Scott Mercier: Breaking down the Tour de France contenders
Special to The Aspen Times
Attack: When riders try to get away from other riders or the peloton
Bike Throw: At the finish line of a stage, a rider will aggressively move his bike forward and towards the finish line; a great bike throw can win the stage
Breakaway: A rider or group of riders who are in front of the peloton
Cadence: The RPM of a cyclist
Domestique: French term meaning servant; a rider who is at the service of the team leader
Drafting: Sitting in the slipstream of another rider so as to be protected from the wind
Echelon: When the wind is coming from the side, rather than the front, the best draft is not behind the rider, but behind and to the side; this typically splits the peloton and can make for hectic racing
Hors Categorié (HC): A climb so big it cannot be categorized; these climbs are long and hard
Maillot Jaune: Yellow Jersey
Sit-On: When a rider in a breakaway will not help and just sits in the draft of the other riders
Sticky Bottle: When a rider holds on to a water bottle from his team director at the car to get a brief respite
July is hands down the best month of the year: Independence Day, long and warm days, and of course, the craziest, hardest and most exciting sporting event on planet Earth, the Tour de France.
The 106th edition of the Tour covers 3,460 kilometers in 21 days of racing — 176 riders on 22 teams will compete for stage wins and the four fabled jerseys. The race starts Saturday in Belgium.
The yellow jersey of the overall race leader is perhaps the most recognizable jersey in sport. The rider with the lowest overall time wears this jersey and the final winner gets €500,000. The green jersey goes to the rider who has the most overall points from stage finishes and intermediate sprints and is worth €25,000. The red and white polka-dot jersey is also worth €25,000 and goes to the best climber. Finally, the white jersey is worth €20,000 and goes to the best-placed rider under the age of 26.
This year, the overall winner will most likely be a diminutive climber as there are five mountain-top finishes and only one relatively short individual time trial. Four-time Tour winner Chris Froome suffered a horrific crash during a reconnaissance ride at the Criterium du Dauphine in France last month. He has a compound fracture of his femur, a broken hip, fractured elbow and fractured ribs. These injuries mean he will miss this year’s Tour and his return to racing is in question.
Froome’s absence creates a leadership void not only for Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky), but for the Tour itself. He was the five-star favorite to win a record-tying fifth yellow jersey. In fact, three of the top four finishers from last year will not line up this year with Tom Dumoulin also injured, and Primož Rogli not racing as he recovers from his failed attempt to win the Giro d’Italia in May.
Froome’s absence, however, creates opportunity for other riders. The Tour promises to be an interesting battle between young, aspiring newcomers trying to become the new patrons, and the wily veterans for whom this may be a final shot at the jersey.
The Leading Contenders
• The generational battle will be front and center within cycling’s version of the New England Patriots, Team Ineos. Geraint Thomas, at 33, is the defending champion. However, he entered the season overweight and out of shape and has only finished three of the five races he’s entered. I don’t think he’ll finish in the top 10 and will be relegated to a support roll by the end of Stage 6. Thomas’ teammate, 22-year-old Colombian Egan Bernal, has been named co-leader for the Tour. Bernal has found a hot streak at the right time. He recently won two important stage races in Paris-Nice and the Tour of Switzerland. Last year’s Tour was his maiden Grand Tour and he finished 15th, while riding in support of Froome and Thomas. He can climb, time trial and is a great bike handler. I think he’ll be the youngest winner since Alberto Contador won his first Tour in 2009.
• Jakob Fuglsang: The Dane, who rides for the Astana Team, has had one of the best spring campaigns in years, winning both one-day classics and stage races. However, he has struggled in Grand Tours and I think the climbing in the third week will prove to be too hard. I think he’ll crack the top five but fall short of the podium.
• Alejandro Valverde: The London bookies have him at 80:1 odds to win the Tour, and at 39, he would be the oldest winner by several years. However, Valverde is the reigning world champion and reads a race like few others. His sprinting prowess could also see him pick up valuable time bonuses. I think he falls just short, but makes the bottom step of the podium.
