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2014 Tour de France preview: The contenders

Canadian Cycling Magazine continues its preview of the 101st Tour de France, which starts Saturday, July 5 in Yorkshire, England. We’ve already looked at the course, so let’s examine the contenders for the win, the podium and the top ten.

For the Win

Chris Froome (Great Britain/Sky): The reigning champion means to make it three straight Sky Brits wearing yellow in Paris. Froome has shown great form this year, winning the Tour of Oman and the Tour of Romandie, and has been strong in both time trials and mountain stages. His Critérium du Dauphiné ended terribly when a crash on the penultimate stage made him too weak to defend his lead on the last day, and he tumbled right out of the top ten. Will his injuries still be a factor?

As a team, Sky hasn’t been as dominant as it was during Bradley Wiggins’ win. Froome will have an inconsistent Richie Porte and good mountain man Mikel Nieve at his disposal, not to mention a handful of hard workers like Vasil Kiryienka.

Alberto Contador (Spain/Tinkoff-Saxo): Bertie is back. After a 2013 season when he seemed more likely to podium than to won stage races, the five time Grand Tour winner is the most likely to beat Froome this July. Contador took victories in this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico and Pais Vasco and was runner up in the Volta ao Algarve, the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and, most recently, the Critérium du Dauphiné, where he mistimed his attack of Froome and couldn’t catch Andrew Talansky.

Tinkoff-Saxo sends a strong team in support, though Roman Kreuziger (Czech Republic) has been pulled because of abnormalities in his biological passport while he was still with Astana. A resurgent Michael Rogers (Australia), recent Route du Sud champion Nicolas Roche (Ireland) and the Giro d’Italia’s fifth place finisher Rafal Majka (Poland) will be Contador’s main men.

Vincenzo Nibali (Italy/Astana): The Shark of Messina dreams of completing his Grand Tour hat trick by upsetting Contador and Froome. Unfortunately, Nibali has been a little lost in the wilderness the season when he has specifically targeted the yellow jersey. The brand new Italian road champion has come on of late, placing fifth in the Tour de Romandie and seventh in the Critérium du Dauphiné while showing some attacking élan, but will really have to dig deep to threaten the Spaniard and the Englishman.

Nibali will rely on Dane Jakob Fuglsang and hope that compatriot Michele Scarponi is made of stiffer stuff than what was on display in the Giro.

Podium men: It’s not guaranteed that the above rider will inhabit the podium in Paris. These are the riders who aspire to steal the thunder.
Bauke Mollema (The Netherlands/Belkin) Mollema is a top ten guy (5th last year’s Tour, 4th 2011 Vuelta a España), but this might be the season that he steps up. He was part of the Rui Costa Raid on the last day of the Tour de Suisse to finish third. With Belkin about to withdraw sponsorship, he will be looking to impress prospective new teams.

Andrew Talansky (USA/Garmin-Sharp): The American, who snuck into last year’s Tour top-ten on the penultimate day, was quick to pooh-pooh any notions that he was a threat in this year’s Tour after mounting his own Great Raid to win the Critérium du Dauphiné. He’ll have trouble in the climatic time trial, but Garmin has sent along a good supporting cast, though Talansky will wish he had Ryder Hesjedal alongside.

Alejandro Valverde (Spain/Movistar): It has been a fine year for the 2009 Vuelta winner: both stage race success (Ruta del Sol) and one-day Classic triumphs (La Fleche Wallonne, runner-up in Liege-Bastogne-Liege). Recently, he took his first national time trial title. Valverde is a level behind the top three favourites, but with a Movistar team that rivals Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo’s for strength, he could improve on his best Tour place of fifth.

Tejay Van Garderen (USA/BMC): The American was racking up some promising results early in the season (runner-up Tour of Oman, 3rd Volta Ciclista a Catalunya), but cracked a hip in a Tour de Romandie crash. Still, he placed 13th in the Dauphiné, where he was part of the Talansky Raid. Look for Colombian Darwin Atapuma to be his mountain wing man.

Top Ten Candidates:
Rui Costa (Portugal/Lampre) is the world champion and recently scored his third consecutive Tour de Suisse title. If he falls out of contention early, he’ll hunt stage wins. He has a healed Chris Horner (USA) as his lieutenant.

Jurgen Van den Broeck (Belgium/Lotto-Belisol) has been fourth twice. Third in the Dauphiné is his best 2014 result by far.

If this was May when he was on fire, Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland/Omega Pharma-QuickStep) would be a podium threat, but he has fallen off so much his team has had tests run on him to find out why.

Ag2r’s Romain Bardet was the highest place Frenchman in last year’s Tour, but he’ll have competition for that honour in this edition from the Next French Hope Thibault Pinot (FDJ).

Matthias Frank (Switzerland/IAM) seeks the position of best placed wild card team rider, but he’ll have to watch out for Cofidis’s Daniel Navarro (Spain), who seems to insinuate himself into stage race top tens without ever appearing on the TV screen.

‘What about Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain/Katusha)?’ you ask. Well, El Purito hasn’t raced since he crashed out of the Giro, and is claiming to just be in France (and England) to get fit for the Vuelta, but I suspect he’ll be on the attack because he just can’t help himself.