Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Olympic Preview - The Time Trial

Mark Cavendish and Team GB failed, despite a strong performance, to take a medal in the Olympic road race and therefore it's now last chance for the home soil favorites. 

Fortunately the chances are also pretty good. Because if Mark Cavendish was the big favorite for the road race (and he was!), Bradley Wiggins is an even bigger favorite for the time trial.

If you think this time trial will be like the first one in the Tour de France you better think twice and keep your money in the pocket. With a total 'climbing' of just 125 meters this 44 km time trial it's really just a basic, flat one suited for the riders with a big engine. With only a few tricky corners and a tiny 'hilly' section on Seven Hills Road, riders like Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara would have had a medal waiting with their name on if it hadn't been for their recent crashes. 

One could argue that Chris Froome would be a good candidate for this time trial after his outstanding performances in the Tour, but asked by me about his chances Froome says that the course is too flat for him. "It's one for the the real time trial specialists, but of course I'll give it my all", he explains.

German Tony Martin
World Champion.
Tony Martin had a terrible crash earlier this year, when he got hit by a car, but still managed to come back and get ready in time for the Tour de France. In the prologue he was on his way to a super fast time but punctured in the final and saw his chances of a top spot disappear. Martin then changed his focus to the long time trial on stage 9 but crashed again the very next day causing a fractured scaphoid bone in his hand. Once again he managed to get ready (more or less) for the time trial but just like in the prologue he punctured and lost time to the best riders. Tony Martin withdrew from the Tour after the time trial and has ever since been spending all his time and energy on getting ready for this Olympic Time Trial - a major goal for Martin this season.

In the road race Tony Martin was the only other rider helping Team GB in chasing the breaks but after a great effort in the front of the peloton - where he could stay out of troubles - Tony Martin withdrew half way through the race in order to get ready for the time trial. Tony Martin is super motivated to win an Olympic medal for Germany and hopes that it will "help making cycling popular again" in his home country. I think this course suits Tony Martin perfectly and if the pain from his hand doesn't affect him too much he could very well be the biggest threat to Bradley Wiggins.

Bradley Wiggins won the silver medal at the World Champions last year.
Now the Brit aims at the Olympic gold!
 And make no mistakes. Anything but an Olympic gold medal will (almost) be a disaster for Bradley Wiggins. It may sounds odd to talk about a disaster for a man who just won the Tour de France, but remember that this is what Wiggins has been working on for so many years;  to win the Tour and Olympic gold. Plus if Wiggins takes home another Olympic medal it will be his career's seventh medal and that is more than any other Brit has ever won. Last year he crashed out of the Tour and quickly changed his focus to a test-run for 2012 by doing Vuelta+World Champs. He ended 3rd overall in the Vuelta and took silver in time trial at the World Champions in Denmark. A pretty good preview for what could happen this year I would say!

Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky won, as planned, the Tour de France and even though Wiggins said he felt some fatigue in the road race (who wouldn't?!), I think it's safe to say that it will be a massive surprise if Bradley Wiggins doesn't win this time trial. At least the way I see it...

As said in the beginning this time trial looks pretty good for Fabian Cancellara as well but after he crashed (hard) out of the Olympic road race I doubt he will be able to be at his best already. Still, this time trial has been his biggest goal of the season and if Cancellara manages to ride through the pain he should take a medal.

The way I see it there is one super strong outsider that you simply must not forget! Sylvain Chavanel has been improving his trial skills quite a lot over the last few years and has shown to be among the best riders in the discipline this year. He beat Contador in the time trial in Tour de San Luis back in January, won in Driedaagse De Panne where (at the moment monster strong) Lieuwe Westra was beaten by four seconds and right before the Tour de France he become French national champions and got fifth in the time trial in Criterium du Dauphiné in front of super time trialists like Chris Froome, David Millar, Cadel Evans etc etc.

Sylvain Chavanel has been among the best in all the time trials this year.
I think you get the picture, but just to make it even clearer Sylvain Chavanel took 3rd place in the Tour prologue and 5th in the long time trial on stage 9. Unfortunately Chavanel got sick during the race and after suffering a few days he decided to quit the race in order toget ready for the Olympic time trial. In the road race last Saturday he showed he was back at his best level and I honestly think that Sylvain Chavanel will be able to take medal Wednesday afternoon.

Gustav Erik Larsson started out this season in a fantastic way for his new team, Vacansoleil-DCM, when he won the opening time trial in Paris-Nice. Unfortunately the Swedish time trial specialist hasn't been able to follow up on that strong performance. In the Giro d'Italia he did well when he took 5th (in the prologue) and 7th (in the final time trial) place, but in the Tour de France he didn't do much. Still Larsson did manage to put in a good performance in the time trial on stage 9, before withdrawing on stage 11 due to back problems. Despite "feeling like shit" the day before the time trial, Larsson finished 21st and even though that might not be such a good result it still showed that the Swede was about to find his legs again.

Gustav Erik Larsson always performs well at the big one day events!
The Olympic time trial has been the biggest goal for Gustav Erik Larsson this season and even though I strongly doubt he will be able to win it you have to remember that Larsson really knows how to peak at the big one day events. I think he will be in mix...

Winner pick: Bradley Wiggins
Top3: Tony Martin
Outsider: Sylvain Chavanel
Joker: Gustav Erik Larsson

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Vino takes it all

Alexander Vinokourov impressed a whole cycling world by winning Olympic gold in London 12 years after he was forced to let team mate at that time, Jan Ullrich, take the gold medal in Sydney.

