Iain Treloar guides you through three weeks of climbs, teams and contenders in the world’s greatest bike race.
For many bike lovers, the jewel of July is the Tour de France. For Australian audiences, the event has a magnetic quality that has us glued to our televisions year after year. Perhaps it’s the escapism as we shiver through winter, watching a swarm of extraordinary athletes coursing through the French countryside. Perhaps it’s the awe-inspiring scale of the largest annual sporting event in the world. Or maybe it’s all of those things providing a canvas for three weeks of high drama and adrenaline.
The 2014 Tour de France was an absorbing spectacle, but for many of the big favourites it was a race they’d rather forget. The expected Chris Froome/Alberto Contador showdown never eventuated; Froome crashed out, breaking his hand; a couple of days later Contador also faltered, breaking his leg. Vincenzo Nibali dominated and took victory, winning by the largest margin since 1997—holding the yellow jersey for all but two days and snaring four stages along the way. The post-Tour wash-up focussed on the showdown that never was, but Nibali’s performance was commanding and indicated that either of his more fancied rivals would have struggled to match him.
This year’s competition is set to be a display more than the equal to last, with one of the most impressive fields in recent memory set to roll out from Utrecht on July 4th.
One of the more beautiful things about the Tour de France is the subplots within the broader narrative. There’s daily intrigue playing out, and battles for obscure classifications along the way. But there’s one prize that matters above all else.
The fabled maillot jaune (yellow jersey), is awarded to the rider with the lowest overall time at the end of the Tour, in Paris. Although the chaotic sprints and will-they-won’t-they breakaways are eye-catching diversions, the reality of the Tour is that the general classification (GC) is usually decided in the mountains, or the time-trials. This year, race organisers have gone heavy on the mountains and light on the time-trials. What this means for spectators is a compelling race fought out in the Alps and the Pyrenees; it’s one of the most exciting and open routes in years.
Of the riders vying for overall honours, there are perhaps 10 riders who you can expect to feature prominently. These 10 or so riders can be roughly split into two tiers.
At the top level, there are four riders who can be considered as clear-cut favourites for the podium. Vincenzo Nibali, winner of last year’s race, has structured his season around a defense of his title. As a GC contender he’s somewhat underestimated, overshadowed by Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, but he’s a fierce competitor.
His record is impressive; he’s never finished worse than 20th place in 12 Grand Tours and he’s one of only six riders in history to have won all three. The asterisk hanging alongside these victories is the fact that they haven’t always come from hyper-competitive fields, the assumption being that more fancied rivals may have bested him had they started. If he wins this year’s Tour against such a stacked field, there won’t be any further questions of Nibali—other than related to his team, Astana, who have only just managed to hold onto their license after a number of doping violations in the past year.
The Spaniard, Alberto Contador, is the most dominant (and complete) GC rider of the past decade. His career has not been without its controversy—he’s been caught up in a couple of doping investigations over the years—but he’s a beautiful rider to watch, with an attacking and gutsy riding style. Contador’s palmares is exceptional; he’s the winner of eight grand tours (although was later stripped of two of these wins following a notorious encounter with a ‘dodgy steak’) and is going for a rare Giro–Tour double this year. At time of writing he’d just dislocated his shoulder in a crash during the Giro, so any effects of this to his prospects in the Tour remain to be seen.
The tiny Colombian, Nairo Quintana, hasn’t been around for long, but he has some extremely impressive results to his name—including winning the Giro d’Italia last year and finishing second to Chris Froome in the 2013 Tour de France. Quintana is best in the mountains, and as such this year’s Tour is almost custom-made for him, favouring a dedicated climbing specialist. He’s from humble origins and has a clean reputation, so would be a popular and sentimental winner. On paper he looks to be the outright favourite for the title; the only significant question mark is the cobbled sectors of stage four, terrain which favours larger riders. If he can make it unblemished through these, and without losing too much time to his main rivals, it will be thrilling to watch him light it up on the decisive mountain stages.
