An Olympic year often spells doom for regular annual sporting events. Ask any athlete (except from a few team sports like football etc) what is his/her highest target, and almost everyone would name an Olympic medal on top of their list. Hence it is to the immense credit of Le Tour that despite being agonisingly close to the Olympic road race (scheduled less than a week after the Tour finishes) all major entrants are raring to go.
Yes the Olympics still mean the world to riders such as Wiggins, Cavendish and Evans, yet the lure of a Tour victory still makes them risk injury and exhaustion. This especially when the incredible demands of a grand tour are hardly ideal preparation for any Olympic event. But for athletes like Wiggins, a dream of Tour & Olympic double is irresistible; and if achieved, would catapult him into the pantheon of greats instantly.
Yet this Tour has already had a few setbacks, most notably with the absence of two past winners, Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador. The Spaniard is always a favourite, despite a tepid performance last year and is serving a controversial ban for testing positive for clenbuterol. He also had his 2010 victory rescinded due to the positive test, though not all are convinced.
His loss was Schleck Jr’s gain as he was promoted as victor of the 2010 event (though the rider staunchly refuses to consider it as his achievement and pines to win one the traditional way) after he had finished second following an epic battle on the road. The Luxembourgeois faced the same fate last year as he fought Cadel Evans tooth and nail, only to end up second best. If he was planning to be third time lucky, sadly a spinal injury in the Critérium du Dauphiné put paid to those hopes.
Hence the favourites field is effectively whittled down to two names, defending champion Cadel Evans from Australia, riding for Team BMC; and Bradley Wiggins from Britain, riding for the ambitious Team Sky. Wiggins was among the top runners last year as well, till a painful crash early in the Tour forced him to withdraw. This year however, he is the bookmakers choice and with a strong year behind him has good reason to be confident.
The Sky rider is in the midst of enjoying the season of his life, winning three of the five stage races he has started, Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and the Dauphiné Libéré, taking a stage in the other, the Tour of Algarve. This added to a podium place in the Vuelta a España and the silver medal at the world time trial championship is warning enough for his Australian rival. His team are on a high as well, as evident from this teaser released at the team’s official YouTube channel:
Evans on the contrary has had a relatively tepid preparation going into the Tour, especially compared to his preparations last year. Unlike multiple victories in 2010, Evans has only managed to win the Criterium International in March and grabbed a stage in the Dauphine, eventually finishing third overall behind Wiggins (and compatriot Michael Rogers).
The BMC rider acknowledges his rival’s form and relishes the challenge. However this year’s route is very different compared to what he rode to victory last year. In his own words, “The Tour won’t be won or lost in the mountains, it will only sort out the contenders. But the Tour will certainly be won or lost in the time trials.” To begin with this year the Tour runs clockwise – Alps first, Pyrenees second – which traditionally always tends to be less suited to a pure climber. Furthermore there is no immense summit finish with never more than two days climbing in a row. These factors coupled with the longest time trials since 2008, clearly justify the defending champion’s assessment of the route.
Funny then, that the two of the best climbers in the world are missing a Tour (not out of choice though) which would not have favoured them in any case. Conversely in Wiggins and Evans we have two of the best time triallers in the field taking eachother head on (remember Evans took his victory last year in the final individual time trial). Here too the odds are in favour of the Olympic medallist leading Sky, however no one can discount the Aussie’s grit.
Apart from them, Wiggins’ teammate Mark Cavendish aka ‘The Manx Missile‘ would be keen to repeat his green jersey winning performance of last year, though can he can achieve that without his dependable “HTC Highroad train” is what would interest Tour regulars. Among other riders hoping to capture a podium finish, Ryder Hesjedal would be one to watch out for. He was noted for his impressive performance last year and has only improved by claiming top honours at the Giro d’Italia in May this year, becoming the first Canadian to win a grand tour. He is leading team Garmin-Sharp in this edition of the Tour.
As for the complete route, this year the riders navigate a total of 20 stages, covering a massive 3,497 kms. Longest day in the saddle is expected to be Friday the 13th, the race organisers venerating Devil’s day by slotting a 226 km medium mountain stage. However it would be the five mountain stages and two-time trials that will separate the elite from the pack.
But the Tour is nothing if not for the uncertainties that emerge in the three weeks. Time and again a wild card rider ruffles the feathers of the big teams, and one only needs to look back to last year when Thomas Voeckler of Europcar hung on to the maillot jaune far longer than most hoped. Then there are the crashes, which while not welcome or enjoyed by anyone, are an integral part of road cycling. Only hope is that the dreadful events of stage 9 last year are not repeated, and no crash leads to a major injury.
The Tour begins tomorrow in Belgium, in the heart of Liège with a 6.4 km prologue. This was the same course where ‘that man Spartacus’ aka Fabian Cancellara burst to prominence in 2004, and he would definitely be the man to watch out for. Bradley Wiggins too can pump the pedals hard and would be keen to start the Tour in the best manner possible, donning yellow right on the first day.
Of course this is just an appetizer and things being in earnest only on sunday with the first proper stage, but such short runs have a thrill of their own. It might not even be a warm up ride for these athletes, nevertheless they will put their body on the line to gain fractions. In the end all that matter is that Le Tour is back!!! With the Euros finishing on sunday and the Olympics still a few days away, nothing could have filled the gap better. Looking forward to 21 days of scintillating scenery, breathtaking visuals and – most importantly – captivating racing action. Bring it on!!!
ps: in case any of you are interested in updating on last year’s events in detail, I did a stage by stage coverage at the link below:
Or you can watch this brilliantly put together video montage of last year’s Tour