Here are a few pictures of the most important moments in the race:

Rigoberto Uran punctured after a few kilometers.
240 km later he was about to take Olympic gold...
Team GB had control of the race from the very beginning.
But on the last time on Box Hill they let too many attack...
Tony Martin was the only rider helping out GB in the chase.
He withdrew halfway through thinking of the time trial...
Fabian Cancellara was in a perfect position but crashed.
Vino, right behind him, managed to stay up and later won...
Uran made a mistake on the last 150 meters and Vino wasn't
late to take advantage and make sure he couldn't get caught.
12 years after having to "give" Ullrich the win in Sydney
Vino now finally got his Olympic gold medal...
A devastated Cancellara knew he could have won. Instead of
the podium he went to the hospital to get his shoulder checked.
Vino 1st, Uran 2nd, Kristoff 3rd. If you had that combination
right before the start, I salute you! 
It's real! Alexander Vinokourov wins Olympic gold in his last
season as professional! That calls for respect...

Friday, July 27, 2012

Olympic Preview - The Road Race

A few days off after the Tour de France and now it’s back to work again with the Olympic road race on Saturday the 28th of July. It’s the perfect opportunity for the producers to show off London and the historical sights from the helicopter cameras and hopefully we will get a great start of the Games with this road race.

The route:
With its 250 kilometers the Olympic road race is one of the longest one day races on the calendar (about the same lengths as the Sunday Spring Classics). The riders start out at 10:00 (UK time) on the The Mall in London and hereafter head south-west to cross the River Thames at Putney Bridge. Going into Surrey the race will start for real with 9 laps of 15,5 km on the Box Hill circuit. The climb itself isn’t that hard but after nine laps no wild cards will be handed out for the finale. After the last lap there are still about 50 kilometers to go before the riders finish on The Mall next to Buckingham Palace in the center of London around 16:00 (UK time).

The favorite:
There is one (and only one!) massive favorite for the Olympic gold medal and that is of course Mark Cavendish. Since he won the Olympic test event back in August last year and the World Champions just a month later everything has been build around winning gold on home soil for the fast Manxman. Cavendish changed his training and diet and lost four kilos over the winter - all so he shouldn’t get dropped on the nine laps of Box Hill. Before the Tour de France this year Cavendish said that; “I will not be as successful in the Tour as I have been in the past. I will win stages but I may not win five. My sprint has suffered a little bit, but I am so much faster than the others anyway I can afford to lose a few percent in the sprint in order to be able to get to the line”. Mark Cavendish won three stages in the Tour, two of those within the last three days which shows that his condition is exactly as good as it needs to be in order to take the Olympic gold medal.

Mark Cavendish won the Olympic Test Event in front of Sacha Modolo.
Mark Cavendish also has one of the strongest team in the race to protect him. Bradley Wiggins (Tour winner), Chris Froome (Tour runner up), David Millar (Tour stage winner) and Ian Stannard (British champion) have all showed great shape within the last few weeks and even though they are only four riders (and not 9 like when Cavendish won the World Champion in Denmark last year) I think they will manage to make sure that Mark Cavendish will take the first gold medal for Great Britain at the Olympic Games.

The outsiders:
As stated, I think this will come down to a sprint. Not a typical Tour de France bunch sprint with a big peloton together in the end, but probably around 40 riders. One of my personal outsiders is Sacha Modolo from Italy. The young Italian might have surprised some of you when he took 4th place in Milano-San Remo in 2010 and even though he hasn’t been winning as much as he should have the last two years, he is still a very strong rider on the course like this one. Hasn’t he been working so hard for  Daniele Bennati at the World Champions last year, I’m sure he would have been near the podium in that sprint and don’t forget that Modolo actually got 2nd in the Olympic test event last year  Lately Sacha Modolo won two stages in Tour of Austria plus he took 3rd place on the stage of Tour de Pologne with the hard uphill cobblestones finish won by Zdenek Stybar.

The Italian team is almost as strong as the British one and even though they will be riding a lot more aggressively they still have fast riders like Matteo Trentin (or Elia Viviani) and Luca Paolini to help out Modolo in the end. I will honestly be surprised if this road race ends without an Italian medal of some kind (you can be s.u.r.e. that Vincenzo Nibali will come a strong attack at some point in the final…).

The joker:
There is one guy that you simply can’t count out for the this race; Peter Sagan! The Slovakian ‘Tourminator’ destroyed all competition for the Green Jersey in the Tour de France with three stage wins and I actually think he could have won an additional won two or three stages with a little bit of luck. One of these was the last stage in Paris, where he got caught up behind Andre Greipel in the final corner and had to close a gap of 10 meters before trying to pass Cavendish. Had Sagan been in the wheel of Goss I think he would have won that stage…

Peter Sagan won three Tour stages and made it look easy.
Anyway, this is the Olympics and the big difference here is that Peter Sagan won’t have anyone to help him. And I really mean no one! Peter Sagan is the only Slovakian rider (the system is fucked, sorry, because Bulgaria has two riders, Brazil three, Iran three, Turkey three and even Malaysia has one more than Slovakia with two riders on the start list). Being without team mates also means that Sagan will have to get back to the cars to get water and food by himself and that will probably drain him a tiny bit more than for example Cavendish and the other contenders with a strong team to help out. Still, if Peter Sagan is in the front group in the final only very few riders will be able to beat him and that means at least a bronze medal for the Slovakian wonder kid.

Winner pick: Mark Cavendish
Outsider: Sacha Modolo
Joker: Peter Sagan

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Vacation time

This year's Tour de France is now over and that means it's now time for a little relaxation before it's on again with the Olympics and the Vuelta España in the near future!