The Kenyan-born Brit Chris Froome has achieved four podiums in Grand Tours, most notably 2nd to Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 Tour de France and 1st in 2013. He was arguably the favourite last year, until he crashed out within the first week. His form’s been somewhat mercurial this year so far; he’s been riding superbly at times, defeating Contador in Ruta del Sol, but he’s also suffered from a chest infection and was involved in a bad crash in La Fleche Wallone. This year’s Tour isn’t entirely to his strengths; it is in individual time-trials that Froome has the clearest advantage over most of his GC rivals, but there’s only 13.8km of these in 2015. Froome’s no slouch uphill, but with his key advantage neutralised, he’ll need to be at the top of his game on the climbs to contain the accelerations of Quintana and the other mountain goats.
Of the second tier of riders—those that aren’t quite as fancied or consistent as the above four—there are some exciting prospects. Last year’s podium runners-up behind Nibali, the French duo of Jean-Christophe Peraud (2nd) and Thibaut Pinot (3rd), are likely to make an impression, but I suspect will struggle to repeat the performances of last year. Pinot will be targeting another podium finish, but his team is relatively weak and I don’t see him as being capable of as strong a performance this year against deeper competition. Peraud, of Ag2r-La Mondiale, is now 38 years old, and is more likely to be cast in a supporting role to the exciting young French climber Romain Bardet, who finished sixth overall last year and showed real panache on the climbs. The team is stacked with unproven GC talent, and if the patchy Colombian Carlos Betancur gets his act together or Domenico Pozzovivo makes a quick recovery from his horrible crash in this year’s Giro, Ag2r have a few cards to play. It remains to be seen if the team’s collective strength is adequate to trouble the four top favourites.
The popular and exciting Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) is in with a shot for the podium—he’s been spectacularly consistent over the years, finishing in the top four of seven of the last nine Grand Tours he’s completed. However, despite this impressive record, he’s yet to reach the top step, and at 36 years of age is starting to run out of time. This year’s route plays to his strengths, so he’ll be hoping to make an impression.
Quintana will have support—or potentially a battle for leadership—from his Movistar team-mate Alejandro Valverde. Valverde is in excellent form so far this year, taking out the double of Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and is never far from the podium in any race he enters. But he’s the closest thing the peloton currently has to a villain, with his unrepentant attitude to a past doping conviction, so brace yourself for a mix of derision and delight if he has a crack at the win for himself.
Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Richie Porte (Team Sky), although capable of stepping into a leadership role, will sacrifice their own ambitions in support of their team captains (Contador and Froome respectively). Should disaster strike for their leaders, however, both are potential top ten finishers, as is Leopold Konig, a Czech climber now riding as a domestique for Team Sky.
The American duo of Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC) are also likely to be in the mix for the top ten, but it would be a surprise to see them in its upper reaches. A more exciting (but unknown) prospect is Giant-Alpecin’s climber, Warren Barguil, who’s lining up for his Tour debut and may produce a surprising result if he gets even a hint of team support.
Regardless of who takes the top honours this year, we have an exciting three weeks of racing ahead of us. Vive le Tour!
All stages of this year’s Tour de France will be televised live on SBS (usually from around 10pm–1am) with nightly highlights packages at 6pm.
Stage by stage
Stage 1 – Saturday 4 July
Utrecht > Utrecht
13.8km The Tour kicks off against the clock, with a prologue through the centre of Utrecht in the Netherlands. Expect a time-trial specialist like Tony Martin to take the first yellow jersey of the race.
Stage 2 – Sunday 5 July
Utrecht > Zelande
166km Although a flat stage, the route takes the peloton along exposed coastal roads. It’s likely to come down to a sprint, but the key for the GC contenders will be to avoid getting caught out by sudden shifts in the wind.
