Friday, June 29, 2012

Tour de France 2012 - The Favorites

The 99th edition of the Tour de France starts out Saturday in Liege with a 6,4 km prologue. A perfect start for the overall favorite, Bradley Wiggins. No one can argue that Wiggins is among the top favorites for the yellow jersey in Paris, probably even the biggest favorite of them all. With just over 100 km of time trialing it’s set to be a fight between the best against the clock and so far this year Bradley Wiggins has shown to be the best.

The question to ask is:
Can Wiggins minimize the time loss to the other favorites in the few mountain stages and win it back in the time trials?” - My answer is Yes.

After he crashed on stage 7 and withdrew last year, everything has been put on to win the Tour this time. Team Sky know they will be strongest team and thereby have everybody else looking at them to control the race. To cope with the big task they have been preparing the riders and trying to control and race for yellow in every stage race so far this year. In Algarve they won with Richie Porte after a tremendous work from the whole team (including Bradley Wiggins working hard in front to set up Porte’s attack - now he can count on Porte to do the same for him in the Tour), in Paris-Nice they controlled the race from the very first day and won with Bradley Wiggins. Same thing happened in Tour de Romandie and latest in Criterium du Dauphine where Team Sky murdered all competition with four riders in Top10 – three of these in the Top4!

So despite never been defending the yellow jersey in the Tour before, Team Sky sure have experience in controlling a stage race and winning the overall classification. Another important thing to remember is that in all of the stages races Bradley Wiggins has taking part this year he has shown to be one of the strongest riders in the uphill section too. It’s true that he build his wins on the time trials, but it’s not like they can just drop him like that when the road goes uphill. In this Tour de France there are only three stages with a mountain top finish and with guys like Rogers, Porte and Froome (all capable of doing Top10 themselves) to set the pace, the pure climbers really have to come up with a something special in order to ruin Bradley Wiggins’ yellow dreams.

The way I see it only a few riders will be able to threaten Bradley Wiggins in the overall classification. Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov. Evans finally won his first Tour last year thanks to his strong time trial skills (he was actually only seven seconds from beating Tony Martin in the final time trial!) and with a course like this year’s, Cadel Evans will never get a better chance of taking another overall victory. Last year he won Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour de Romandie before he ended second in Criterium du Dauphine (see the similarities to Wiggins’ winning pattern this season?) but this year Evans has been struggling to find the right pace. In Tirreno he ended 32th overall and in Romandie 29th. It wasn’t until Dauphine we saw what Cadel Evans is capable of this year when he took 3rd place after the Sky duo Wiggins and Rogers. Evans says that he feels ready but looking results I have my doubts. Hopefully he will be able to put in a good fight but he really needs to bring his A-game to the time trials to keep up with Wiggins.

Same goes for Denis Menchov. The Tour de France is the sole purpose of Menchov’s 2012-season and therefore everything has been set up around the Tour. Menchov signed with Katusha before this season only to focus on winning the Tour (the last of the three GTs he hasn’t won yet) and while his results - or lack of - haven’t been anywhere nearly as good as his main competitors’ you must not count out the Silent Russian Assassin. Denis Menchov knows how to build up towards the Grand Tours and he rarely shows himself before it really counts. Also being representing his home country in the colors of Katusha sure will boost Menchov’s morale quite a bit:

The Tour is my first big stage race with the team of my country, so I´ll give my best in order to win. It´s a great responsibility that gives me high motivations. It's the only Grand Tour I haven't won and it's no secret that this year it has been my main goal”.

Another thing to favor Denis Menchov is his strong time trial skills. As shown numerous times before Menchov is capable of clocking in a great time in the long time trials in the big stage races. Just take a look at these recent results.

Giro d’Italia 2009 - Menchov wins overall and wins the 60,6 km time trial.
Tour de France 2010 - Menchov ends 3rd overall and take 11th place on the final 52 km time trial after the wind changed. He beat the rest of the GC-favorites (including Contador) with more than 2 minutes that day.
Vuelta España 2010 - Menchov takes second place on the final 46 km time trial. Beating Cancellara and Gustav Erik Larsson with 20 and 40 seconds.
Vuelta España 2011 – Menchov ends 5th overall and ends 11th on the 47 km time trial, despite a crash a the earlier stages. He lost around 1 min to Bradley Wiggins that day.

If Denis Menchov arrive to the Tour in his top condition and he stays out of trouble the first week he could very  well end up winning the whole thing as I see him a bit stronger in the mountains than Bradley Wiggins.

Wiggins, Evans & Menchov. These riders are the only ones I have put down as actual “winner candidates” for the Tour. For what concerns the “podium candidates” my paper shows the following names:

Jurgen Van den Broeck
Due to the many kilometers against the clock this year, Jurgen Van den Broeck has been training hard to improve his time trial skills and so far it looks like it has been working. He has never been really bad at it, but when the distance got over 40 km the time gap to the best was around 2½ minutes. Too much if you want to win the Tour. This year the gap to his main competitors has been minimized though- significantly!