The Olympic road race is already on Saturday (28th of July) so make sure to check back soon in order to find the preview and the winner picks for the Olympic medals!

Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

Mikkel Condé

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 20

Champagne time! Or at least until the riders enter the centre of Paris. From here on it’s hardcore racing for the win on Champs-Élysées and most likely it will end up in a mass sprint.

Showing on Stage18 that he is still kicking and ready for the Olympics, Mark Cavendish will be the man to beat in order to win Sunday afternoon. For the first time in this Tour de France, Cavendish will have a whole team able to work for him and personally I’m looking forward to see the yellow jersey working for the World Champion…

Especially the fact that Team Sky now finally will be able to give Cavendish his leadout train will be an interesting factor since it will be the first they will be competing against Lotto-Belisol in order to deliver their sprinter in the perfect position. In the beginning of the race, Andre Greipel got everything like he wanted and finished it off perfectly with one stage win after the other, but I doubt it will be that easy for him on Champs-Élysées.

One of my own jokers for the stage is Team Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank’s Juan José Haedo. Haedo is a real power sprinter and not many in this sport can match his top speed on the final meters. If Haedo manages to get on the right wheel in the final I think he can do some damage and even though I doubt he can win the stage I think top3 is within his reach.

If you are looking for a super-super joker, try Luisle Sanchez or Alexander Vinokourov. Sanchez was once again (!) denied a stage win due to Team Sky’s superiority in the final time trial and he seems to be going very strong in the end of this Tour. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to attack on the final laps on Champs-Élysées and why not together with Alexander Vinkourov, who desperately tries to put his mark on his final Tour de France. Vino already knows what it takes to cheat the sprinters and win in Paris and I’m sure he will try to repeat that this time.

Winner pick: Mark Cavendish
Top3 pick: Juan José Haedo
Jokers: Luisle Sanchez and Alexander Vinokourov

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 19

Some might say that the last stage into Paris is the real parade stage in the Tour de France, but with the overall classification already set, this stage is kind of a parade too. A parade for the strong time trialists and in case you missed it, the two very best (left) in the race are also the two first riders in the GC.

It seems redundant to mention it, especially after the first time trial in the race, but of course Bradley Wiggins is the big favorite for this time trial. Wiggins has murdered any sign of competition in the time trials so far this year and there is absolutely nothing that points in any other direction than him doing it again this time. The biggest threat to Bradley Wiggins is his team mate Chris Froome, who would have won this Tour (easily…) hasn’t been for the time loss on the one of the first stages and his baby sitting duties in the mountains.

Personally I hope Chris Froome will win this stage and I’m sure he is eager to give a real try as well, but it won’t be easy against Wiggins. These two guys will most likely end 1st and 2nd on the stage so the rest of the peloton is actually only fighting for 3rd place - very much like in the overall classification too.

If I should mention a joker for the stage it would be Tejay Van Garderen. The young American did extremely well in the first time trial and he says he is very motivated for give it full gas this time too. TJ is 2:37 minutes after Jurgen Van den Broeck in 4th place and if he has the right day it’s not very unlikely that he can take all that time back on the Dutchman who had a very poor first time trial. “I'll empty the tank and see where I end up. I had a good one last time. Maybe I can go even better”, Tejay Van Garderen said looking ahead to the final fight against the clock.

Winner pick: Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome
Joker: Tejay Van Garderen

Tour Preview - Stage 18

If you can’t sprint with the best and can’t time trial either, this is your last chance to get something out of this Tour de France. I doubt Lotto-Belisol will have the manpower to keep it all together and therefore I’m pointing at breakaway to make it once again.

As this being the last chance for most of the riders, it’s almost impossible to predict who will end up winning the stage. Still, of course, there are some riders better at hitting the breaks than others. One of these is Michael Mørkøv. The Danish Tour de France debutant managed to get in the right break on the three first stages in a row(!) and has been extremely active in Tour so far. Mørkøv wants to get on the final podium in Paris as the most aggressive rider in the Tour and even though he already has good chance of winning that prize, Thomas Voeckler certaintly candidates for it too. The French rider has already won two stages and seems sure to win the polka dot jersey as well. If Michael Mørkøv wants to be crowned as the most aggressive rider in his debut Tour, he needs to attack again if he manages to get in the right break then his fast finish could be enough to give him that stage win he has been chasing since day one.

If it does come to a mass sprint, and I really doubt it will, it will be a fight between Peter Sagan and Andre Greipel. There is a cat4 climb, Côte de Lissac-sur-Couze (1,9km – 5,7%), with its top only 10 km from the line and that should mean some of the remaining sprinters won’t be there to give it a go in the final. The last climb is also an excellent opportunity for a rider to attack from a breakaway and if a rider like Michael Albasini or Arthur Vichot is up there this could be the place they will go solo.

Winner pick: Michael Mørkøv
Joker: Michael Albasini 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 17

This is the last day in the mountains and therefore also the last chance for many riders to snatch a stage win in this year’s Tour de France. Ideally I would like to see the GC contenders fighting for the stage but if the past is any reference it most likely won’t happen. Only if Liquigas and/or Lotto-Belisol take control and start working in the peloton there may be a chance for favorites to win the stage. I think a break will make it and once again I point to a Spanish guy.