Stage 3 – Monday 6 July
Anvers > Huy
159.5km This stage is worth staying up for if only for the finish: it concludes on the notorious Mur de Huy, a brutally steep climb of gradients up to 26% that’s a defining feature of La Fleche Wallone. Expect to see GC contenders battling with punchy riders like Valverde, Gerrans and Gilbert for the win.
Stage 4 – Tuesday 7 July
Seraing > Cambrai
221.5km Inspiration from iconic one day races continues with this stage, taking in seven sectors of cobbles; 13km in total. Many of these are in common with Paris-Roubaix. Nibali’s Tour win last year was built on a stunning performance on a cobbled stage, and it could prove decisive again in 2015.
Stage 5 – Wednesday 8 July
Arras Communauté Urbaine > Amiens Métropole
189.5km A flat stage through the Somme, with a finish for the fast men.
Stage 6 – Thursday 9 July
Abbeville > Le Havre
191.5km This stage isn’t particularly challenging on paper, but it’s sure to be scenic, travelling along the cliffs of Normandy’s coastline. Wind may prove a decisive factor.
Stage 7 – Friday 10 July
Livarot > Fougères
190.5km It’s never promising when the official Tour website can’t find much to say about a stage. Apparently Livarot is famous for strong cheese, and it’s a likely sprint finish. Reading between the lines, perhaps a night to catch up on sleep.
Stage 8 – Saturday 11 July
Rennes > Mûr-de-Bretagne
181.5km A flattish stage, but with a sharp climb at the end that will have the GC riders jostling for position. This finish was the site of a Cadel Evans stage win in 2011.
Stage 9 – Sunday 12 July
Vannes > Plumelec
28km A team time trial culminating in an extended climb of 1.7km at an average 6% gradient.
Stage 10 – Tuesday July 14
Tarbes > La Pierre-Saint-Martin
167km The first of three days in the Pyrenees. The opening section of the stage isn’t particularly challenging, but that all goes out the window when the peloton hits the final climb to La Pierre-Saint-Martin—15km at 7.4%. There’ll be extra motivation for the French riders on Bastille Day.
Stage 11 – Wednesday July 15
Pau > Cauterets – Vallée de Saint-Savin
188km A stage taking the peloton over the feared climbs of Col d’Aspin and the Tourmalet. This is unlikely to prove too decisive, as the big climbs finish relatively early, giving any stragglers 40km to regroup.
Stage 12 – Thursday July 16
Lannemezan > Plateau de Beille
195km the third and final Pyrenean stage in this year’s race is a monster, with four sizeable climbs culminating in the ascent to Plateau de Beille (15.8km at 7.9%).
Stage 13 – Friday July 17
Muret > Rodez
198.5km An undulating day through the Tarn valley, with some steep climbs on the lead-in to the stage finish in Rodez.
Stage 14 – Saturday July 18
Rodez > Mende
178.5km As with stages three and eight, this stage culminates with a nasty climb to the Côte de la Croix Neuve—3 kilometres at over 10%—with the finish soon after. Last time the Tour came here, Joaquim Rodriguez won the day and he’s a decent bet this time too.
Stage 15 – Sunday July 19
Mende > Valence
183km Another transitional stage likely to come down to a sprint.
Stage 16 – Monday July 20
Bourg-de-Péage > Gap
201km The second longest day in the saddle of the 2015 Tour, this is a lumpy amble for the peloton before the second rest day.
Stage 17 – Wednesday July 22
Digne-les-Bains > Pra Loup
161km An exciting day in the mountains, with a long climb up the Col d’Allos, a quick descent and a short steep climb to finish. If a split can open between the major contenders on the Col d’Allos, it may prove decisive.
Stage 18 – Thursday July 23
Gap > Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne
186.5km Another day in the Alps, taking in the Col du Glandon, before tackling the short but visually astounding Lacets de Montvernier (17 switchbacks in <4km—Google it and wince).
