cyclist’s illness; depression. Whatever the reason, the rider that looked set to dominate the bunch gallops is absent and that means that the metaphorical sprinters ‘crown’ is up for grabs. Of course Kittel’s absence doesn’t automatically mean that Cavendish will reclaim the number one spot. There’s as much depth among the fast men as there is in this years GC field.

Let’s start with Alexander Kristoff. I posed the question of who could beat the Katusha rider after he claimed his second monument of his career by winning the Ronde earlier in the season. He’s been kept under wraps in the last few weeks (he didn’t contest his home championships) but you have to think he’s going to be tough to beat as it has felt at times as if all Kristoff has to do is turn up to a race in order to win. Not unlike a Mark Cavendish of old in fact. Cav looks like he’s in good touch too though; he rode an extremely untypical but nevertheless inspired solo effort in last weekends nationals in Lincoln. He looks as if he is peaking at the perfect time and isn’t July a good time to get your mojo back?

Another rider who could lay claim to that is Peter Sagan. A rider who has had to endure a stream of motivational messages that his team owner shares with the wider social media audience and possibly the worst national champs kit of recent years could be forgiven for crumbling under the weight of a $15M salary and expectation in the classics. Sagan took the GC along with bagging a stage win or so at this years Tour of California going head to head with Cavendish and I would expect Sagan to have to take the points where he has the advantage over Cavendish (on primes etc.) if he’s serious about another green jersey.

While it has been enjoyable to see Sagan in a place where he’s feeling like popping wheelies again I think this could be Kristoff’s year. I’m not as sure about the final showcase in Paris though; that one i’m giving to Cav.

Enough already.. what about the GC?

Dowsett in yellow. Kristoff v Cav. Mere aperitif’s to the main course that is this years GC battle. Last year we had Contador v Froome. This year we can add Nairo Quintana to the mix and that’s before we even mention last year’s winner Vincenzo Nibali. I’m sure someone has got the ‘stat’ that says when these four last raced against one another (together). Me? Haven’t a clue, but whenever that was a lot has changed not least that each rider is now a grand tour winner.

If one of these favourites is to be categorised as ‘least likely to succeed’ it’s Nibali. This could well prove to be as much of a pundit’s curse as 2014 though. Other than winning his national championship ahead of last years race (a feat that he’s repeated this year) Nibali hadn’t seemed like he was in any kind of form a year ago. Others will point to Froome and Contador crashing out of the race but Nibali took a canny stage win on stage 2 in Yorkshire and coped better than anyone on the cobbles that will feature again this year. Crucially he’s appeared to have something in reserve, very much riding his own race in the Dauphine. Nibali might surprise us again and if Astana can put as many riders on the front as they did at the Giro it will make life very interesting at the head of the race (and probably on rest day press conferences too).

Which leads us to the (potential) VCSE top 3. Sky announced their squad today and Chris Froome has been provided with a group of riders who should be able to protect him through every eventuality. How well they can protect Froome from himself is something else entirely. Sky’s season rests on the Tour. The team had their best classics season yet (although not without it’s ups and downs) but followed this with a Giro to forget. It’s interesting that Richie Porte has been selected and with everything that Sky have riding on this result I have to think that he’s back to the kind of form that saw him dominate his early season races. Froome needs teammates that he feels sympatico with and its clear that 2015 signing Wout Poels fits into this category. Alongside Poels and Porte, Froome can also call on the services of Leo Konig, Pete Kennaugh, Nico Roche and Geraint Thomas. It’s hard to think of a stronger climbing unit and that’s before you think of the riders that Sky could have picked that would be probable starters in any other team.

If there’s a weak link it’s probably Froome himself. It’s great that he can laugh at himself when presented by a seemingly endless series of ‘Froome looks at his stem’ GIFs but he’s no bike handler. Dave Brailsford will be praying for dry weather when the race goes over the Paris Roubaix cobbles again this year. Froome might have felt short changed initially by the lack of a lengthy TT stage in a Tour that’s celebrating 40 years of the King of the Mountains competition but I think the team have their plan now and Froome will win or lose this Tour in the mountains rather than against the clock.

Nairo Quintana is another (relative) unknown as far as form is concerned. He has spent long periods of this season at home in Columbia but there have been wins to go along with a sense that he’s going to be the rider to watch at this years Tour. At least this year there won’t be the distraction of two leaders on the Movistar squad, although quite what Alejandro Valverde will do in the race is anyone’s guess. But can Quintana go one better than 2013 and win it? It’s a definite maybe from me if only because there’s a potentially more interesting narrative that could emerge in the 2015 Tour.