Juanjo Cobo surprised quite a few by winning the Vuelta España last year but unlike Chris Froome he hasn’t really kept the same level in this Tour. In the last days in mountains Cobo has been looking better and better though and I think he has his eyes on this particular stage. The Spanish riders are always extra motivated in the Pyrenees and if I’m sure Juanjo Cobo is eager to prove what happened in the Vuelta was a one-time-only. Cobo also knows this stage very well. In 2007 Stage 15 of the Tour had both Col de Menté, Port de Balès and Col de Peyresourde on the menu and back then the Spaniard took 4th place on the stage - Alexander Vinkourov actually won the stage, but was DQ afterwards due to a positive doping test. “I have great memories from 2007 and I hope I can win this time”, Cobo said on the rest day. I think Juanjo Cobo will manage to get in the right breakaway and from there he will be very difficult to beat showing the last days condition.  
The last hard 15,5 km of the stage
Click for larger view!

If it should come back together before the last climb I would put my money on Chris Froome. On Stage 16 on Peyresourde he once again showed how strong he is right now and according to himself he’s only getting stronger and stronger as the race progresses. It’s clear that Vincenzo Nibali and Jurgen Van den Broeck will have to try something but if Froome is as good as he has been so far I would be surprised if he goes solo on the last km and win the stage.

Winner pick: Juanjo Cobo
Joker: Chris Froome

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 16

We are going into the last week of this year’s Tour de France and that with four famous and feared climbs on the menu. Col d'Aubisque (Cat HC, 16,4km - 7,1%), Col du Tourmalet (Cat HC, 19km - 7,4%), Col d'Aspin (Cat 1, 12,4km - 4,8%) and Col de Peyresourde (Cat 1, 9,5km - 6,7%) show that the peloton now plays in the Pyrenees  and hopefully this stage will be everything we expect it to be!

I’m a fan of the favorites winning on the big mountains but since also this Tour stage ends with a descent, I’m fine with leaving the victory to the escapees. That’s how I think it will go anyway. Team Sky won’t be interesting in pulling back any breakaways with guys more than 20 minutes behind in the overall classification and for Liquigas (Nibali) and BMC (Evans) the only thing that matters is the overall win. Therefore I’m pretty sure that a strong break of 10-15 riders will get away on Col d'Aubisque (if not earlier, then at least here) so let’s try to take a look at who might be in that break.

The first two riders I thought of looking at the profile were Alejandro Valverde and Michele Scarponi. Valverde has been trying very hard to hit the right breakaway the last couple of days with climbs on the menu and he seems very determined not to leave this Tour without putting his mark on it. He’s far out of the classification (32:59 minutes after Bradley Wiggins) so I think that Team Sky finally will be okay with him getting in the break. Had Valverde still been near the podium I would probably have picked him as well. This stage is perfect for him since he can stay with the very best both on the climbs and on the descents. Plus he is very fast on the line. For me there isn’t a bigger favorite for this stage than Alejandro Valverde being at 100%.

Col de Peyresourde - 9,5km / 6,7%
Click for larger view!
Michele Scarponi has very much the same qualities as Alejandro Valverde. He may not be as fast as Valverde in the final sprint but he is definitely not slow either. He’s a real climber and will be difficult to drop if he hits the right breakaway, plus he is good on the downhill sections as well. The main goal for Michele Scarponi will be the stage win, but with 70 KOM points to fight for he could easily try to go for the polka dot jersey as well, having already 33 points.

Other solid breakaway candidates to the win in Bagnères-de-Luchon are riders like Rein Taaramae (out of the GC and strong uphill and downhill), Dan Martin (pure climber and feeling great these days) and Rui Costa (if Valverde doesn’t hit the right break, Rui Costa is very likely to do so and he already knows how to win in the Tour).

Among the favorites Vincenzo Nibali is the best pick. The Italian is excellent on the descents where he has been trying to drop Wiggins and co. numerous times in this Tour already. If the break gets caught, I can’t see anyone other than Nibali winning this stage…

Winner pick: Alejandro Valverde or Michele Scarponi
Joker: Vincenzo Nibali

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 15

This looks like a stage for the sprinters, but could also very easy end up with yet another breakaway staying clear of the bunch.It’s an undulating route going up and down all day long with no time to recover and being only 158,5 km I think the break will have a good chance.

Especially because GreenEdge now won’t be pulling like maniacs again since Peter Sagan now seems sure to win the green jersey. Team Sky won’t waste any energy on bringing it back together and that leaves us with Lotto-Belisol. If the break is to be caught it will be Lotto-Belisol - and them only - trying to bring back together. It would be much easier just to put a guy like Lars Bak in the break from the beginning...

Let’s say a break will make it (I think the chance 50/50 with a little advantage to the break) who will be in it? Almost every single team wants to put a rider up the road but of course some are better than others. One of my personal favorites to get in the break is Argos-Shimano’s Koen de Kort. Without Marcel Kittel and Tom Veelers the team doesn’t have any super fast riders for the sprints so their only chance of getting a stage win is from a breakaway. Koen de Kort has been trying many times the last couple of days and Stage 15 is actually the stage suiting him the best. If he manage to put himself in the final break Koen de Kort will also be able to take advantage of his fast finish and that gives him a pretty solid chance of winning in Pau if he arrives in the front group.

Another rider knowing how to hit the right breakaways is Luis Angel Maté. Normally Maté would have been in four or five breaks already but this is his first Tour de France and I could imagine he needed a little time to get used to it. In the beginning he also had Rein Taaramae to look after but with Taaramae out of the GC and David Moncoutié out of the race, Luis Angel Maté now has a chance to show himself off on the big scene. Look out for “El Lince Andaluz”!