In Volta ao Algarve he only lost 28 seconds to Bradley Wiggins on a 25,8 km course and in Criterium du Dauphine the gap was just around 2 mins on the long 53 km time trial. Beating specialists like Edvald Boasson Hagen, Lieuwe Westra and Richie Porte. Actually Jurgen Van den Broeck was only 29 seconds slower than Cadel Evans on that course. Last year Van den Broeck was one of the best riders in the mountains, never afraid of attacking. This year he has been focusing 100% on the Tour but still he showed in Vuelta al Pais Vasco and latest in Dauphine that he has no problems following the best uphill. I see him as a solid Top5 rider with a chance of ending on the podium if it goes his way.

Vincenzo Nibali
Nibali has already won the Vuelta España and ended on the podium in the Giro d’Italia twice (3rd helping team mate Ivan Basso to win it and 2nd last year after Contador’s suspension) – of course he is a contender for the Tour de France podium as well. So far this year his best result (in a stage race) is winning Tirreno-Adriatico where he attack on the hard mountain stage to Prati di Tivo and won solo. He decided to skip the Giro d’Italia (even with a good chance of winning the race) to put all his focus on the Tour de France and because of that, he is a guy to take serious. Not many Italians give away the chance of winning the Giro in order to reach for podium in the Tour.  Still, to pull it off he needs to clock in a better time against Wiggins, Evans and Menchov than he normally does in the time trials and then keep on attacking when the terrains allow it. A couple of the mountain stages end with a downhill section to the finish line and this is where Vincenzo Nibali needs to set in his attack to gain time.

Samuel Sanchez
Same goes for Samuel Sanchez. His time trial skills are without a doubt much better than Nibali’s (and Van den Broeck for that matter) and if one of the big favorites shows not to be ready, Samuel Sanchez has a good chance of making a big result for himself in this Tour. Last year he ended 5th in the general classification and won the polka dot jersey. This year the only jersey he is concerned about is the yellow one and he will do everything he can to get on the final podium in Paris. In 2010 he ended 3rd overall but only a year after when Contador got suspended. This time he wants to be take the step up to the podium as well. The reason for why I haven’t put Samuel Sanchez down as an overall winner candidate is because of his crash in Criterium du Dauphine. Sanchez crashed hard on the first stage and even just a few days before the Tour he still feels the pain.

Robert Gesink
Last one on my paper with a solid chance of fighting for the podium is Robert Gesink. Being the only “pure climber” among the favorites so far, you may think Gesink will blow away on the 100 km against the clock. But that’s not the reality. Gesink is actually pretty good in the time trials. Last year he showed it mostly on the short courses, but this year he has taken his skills to the next level. In Tour of California he got 5th on the 30 km time trial and despite starting out not so good in Tour de Suisse he once again clocked in 5th best time on the 34,3 km time trial. Beating guys like Andreas Klöden and Levi Leipheimer. Robert Gesink still needs to show he can stay within 2 minutes of the best in the 50+ km time trials but if he manages to do so in the Tour he can be a dangerous outsider for the jersey.

As I said Gesink is pure climber. He may not look like one with his 190 centimeters but don’t get fooled by that. As 22 years old he took 6th place on Alto de Angliru (one of the steepest and most difficult climbs in the world) and ended 7th overall in the Vuelta España. The next year he crashed in the first week of the Tour and had to abandon. He took revenge in the Vuelta being in the top5 on all the mountain stages and once again ending 6th overall. In 2010 he finally got to show his skill in the Tour, where a third place on the stage to Morzine-Avoriaz and 6th place on the Tourmalet among other good results in the mountains secured him a Top5 place overall. Last year Robert Gesink once again got in troubles in the first week but still managed to finish the Tour. This year he is ready to take his revenge and show the world that he can compete with the best when it counts.

The next row on my paper is called “Top5-10” and it includes riders like: Alejandro Valverde, Janez Brajkovic, Bauke Mollema, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner and Andreas Klöden while my “Top10 aspirants” shows the names of; Peter Velits, Rein Taaramae, Jerome Coppel, Lieuwe Westra, Tom Danielson among others.

To end this preview of the favorites I will take my chances and name the winners of the different jerseys for the Tour de France as well as how the Top10 will look like in Paris.

1. Bradley Wiggins
2. Cadel Evans
3. Denis Menchov
4. Jurgen Van den Broeck
5. Robert Gesink
6. Samuel Sanchez
7. Vincenzo Nibali
8. Janez Brajkovic
9. Alejandro Valverde
10. Levi Leipheimer

Yellow: Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)
Green: Peter Sagan (Liquigas)
Polka Dot: Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM)
White: Rein Taaramae (Cofidis)

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