Alberto Contador is going for the second half of his Giro / Tour ‘double’. My thoughts on the potential for Contador to achieve this have evolved slightly from when I wrote about during the early season desert races. Firstly we can now look at the likelihood of a Contador double through the lens of his Giro victory. He was by turns dominant and riding within himself. At his best counter attacking Fabio Aru on the Mortirolo but vulnerable riding alone on the Colle delle Finestre. The big question for me is whether or not Tinkoff plan to echo their strategy from the Giro of setting a high pace early in the stage and leaving Contador to do his thing solo in the last few km’s. This was a risky device against one team (Astana) and rider (Aru) but it seems like potential suicide against Nibali, Quintana, Froome and their collective teams in France.

Tinkoff have selected many of the same (ageing) riders that rode with Contador in Italy (Basso again?) so unless Yates and De Jongh have some tricks up their sleeves I think Contador is going to have to ride the race of his life to win the Tour and Giro. If Contador can do it I wouldn’t rule out a defence of his 2014 Vuelta title before surprising us all with an early retirement announcement. After all, if you could win all three grand tours in the same year what else is there to do?

VCSE’s GC prediction

Head says Froome or Quintana, Heart says Contador (but Nibali might surprise us all)

Points Jersey 

Kristoff

Other riders / teams to watch

I think that the GC is just too stacked to allow for a follow up French podium. Thibaut Pinot has been in great form and the lack of a TT will positively help him but even his own FDJ team are talking in terms of top ten this time around.

My rider / team to watch at this years race is MTN Qhubeka and in particular climbing protege Louis Meintjes. He’s featured in quite a few breaks in the mountains this year and took MTN’s biggest win of 2015 to date. He’s joined by Dauphine KOM winner Daniel Teklehaimanot and Meintjes could be a contender for a stage win or the young riders jersey.

I’m possibly doing John Degenkolb a disservice by not mentioning him for the green jersey competition. He’s a more versatile rider than Kittel and he will take over the effective number one spot in the Giant team but I don’t think he will have the kick for Paris over Kristoff or Cavendish.

Both Yates brothers ride in this years Tour and on current form you would have to pick Simon as the one to challenge for a top ten place on GC. A firmer top ten pick would be Tejay Van Garderen who would probably be a podium contender in any other field.

VCSE’s pick of the stages 

Tour de France 2015 Route
Tour de France 2015 Route

Stage 4 – Seraing to Cambrai – Tues 7th July

Forget all that stuff about crosswinds on stage 2. Any time lost to splits in the peloton is entirely weather dependent. First it has to blow. Similarly stage 3 that finishes on the Mur de Huy is unlikely to pose too many problems. Stage 4 is arguably just as weather dependent but after last year there will be an extra edge to proceedings for Froome in particular, but also Contador who looked less than comfortable a year ago.

Stage 9 – Vannes to Plumelec – Sun 17th July

The previous days stage finishes with a short but steep climb that might see a second gained or lost here and there but there’s a potential GC shake up in the offing with Sundays TTT. Sky struggled on a similar profile in the Dauphine and Froome’s rivals will be looking to gain a time advantage on a stage that proceeds the first rest day and the long transfer to the Pyrenees.

Stage 12 – Lannemezan to Plateau de Beille – Thurs 16th July

Hard to pick a winner from three Pyrenean mountain stages so i’ll go for day three and a cat 2, double cat 1 and HC summit finish. It’s also the longest of three stages and the peloton will already have tacked the Tourmalet and Aspin the day before. It’s expected that some riders will cope better than others with the change from relatively flat stages as the Tour crosses across northern France to the onset of climbing in week two. The race won’t be decided here but this will be the first GC selection proper (hedging bets the race could be decided in week one; Contador and Froome were both gone by stage 10 in 2014)

Stage 17 – Digne les Bains to Par Loup – Weds 22nd July

Into the Alpes and four stages that will decide the 2015 Tour de France. Riders that took part in the Dauphine will be familiar with the climbs featured on today’s stage. Will this give Froome and Nibali the edge over Contador and Quintana? The following day features this years ‘iconic’ climb as the peloton goes up the almost unreal hairpins of the Lacets de Montvernier.

Stage 19 – Saint Jean de Maurienne to La Toussuire – Fri 24th July 

Famous for Chris Froome’s mini mutiny during the 2012 Tour when he rode away from team leader and then yellow jersey Bradley Wiggins today’s stage has the most climbing km’s in this years Tour. There’s a mixture of new climbs (to the Tour) and ‘classics’ which should set things up nicely for the final day assuming the GC isn’t already in the bag at this point.

Stage 20 – Modane Valfrejus to Alpe d’Huez – Sat 25th July 

A short sharp stage that no longer features the Galibier (the Croix de Fer gets another look in) and no doubt intended to provide a suitable backdrop to decide the GC. If we are still racing on Sunday this could be the most exciting stage of this years Tour. Either way expect to see someone unlikely to trouble the top ten go for glory and win from the break.

Tour map via LeTour.fr 

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