If Lotto-Belisol manage to make this stage end in a mass sprint after all the natural pick would be Andre Greipel. He has already won three stages in this Tour and with Peter Sagan (probably?) being a little tired after Stage 14 and Mark Cavendish working in front of the peloton, I can’t really see who should beat him.

Winner, breakaway: Koen de Kort or Luis Angel Maté
Winner, mass sprint: Andre Greipel

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 14

In between two sprint stages this should be a stage for a breakaway to make it. There is a hard category2 climb, Col du Portel (5,3 km - 6,3%), starting after 22 km and we should see a break taking its final shape here. From the top there is 85 km “flat” until the real final begins with two category1 climbs right after each other.

First up is Port de Lers (11,4 km - 7%) and right after the descent it’s time for a the feared Tour debutant Mur de Péguère (9,3 km - 7,9%). The last 3,3 km of Mur de Péguère have an average percentage of over 12% with parts up to 18%! There is still about 40 km to go from the top of Mur de Péguère, so it might be a good idea not to go solo too early with 20 km flat towards the finishing line.

As I said I think this will be a day a breakaway will make it all the way to the line. There are 20 KOM points for the polka dot jersey on the last two climbs and I know Chris Anker Sørensen is very eager to get out there and see if he can get the jersey of the shoulders of his Scandinavian rival Fredrik Kessiakoff. Also Thomas Voeckler will be interested in getting in the break and see if he can get back in the fight for the jersey plus taking another stage win. Voeckler is excellent on the descents and show good condition on the uphill sections too, so he is definitely one of the main guys to look out for.

Mur de Péguère - 9,3 km - 7,9%
Click for larger view!
On Stage 13 Luis Leon Sanchez tried to take the peloton by surprise in the last two kilometers, but in disbelieve he saw the yellow jersey Bradley Wiggins rail him back in on the very final meters. Sanchez was obvious annoyed with Wiggins in the heat of the moment but afterwards he apologized on Twitter, saying sorry to the race leader. Maybe Luis Leon Sanchez took a look in the race book and realized it might be a good idea not to make Wiggins an enemy on the road if he wants to get away in the break on Stage 14. The stage is made for Sanchez and I wouldn’t be surprised if him and Voeckler once again found each other side by side in the winning break.

Among the GC contenders it’s no secret that this is a stage where Vincenzo Nibali and Cadel Evans need to attack. Both Nibali and Evans have shown they are not afraid of attacking on the descents and if they can manage to isolate Wiggins just a little bit before that - maybe on the last steep part of Mur de Péguère - we should be in for another dramatic finish!

Winner pick: Luisle Sanchez
Joker: Vincenzo Nibali

Friday, July 13, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 13

This is a stage for the sprinters. It surprises me that ASO decided to give this day to the fast guys and didn’t throw in a couple of climbs so the French riders could attack and hope for a stage win on Bastille Day - or La Fête Nationale as they call it in France. Any attacks seem doomed on this stage, but I won’t go as far as saying we will get a regular mass sprint. Because the race organizers have been a tricky after all.

25 km from the line the riders have to climb Mont Saint-Clair. You may not think much of this climb, being just a category 3, but trust me it’s nasty! It’s just under two kilometers long but the average percentage is 10,2% with parts up to 20% - not exactly in favor of the heavy sprinters like Haedo, Van Hummel, Hutarovich etc.

The beginning of Mont Saint-Clair. 1,6 km - 10,2 %
If the Mont Saint-Clair wasn’t tricky enough the final kilometer certainly is! With only a few hundred meters to go the peloton bends right in 180° corner just before hitting the final stretch to the line. Andre Greipel will have a hard time getting his whole Lotto-Belisol leadout train over the steep Mont Saint-Clair and it will also be difficult for them to deliver him perfectly in the end. That 180° corner means that you need to slow down a little and Greipel likes it best when he can be delivered in high speed.

Instead the finish suits Peter Sagan a lot more since he is good at accelerating from low speed plus he won’t lose any positions in the tricky bend. Sagan is also one of the sprinter that shouldn’t be in trouble on Mont Saint-Clair. Actually I wouldn’t be surprised if Liquigas decide to put pressure on the peloton to see if they drop some of the sprinters before the finish.

If you are looking for a joker, look to Team Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank and Danish Michael Mørkøv. This year Mørkøv has shown that he really knows how to get in the right break and you can be sure that he will try again tomorrow. Saturday it’s exactly five years ago since his father died and Michael Mørkøv has said that he wants to honor him by winning in Le Cap d'Agde. I doubt Mørkøv will be able to pull it off, but I’m sure he will manage to show himself up the roads before the finish.

Winner pick: Peter Sagan
Joker: Michael Mørkøv

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 12

It’s going to be hard to follow up on the last days predictions, but I’ll give a try. The way I see it this is a typical breakaway stage. The two category 1 climbs in the beginning of the stage Col du Grand Cucheron and Col du Granier are both very steep (especially Granier) and that should give us a strong breakaway group to fight it out for win in Annonay Davézieux. From the top op Col du Granier there are 120 km to go so possibility of it all coming back together for a sprint in a selective group is also there - no doubts about that.

There is one guy you just can’t rule out in this Tour de France: Peter Sagan! Sagan has already won three stages in his Tour-debut and he has shown that he can stay with Nibali on climbs as well. On Stage 11 he was next to Nibali all the way up over Col de Madeleine and he even had enough energy to attack on the descent. If Peter Sagan manages to get into the break tomorrow he will be nearly impossible to beat. Also if Sagan is in the peloton group and the break hasn’t already got a solid lead, it’s not unlikely that Liquigas and other teams will try to bring it back together. The last kilometers are uphill with about 4% and if you can point at better rider right now for that kind of finish I’ll be impressed!

