The Grand Depart: Scott Mercier sets up this year’s Tour de France cycling race | AspenTimes.com

The Grand Depart: Scott Mercier sets up this year’s Tour de France cycling race

Scott Mercier
Special to The Aspen Times

I won't lie — with a literal inferno burning out my home office window, it's hard to focus on writing a column about cycling. But, if it's July, then it's Tour Time. As in, Tour de France, the greatest spectacle and toughest endurance race on the planet. And the Tour must go on.

This year's Tour promises to be one of the most exciting races in ages. The race covers 3,351 kilometers over 21 stages. There will be 22 teams and each team will have eight riders. This is a reduction from past editions where teams had nine riders each. The ASO made the reduction to try and enhance rider safety and to make the racing less predictable and controlled.

The defending champion, Chris Froome, will be gunning for his fifth overall — and fourth consecutive — yellow jersey. Froome has not been without controversy this year. In December 2017, the International Cycling Union (UCI) announced Froome had returned an adverse analytical finding during the 2017 Vuelta España. His case dragged on for months and no resolution appeared to be in sight. The Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), who own and operate the Tour, decided last Sunday they would block Froome from racing because they didn't want a situation where the potential winner of the race could later be suspended. In dramatic fashion, the UCI announced Monday the case against Froome had been dropped.

This gave him the green light to go for yellow. Froome is the current champion of all three Grand Tours, having won the Tour last July, the Vuelta España in September and the Giro d'Italia in May. He is attempting to do the Giro/Tour double, which would cement his place as perhaps the greatest Grand Tour rider ever. The last rider to successfully do the double was Italian Marco Pantani two decades ago. Froome also has the most experienced team of riders to support him in this quest and is the unquestioned leader of Team Sky. He is undoubtedly the five-star favorite to win. I have Froome landing on the podium with a third-place finish overall. But, as he showed with this year's Giro, if his rivals don't put him away early, he can claw his way back into contention. In fact, he won the Giro with an audacious solo attack on a steep dirt road 80k from the finish line. However, the demands of the final week in this year's Tour could prove to be too much as he races his fourth consecutive Grand Tour.

PICKING THE PODIUM

Froome's biggest rival, and my pick for the overall, is 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali. Nibali is known as the Shark of Messina. Like Froome, the Shark has won all three Grand Tours. Nibali's Bahrain-Merida Team does not have as much depth or experience as Team Sky, but he makes up for that with an uncanny ability to read a race and incredible bike-handling skills. There are few within the peloton who can match Nibali's skills descending and several of this year's stages have nasty descents right before the finish. He is one of the most complete riders in the peloton and has the rare ability to win both Grand Tours and one day, Classics. He is the reigning champion of the one-day classic, Milan San Remo, which is 300 kilometers and one of the five Monuments of Cycling. In addition, he is one of the most respected riders in the peloton and will have no shortage of allies if he finds himself in a position to win.

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Many pundits have pegged Australian Richie Porte as Froome's biggest threat. He races for the BMC squad and was at one point Froome's top lieutenant before striking out on his own. He has shown great form recently and won a difficult Tour of Switzerland last month in his final warm up for the Tour. He has a talented and experienced squad to support him and can expect to take significant time out of Nibali on the Stage 3 team time trial and potentially put some time into Froome as well. He is a talented and aggressive rider but has not proven himself in a Grand Tour yet. I have him landing his first Grand Tour podium with second-place overall.

I have to scratch my head with the MoviStar Team. They are bringing three leaders to the race with double runner-up Nairo Quintana, from Colombia, and Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa. Winning the Tour is difficult to do with two leaders, but winning with three is a Herculean task. On paper, Quintana has the best chance with his climbing prowess, but I think they should throw their weight behind Valverde. He had a horrific crash on the opening stage of last year's Tour but has staged an impressive comeback. He has won every stage race he's entered this year and has the bike-handling skills of Nibali. I think we're likely to find a situation where there are no clear directions and each rider ends up rider for his own agenda. They'll also likely lose significant time on the Stage 3 team time trial and each of their leaders will lose chunks of time to the likes of Porte and Froome in the individual time trial.

It's hard to count previous Tour podium finishers as dark horses but Colombian Rigoberto Uran of the EF Education First team and Frenchman Roman Bardet will have a difficult task of matching their results from last year. In addition, 2017 Giro d'Italia champion Tom Dumoulin attempted to defend his title and finished second this year to Froome. I think the heavy climbing load, especially on the shorter stages, and lack of a longer time trial will also hurt his chances.

Current world champion and the No. 1-ranked rider in the world, Peter Sagan, does not have a chance at the overall win. However, he is one of the most playful and talented riders to ever pin on a number. He'll be favored to win the green jersey for accumulating the most points from high stage placings. His motivation is also certainly high, as he was kicked out of last year's Tour for his involvement in a crash with British sprinter Mark Cavendish.

The polka dot jersey represents the "best" climber in the race. I put best in quotations because in reality it is typically not won by the best climber in the race, but rather by the rider who has gotten into a lot of breakaways to get climbing points. The G.C. guys like Quintana and Froome are almost always the best climbers in the race, but they don't want to waste precious energy sprinting to the top of each mountain and focus instead on winning the overall race. Nonetheless, it is a very prestigious jersey and last year's winner was Warren Barguil. He finished over nine minutes behind Froome in the overall classification.