Stage 19 – Friday July 24
Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne > La Toussuire – Les Sybelles
138km A relatively brief stage, but a brutal one, with barely a flat kilometre en route to La Toussuire. Last time the Tour came here, there was a fantastic battle between Pierre Rolland and Thibaut Pinot. It’s sure to produce another stunning spectacle in 2015.
Stage 20 – Saturday July 25
Modane Valfréjus > Alpe d’Huez
110.5km An iconic decider for the final result of the Tour de France, this short stage features the Col du Telegraphe and Col du Galibier (highest point of the Tour at 2645m) before concluding on the famous slopes of Alpe d’Huez. If the podium isn’t yet decided, this will be absolutely riveting.
Stage 21 – Sunday July 26
Sèvres – Grand Paris Seine Ouest > Paris Champs-Élysées
109.5km The last stage of the Tour is largely ceremonial, before things get a little more serious for the final prestigious sprint. A twilight finish on the Champs Elysees to bring the curtain down on three weeks of drama.
Note: Final nine-man squads for the Tour have not yet been announced.
Ag2r-La Mondiale (France)
Romain Bardet (France), Jean-Christophe Peraud (France), Domenico Pozzovivo (Italy), Carlos Betancur (Colombia)
Vincenzo Nibali (Italy), Jakob Fuglsang (Denmark), Fabio Aru (Italy), Lars Boom (Netherlands)
BMC Racing Team (USA)
Tejay van Garderen (USA), Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), Rohan Dennis (Australia), Samuel Sanchez (Spain)
Andrew Talansky (USA), Dan Martin (Ireland), Ryder Hesjedal (Canada)
Etixx-Quick Step (Belgium)
Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland), Mark Cavendish (UK), Tony Martin (Germany)
Thibaut Pinot (France), Jeremy Roy (France), Steve Morabito (Switzerland)
Marcel Kittel (Germany), John Degenkolb (Germany), Tom Dumoulin (Netherlands), Warren Barguil (France)
IAM Cycling (Switzerland)
Sylvain Chavanel (France), Heinrich Haussler (Australia)
Team Katusha (Russia)
Joaquim Rodriguez (Spain), Alexander Kristoff (Norway), Simon Spilak (Slovenia)
Rui Costa (Portugal), Diego UIissi (Italy)
Wilco Kelderman (Netherlands), Laurens Ten Dam (Netherlands), Robert Gesink (Netherlands)
Andre Greipel (Germany), Tony Gallopin (France), Adam Hansen (Australia), Jurgen Van der Broeck (Belgium)
Movistar Team (Spain)
Nairo Quintana (Colombia), Alejandro Valverde (Spain), John Gadret (France)
Simon Gerrans (Australia), Simon Clarke (Australia), Michael Matthews (Australia), Adam & Simon Yates (Great Britain)
Team Sky (Great Britain)
Chris Froome (UK), Geraint Thomas (UK), Richie Porte (Australia), Leopold Konig (Czech Republic), Nicolas Roche (Ireland)
Alberto Contador (Spain), Roman Kreuziger (Czech Republic), Michael Rogers (Australia), Rafal Majka (Poland)
Trek Factory Racing (USA)
Bauke Mollema (Netherlands), Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland, Frank Schleck (Luxembourg), Haimar Zubeldia (Spain)
Bora-Argon 18 (Germany)
Bikes: Argon 18
Jan Barta (Czech Republic), Zak Dempster (Australia), Sam Bennett (Ireland)
Bretagne-Séché Environnement (France)
Romain Feillu (France), Pierrick Fedrigo (France), Eduardo Sepulveda (Argentina)
Nacer Bouhanni (France), Cyril Lemoine (France), Daniel Navarro (Spain)
Team Europcar (France)
Thomas Voeckler (France), Pierre Rolland (France)
MTN-Qhubeka (South Africa)
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Norway), Matthew Goss (Australia), Serge Pauwels (Belgium), Louis Meintjes (South Africa)
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