Last 5 km of the stage - perfect
for riders like Sagan & Gerrans.
Riders like Sandy Casar, Sylvain Chavanel and Simon Gerrans are also excellent picks for Stage 12 as well. Casar tried his luck the other day but couldn’t keep up with Voeckler on the climbs. This time the climbs are early on the stage which means that Sandy Casar should be able to get back in the front if he loses a little ground again. Sylvain Chavanel has been trying like a maniac to get in the early breaks the last couple of days but so far without any success in the end. Chavanel wants a stage win very badly and I think this might be his best chance in the Tour to get it.

The same goes for Simon Gerrans. The Australian Champion was with Casar and Voeckler the other day but didn’t have the legs to finish it. On Stage 11 he took it easy and “cruised” through the day in order to be ready for this stage. The uphill finish suits Simon Gerrans perfectly and if I should point on any of these three guys I think it would be him. Then again, all three riders could do it. If you are looking for a super joker, look to Vacansoleil-DCM's Marco Marcato.

Winner pick: Peter Sagan
Joker: Simon Gerrans

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 11

This could very well be the Queen Stage of this year’s Tour de France. It’s only 148 km but with no less than four nasty climbs on the menu. Col de la Madeleine (Cat HC), Col de la Croix de Fer (Cat HC), Col du Mollard (Cat 2) and finally the last category 1 climb up to La Toussuire. If you aim for the polka dot jersey, this is the stage you need to be in the break. Still I have a feeling it will be one of the GC contenders who ends up winning this prestigious stage.

I know for a fact that especially Chris Anker Sørensen is very eager to get in the right break tomorrow. The Danish climber knows this is the day to be in front if his dream of the polka dot jersey should come true. Sørensen tried to save as much energy as possible on Stage 10 and we can expect him to attack right from the very bottom of Madeleine. Chris Anker Sørensen also knows what it takes to win in La Toussuire. Back in 2008 he finished an incredible solo ride in front all day by winning the stage in front of Pierrick Fedrigo and Levi Leipheimer - two riders I don’t expect much of on Stage 11 though.  Also Johnny Hoogerland will most likely try to get in the early break but I doubt the Dutchman will be flying since he still seems to be struggling to overcome his knee injury.

La Toussuire. 18 km - 6,1% average.
Click for larger image!
As stated in the beginning I think this will end up with a fight between the race’s best climbers. Team Sky never seemed to panic when Cadel Evans and Vincenzo Nibali attacked on the downhill section, neither when Jurgen Van den Broeck and Pierre Rolland attack over the top of the last climb. Bradley Wiggins knows how strong his team is and unless Evans and Nibali try to attack from far out, I doubt they will ever manage to shake British duo Wiggins and Froome.

I think a group of 10-15 of the GC riders will arrive more or less together at the bottom of La Toussuire and then we will see who have something left in the tank. I’m convinced Lotto-Belisol will try again with Jelle Vanendert and Jurgen Van den Broeck and this time it might work out much better than on Stage 10. I also expect Pierre Rolland to keep on attacking and with the big morale boost due to Voeckler’s (predicted) stage win, Rolland could make it two in a row for Team Europcar.

Yesterday I wrote about Alejandro Valverde and today he showed that his legs are really good. As expected he managed to stay with the favorites at all time and being over 10 minutes after Wiggins in the GC, I think Alejandro Valverde will give a real try on Stage 11.

Winner pick: Pierre Rolland or Jurgen Van den Broeck
Joker: Alejandro Valverde

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 10

At first this may look like a typical breakaway stage half way through the Tour de France, but after Monday’s time trial a lot of riders now need to attack Team Sky if they want to get on the podium. That means that even though a strong break might get away, it’s not very unlikely that Evans, Nibali, Van den Broeck etc. will try something on Col du Grand Colombier (Category HC, 17,4 km with 7,1%). Well, let’s hope they will!

Anyway. Let’s say a break makes it to the line, who would be in it? It’s not really a stage for the polka dot jersey hunters like Chris Anker Sørensen and David Moncoutie. Well you can get 20 points on Grand Colombier, but not a lot on other climbs, so it’s definitely much more clever to save some energy and give a real go on stages like tomorrow with three times as many points on the menu. Another thing against David Moncoutie is that with Remy De Gregorio out of the race, Moncoutie is now the only Cofidis rider able to stay with Rein Taaramae in the mountains. This could end his dreams for the jersey the way I see it.

Col du Grand Colombier - Top with 40 km to go.
Instead I think guys like Luis León Sanchez, Thomas Voeckler and Sandy Casar will be the main riders to watch in order to catch the right break on Stage 10. All three are some of the very best at getting in the breaks and finish it off with stage win and all three have been showing to very promising signs the last couple of days, including their time trial on Monday.

Another guy this finish is almost tailor made for is Alejandro Valverde. Tons of bad luck has sent him out of the GC fight for good and therefore he can now focus on getting a stage win. He is 10,46 minutes after Bradley Wiggins in the overall classification and even though nobody will allow him to get away with 5 minutes or so he still have very good chances the way I see it. Valverde should be strong enough to stay with the favorites on the climbs and if it comes back together he will also be the fastest on the line - no doubt about that. He could also put a team mate in the early break and then try to attack in the middle of the stage. Team Sky won’t waste any unnecessary energy on pulling back a rider 10 minutes down and with help from a team mate Alejandro Valverde could make a big number on this stage. Valverde knows he has nothing left to do in the GC so he will be almost desperate to get away with a least a stage win from this Tour.