The Aspen connection

With just five riders in this year’s edition, U.S. cycling fans don't have much to cheer for. However, the top American in the peloton is local rider Tejay van Garderen. He's twice finished fifth at the Tour, but this year he'll be riding to help Porte fulfill his ambition of a podium placing. However, if Porte falters, Van Garderen may be given free rein to ride for himself. BMC is without a sponsor for the 2019 season and if they fail to secure sponsorship soon, the team will fold. I'm sure Van Garderen will find a wide market for his talents and he has a win-win situation with BMC during this Tour. If Porte wins, it will be in no small part due to Van Garderen's assistance, and if Porte falters, Van Garderen may get a chance to ride for himself.

Where the race can be won or lost

The key to victory in this year's Tour will come down to several stages. The first test comes on the third stage team time trial. With 31.5 undulating kilometers, there could be meaningful time gaps. No one can win the Tour on this stage, but a 90-second deficit can be a significant hole right off the bat. The stage will also give a great indicator to which riders have strong teams. Look for BMC and Sky to be competitive amongst the teams with G.C. riders. Nibali and Valverde will be hoping to keep the deficit under 30 seconds.

Stage 6 can be a trap for the unwary. The profile lacks any significant climbs, but it looks like a saw blade and has a nasty, short but steep climb right before the finish. It's another stage where the race can be lost, but not won.

Stage 9 sees the riders on the fabled cobbles of Northern France. It's on roads like these that Nibali seized control of the Tour in 2014 and he and Valverde will be hoping for wet, windy and treacherous conditions on this stage. They can hold their own against the classics riders like Sagan on roads like these. Both Porte and Froome will be shepherded by formidable classics riders with Greg Van Avermaet for BMC and Michal Kwiatkowski for Sky. The stage includes 15 sectors of cobbles, or pavé, for a total of nearly 16 kilometers.

The riders hit the Alps the next stage for three consecutive days with Stages 11 and 12 having mountain-top finishes. This is where Quintana and Valverde will need to take chunks of time out of Froome and Porte if they want any chance of winning. Stage 11 is "only" 108.5 kilometers, but often these short stages are amongst the hardest because of the intensity from the start. Think of the difference between running the mile and a 10k; they're both hard, but the effort in the 10k is nearly flat out the entire time. We should have a pretty good idea of the podium by the end of the 21 switchbacks up the Alpe d'Huez of Stage 12.

Stage 17, at 65 kilometers, is the shortest stage of the past three decades. It also features three climbs, including a brutal finishing climb of 16k at an average slope of 8.7 percent. It's the last chance for the climbers to take time out of the time trialists.

The final shake up could occur on the penultimate stage. It's a 35.5-kilometer individual time trial. If a rider like Froome, Dumoulin or Porte are in the lead, they can almost be assured of keeping it. On the other hand, the slight climbers like Quintana and Bardet will have needed to build a significant cushion of time to have any chance at the overall. The stronger time trialists can potentially take 90 seconds out of the climbers on this stage.

Regardless of the final outcome, the 2018 rendition of the Tour de France has the potential to be one of the most exciting and suspenseful in years.

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 financial adviser in Aspen and can be reached at scottmercier24@gmail.com.

Tour de France Stages

July 7 — Stage 1: Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile—Fontenay-le-Comte, flat (201km-124.9 miles)

July 8 — Stage 2: Mouilleron-Saint-Germain—La Roche-sur-Yon, flat (182.5-113.4)

July 9 — Stage 3: Cholet—Cholet, team time trial (35.5-22.1)

July 10 — Stage 4: La Baule—Sarzeau, flat (195-121.2)

July 11 — Stage 5: Lorient—Quimper, hilly (204.5-127.1)

July 12 — Stage 6: Brest—Mur de Bretagne Guerledan, hilly (181-112.5)

July 13 — Stage 7: Fougeres—Chartres, flat (231-143.5)

July 14 — Stage 8: Dreux—Amiens Metropole, flat (181-112.5)

July 15 — Stage 9: Arras Citadelle—Roubaix, hilly (156.5-97.2)

July 16 — Rest: Annecy

July 17 — Stage 10: Annecy—Le Grand-Bornand, high mountain (158.5-98.5)

July 18 — Stage 11: Albertville—La Rosiere Espace San Bernardo, high mountain (108.5-67.4)

July 19 — Stage 12: Bourg-Saint-Maurice les Arcs—Alpe d’Huez, high mountain (175.5-109.1)

July 20 — Stage 13: Bourg d’Oisans—Valence, flat (169.5-105.3)

July 21 — Stage 14: Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux—Mende, hilly (188-116.8)

July 22 — Stage 15: Millau—Carcassonne, hilly (181.5-112.8)

July 23 — Rest: Carcassonne

July 24 — Stage 16: Carcassonne—Bagneres-de-Luchon, mountain (218-135.5)

July 25 — Stage 17: Bagneres-de-Luchon—Saint-Lary-Soulan, high mountain (65-40.4)

July 26 — Stage 18: Trie-sur-Baise—Pau, flat (171-106.3)

July 27 — Stage 19: Lourdes—Laruns, high mountain (200.5-124.6)

July 28 — Stage 20: Saint-Pee-sur-Nivelle—Espelette, individual time trial (31-19.3)

July 29 — Stage 21: Houilles—Paris Champs-Elysees, flat (116-72.1)

Total — 3,351 kilometers, 2082 miles