• Nairo Quintana: On paper, this year’s Tour should suit the Colombian climber from Team MoviStar. He excels in the high mountains, but lately has lacked the explosive power to distance himself from his rivals. This year is tailor made for him, but I don’t think he makes the podium.
• Vincenzo Nibali: The winning formula for a Tour victory rarely includes the Giro d’Italia, and the Italian veteran based his season around the Giro, where he finished a respectable second. Nibali is an opportunistic rider and has won four Grand Tours, including the 2014 Tour. However, I think the effort he made in his Giro attempt will hurt him and that final week will prove to be too much.
• Thibaut Pinot: The Frenchman is a bit of an enigma. He’s shown flashes of success and finished on the podium of the Tour in 2014, but has struggled since then. The lack of time trials and the plethora of mountains mitigate his weaknesses and play to his strengths. The French have not had a Tour winner since Hinault in 1985, and Pinot is their best chance. I think he climbs back onto the podium, but on the second step.
Other contenders include Adam Yates, Steven Krujswik, Rigoberto Uran, Mikel Landa, Romain Bardet and Ritchie Porte. The fan favorites are six-time green jersey winner Peter Sagan and last year’s polka-dot jersey winner Julian Alaphilippe. It will also be exciting to see what the 24-year-old Belgian, Wout Van Aert, does in his maiden Tour. The three-time cyclocross world champion has shown that he can sprint and time trial. He promises to animate races for years to come and will be fun to watch.
RED, WHITE AND BLUE
Only four Americans made the cut this year and they all ride for different teams and have different skill sets. Basalt local Tejay van Garderen rides for the EF Education First team. He’s having a bit of a renaissance this season and finished second in the final Tour tune up at the Dauphine. I think Tejay will have a great race and he’s one of my dark horses to make the podium.
Ben King of Dimension Data, Chad Haga of Sunweb, and Joey Rosskopf of CCC are the other Americans in the race. Ben and Chad are both stage winners of other Grand Tours, while Joey will be helping Greg Van Avermaet to win stages.
The race is loaded with critical stages that will shape the race. Stage 2’s team time trial will set the tone for the pretenders versus the contenders. Look for teams like EF, Ineos, Mitcheton-Scott, Deceuninck-Quickstep, Astana and Sunweb to be fighting for the win.
Stage 3 is a danger stage. There are no big mountains, but the final 42 kilometers has four categorized climbs and finishes on a 15% ramp. To put that in perspective, the steepest part of the climb to the Maroon Bells is around 12%.
The first real mountain test comes on Stage 6. It’s 160 kilometers long and the finishing climb is seven kilometers at an average gradient of nearly 9%. Riders who lose significant time here will have put themselves at a significant disadvantage. Expect Egan Bernal to try and stamp his authority on the race here.
The last week of the race, however, is where the Tour will be won and lost. The only individual time trial is Stage 13. It’s a hilly 27 kilometers of pure agony. If Rohan Dennis, my other dark horse podium pick, has survived the climb on Stage 6, I expect him to take the yellow jersey on this stage. The Colombian climbers will be trying to minimize their losses. This stage also suits American’s Haga and Tejay. Both have a chance at a top-five placing.
The mountains loom on stages 14, 15, 18, 19 and 20. Stage 20, the penultimate stage, finishes with a brutal 33-kilometer climb of 1,843 meters (6,046 feet). That’s about 50% more climbing than Independence Pass from Aspen! The riders will be exhausted by then, but those who have conserved energy and with the strongest team can gain significant time on their rivals.
Regardless of the outcome, the Tour promises to be exciting and entertaining. I’m especially excited to cheer for my friend Tejay. Hopefully the Gods of the Peloton shine on him this year.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works as a senior financial adviser in Aspen and can be reached at email@example.com.
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