Winner pick: Alejandro Valverde
Joker: Thomas Voeckler

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 9 (ITT)

We will end the first part of the Tour de France the same way we started it; against the clock! This is not a very hilly time trial but it’s not a flat one either. There are no categorized climbs on the menu but just before the first time check it’s uphill for about 1,5 km with over 10%. This means that the first split time can cheat us a bit since most of the strong time trialists aren’t that great at changing rhythm. After time check there’s a fast, technical descent before the second split time and then there's the long stretch home. Last part of the route is slightly downhill towards the line.

Unless this is the first bike race you are watching within the last 5 years you shouldn’t be surprised to see Fabian Cancellara and Bradley Wiggins as the two big favorites. It should have been a three-man fight for the win, but since the last week only has been about surviving for Tony Martin after his crash, I doubt that he will be ready to challenge Cancellara and Wiggins.

Bradley Wiggins says it’s a very technical course and I that means it should suit both him and Cancellara very well. Before the Tour started Cancellara said he wanted to ride only focusing on getting ready for the Olympic Time Trial 3½ weeks ahead.  Thing is that he won the prologue and has been working hard every since to honor the yellow jersey - even on the nasty finish in La Planche des Belles Filles. If Fabian Cancellara had been saving some energy the last week I would have put him down as my winner pick, but to be honest I think Bradley Wiggins is the better choice.

Wiggins knows that this is his first big chance to take a lot (!) of time on his main rivals for the overall victory and he showed in Dauphiné that he’s on the very top of his game right now. In Dauphiné he almost caught Cadel Evans, starting two minutes ahead of him, and even though I don’t think it will happen this time, I’m sure that Wiggins will take at least one minute on Evans in Besançon.

Another important rider when we talk the overall classification is Bradley Wiggin’s team mate Chris Froome. In the Vuelta España last year Froome actually beat Wiggins on the long time trial in Salamanca by 23 seconds (and Fabian Cancellara too by 28 seconds) so he sure knows how to ride a good time trial against the elite. Chris Froome has also been picked for the British Olympic team for the time trial (44 km) and this is a great way to show that he is ready for that too. I won’t go as far as saying that Froome will win this stage, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes the last spot on the podium after Wiggins and Cancellara.

Winner pick: Bradley Wiggins
Top3 pick: Chris Froome 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 8

Any riders aiming at the polka dot jersey will have this stage red-circled in their calendar. With 7 categorized climbs on the menu, this is the day you need to hit the right break and collect points. I can’t see any team take control keep it together so let’s have a look at some of the riders able to make the final breakaway.

First name I thought of when I saw this stage profile earlier this was Sylvain Chavanel. This is a typical Chavanel stage and with the shape he has shown so far this season, he is surely one of the big favorites! Sylvain Chavanel came to the Tour stating that he wanted to animate the race again and take the yellow jersey at some point during the race. He tried hard on the first stages but Fabian Cancellara didn’t let it happen. Now the yellow jersey is property of Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins and I doubt they want to spend (waste) the same amount of energy in keeping the jersey this early in the race. Chavanel seems to be in something like the shape of his life and I’m sure he will try to get away and try to take it all in Porrentruy; stage win and yellow jersey. Only thing pointing against it is that Sylvain Chavanel still is fairly close in the GC. After Stage 7 he said that he now wants to keep his place high in the overall standings and with a time trial coming up on Monday he may think it would be wasting powers working in front all day on Sunday.

As said this is a stage for the riders chasing the polka dot jersey and because of that we can’t let out Johnny Hoogerland. His big goal in this Tour is to take revenge and get the jersey and being almost half an hour after Wiggins in the overall classification he’s absolutely no threat what so ever. Hoogerland showed in Tirreno-Adriatico that he has taken his climbing to the next level and he needs that on the last three climbs of the stage all with average percentages of 8-9%. Vacansoleil-DCM have a lot of riders who could do well on this stage (especially Rafa Valls and Marco Marcato) but I think Hoogerland will be the most motivated, knowing there are 38 points up for grab in the fight for the polka dot jersey.

Last climb. Top is 15km from the line.
Normally I would have picked out Michael Albasini as an excellent choice for a stage winner but after his effort on Stage 7 I think it’s time for Simon Gerrans to show the GreenEDGE colors. Gerrans had an outstanding start of the season winning Tour Down Under and Milano-San Remo and wanted to do well on Stage 3 but ended up in the side of the road before the race went into its final part. Without a real GC-contender GreenEDGE have giving Albasini, Gerrans and Weening green light to try their own luck in the breakaways and this being a perfect stage for a break to make it, I think Gerrans will be eager to show off his Australian Champion jersey in front of the Tour de France.

I could keep on naming typical breakaway riders like Sandy Casar, Alexander Vinkourov, Thomas Voeckler etc. etc., but that would take all evening. That being said, those three are also excellent picks for a winner in Porrentruy Sunday afternoon!

After Stage 7 Bjarne Riis didn’t hide Team Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank’s ambitions for this stage when asked about the tactic: “If they [the peloton] let him go I think we will see Chris [Anker Sørensen] in front again tomorrow”. It’s no secret that Sørensen wants the polka dot jersey but I honestly can’t see him win a sprint in a small group. If Chris Anker Sørensen is going to win Stage 8 it has to be solo, attacking on the last steep climb with its top 15 km from the line.

As you can see it’s almost impossible picking only one rider for a stage like this, but I think I’ll try with the Australian Champion. Second pick will be French.

Winner pick: Simon Gerrans
Joker: Sandy Casar

Friday, July 6, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 7

Finally. After a week of sprinting it's time to test the climbing legs. Despite it being the first mountain stage of the Tour it's only categorized as a "hilly" stage, but don't be fooled. It's true there is only one steep climb on the menu, but that is also a very nasty one!

The 5,9 km up to La Planche des Belles Filles have an average of 8,5% with ramps of 11%, 13% and over 20% on the last steep part towards the finishing line. It's a tiny road with the cold mountain wall on one side and trees on the other and without many turns the riders constantly will be able to see each other up the road. Just when you think you've reached the top of the climb and it's flat for about 100 meters you turn right up in the sky hitting the steepest part of the climb with percentages up to 22%. The last 50 meters or so are flat. Not that it will change anything though.

The way I see it there are two scenarios:
1) A break of 6-10 riders gets a good gap and they end up fighting for the stage win while the favorites only focus on each other minutes behind.

2) A break gets away but teams like FDJ (Pinot), Lampre (Scarponi) & Cofidis (Moncoutie/Taaramae) aren't represented up front and start to chase in order to have a crack at in the final. Also Rabobank (Gesink, Mollema & Kruijswijk) could easily take responsibility and chase the break. All ending up with the favorites fighting it out for the stage win and the yellow jersey.

Personally I think the scenario #1 is most likely to happen. Everybody knows that the winner on La Planche des Belles Filles (almost certainly) will take the polka dot jersey (2x10 points) and because of that, we should see guys like Chris Anker Sørensen (+5 min), Johnny Hoogerland (+14 min), Daniel Martin (+19 min), Matt Lloyd (+20 min) & David Moncoutie (+20 min) try their luck. All 5 have said they are aiming for the polka dot jersey and this stage is definitely one they have red-circled from the beginning. Let's hope neither of them get too banged up on yesterday's carnage stage.

After Stage 5 Bjarne Riis said that the man for the weekend is Chris Anker Sørensen and knowing how much the Danish climber wants to show himself and get in the fight for jersey, I will be surprised not to see him up front if a good break gets away. Also David Moncoutie will be eager to get in the break. The final climb is quite similar to Mont Faron - one of Moncoutie's favorite climbs - and the steep parts really suit the French veteran. The weather forecast shows sunny conditions and that is very good news for David Moncoutie who likes it hot and dry.

Steep parts of 13% towards the line.
I mentioned FDJ and Pinot before and that's for a reason. Thibaut Pinot lives nearby and know the way up to La Planche des Belles Filles very well. He has been training a lot on it this year already and said that it is his big dream to win on this climb. 

Looking at the GC favorites this is truly a climb that favors the pure climbers. The ramps of 11%, 13% and 20% comes and go meaning that you constantly have to change the rhythm. Not exactly Bradley Wiggins' cup of tea. For Wiggins it's all about minimizing the gaps and make sure Team Sky set a pace so high no one is able to attack.

Before yesterday's stage I would picked Wout Poels and Pierre Rolland  as solid candidates for the win, but after Poels crashed and withdrew and Rolland crashed and hurt his shoulder and his back, I think I better drop those two again. Still if Rolland is ready, he could really take revenge on this steep climb!

Winner pick: David Moncoutie from a break or Pierre Rolland among the GC riders if he's ready again.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Tour Preview - Stage 6

Another sprint stage and another win for Andre Greipel. Just like it was supposed to be. That’s 5 out of 6 correct winner picks. Let’s hope it can continue for a while. The question is now if Greipel can make a Tour de France hat-trick on Stage 6. Looking at the profile there is no doubts it will turn into another bunch sprint and once again the race organizers have put in a very tricky finish!

The last 950 meters are all flat out to the finish line so if Lotto-Belisol manage to time like they have done in the past three sprints it should be another for Andre Greipel. However I think Mark Cavendish will be extremely motivated to take revenge. On Stage 4 he got sidelined in the sprint by the crash and on Stage 5 he made a mistake of losing a few positions in the final and was unable to overcome Greipel on the uphill finish.

The Lotto-Belisol train has been perfect so far, but they need to be very alert in the final on Stage 6. Just before the 2K mark there’s a 180° corner in the big roundabout from Rue du 20. Corps American going to Rue de l’Argonne and after that yet another roundabout with 1500 meters to go. The most tricky part of the finish has still to come though. The “Last Kilometer Gate” is placed just before the viaduct under the railroad and right after that the road turns left in a 90° corner.  Luckily the weather forecast shows it should have stopped raining in Metz by then, but if not the riders have to be extremely careful coming through that viaduct and turning left.

Thinking about the last days it seems almost impossible we shouldn’t see any crashes in the finish and I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two riders go down in that last tricky corner.
The viaduct just before turning left in a 90° corner. 1 km to go.
Lotto-Belisol with Andre Greipel is of course the team and man to beat, but don’t forget that Mark Cavendish is always best when he has some rage inside of him. I think the World Champion will be those few extra percentages more eager to win and that could be very well be just enough.

With three sprint stages behind us already it’s not very difficult to say who’s going to be in the mix. Alessandro Petacchi took 2nd place on Stage 4 and if he manages to place himself near the front and doesn’t lose any positions in the last corner this finish could be very suitable for strong Italian to take another podium place.

Winner pick: Mark Cavendish
Top3 pick: Alessandro Petacchi