The Tour de France gets underway in Leeds in just shy of a fortnight and it’s building as one of the most open in years. Forget the Froom-ination we were faced with last year, or indeed the Wiggins whitewash of 2012, 2014 is going to be different.
As many as eight riders could claim yellow in Paris, Cycling Central believes. A dip in Chris Froome’s stage race dominance this season, and a string of contenders not least Grand Tour aces Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali taking emphasis off their early season results to amplify success in July, has created a crowded list of potential winners with a nail-biting contest looming.
The only notable absence from a star-studded start list is Giro d’Italia king and last year’s Tour runner-up Nairo Quintana, but with Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, Tejay van Garderen, Andrew Talansky, Alejandro Valverde, Rui Costa, and Jurgen van den Broeck, the race unequivocally boasts eight of the top-nine Grand Tour riders in the professional peloton.
Ahead of the three week spectacle, broadcast live and exclusive on SBS, we look at the yellow jersey hopefuls and assess their chances of going all the way in 2014.
1. Chris Froome (Team Sky)
Career Highlights: Tour de France (‘13)
Nationality: British, Kenyan
Descriptor: The Beanstalk
Froome has been the standout rider of the last two Tours de France. An unwieldy presence on the bike that leaves the purists cringing, it matters not to his power output which has been unmatched in the last 24 months. His long, spidery-like legs give him the capacity to time trial as well as the specialists, and with a skeletal frame to match, he’s also been lean enough to go uphill at a trot. Complementing his unworldly ability, his team, the ominously good Team Sky, an outfit guided by the equally meticulous Dave Brailsford and Tim Kerrison, puts Froome in an envious position to defend his Tour title in 2014.
However the year to date hasn’t been as rosy as usual for the Brit. Injury ruled him out of Tirreno-Adriatico, and while he won the Tour de Romandie in May, he struggled again in June at the Criterium du Dauphine after being caught in a crash. Off-the-bike drama has also clouded his preparation including the ashes of a long-running spat with Bradley Wiggins once more stoked, a mild controversy over a TUE, and cracks in the invincibility of both he and his otherwise infallible Team Sky unit pull Froome back from the clouds. He’ll be mortal in 2014, but will he be beatable?
2. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
Career Highlights: Giro d’Italia (2013) and Vuelta a Espana (2010)
Nationality: Italian, Sicilian
Descriptor: The Racer
Vincenzo Nibali won the 2013 Giro d’Italia at a canter. As far as Froome was above his competition at the Tour de France, Nibali’s victory in Italy was a trouncing. He made a mockery of his rivals and revealed a fully matured Grand Tour pedigree. The Italian has been a consistent presence in three week races but has, but for a foray in 2012, largely avoided the Tour de France. This year the French Grand Tour enjoys Nibali’s total focus, he’s specifically prepared at altitude in Tenerife, and has raced scarcely. It’s an all-in approach that has delivered little in the way of results, but his trajectory, certainly over the last few months has been steadily up. When he’s on song, as he was at last year’s Giro, Nibali has the the engine to deliver Astana a yellow jersey. But his biggest ace is his ability to roll the dice, rattle the cage, and break a race apart. On a descent, a day of wild weather, perhaps even on the cobbles on Stage 5 this year, Nibali will be there and willing. A race maker.
3. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo)
Career Highlights: Five Grand Tour wins including two Tours
Descriptor: The Grandmaster
For some reason, unbeknownst to Cycling Central, Chris Froome was recently named by some pundits as the Grand Tour rider of a generation. While that enthusiasm is all well and good, that honour, undeniably belongs to another: Alberto Contador. Five, or is that seven, Grand Tour wins to his name, Contador is an instinctive racer. He’s dominated Grand Tours, just as he’s fought tooth and nail to take them at the last. He’s also proved willing to adapt when he’s needed to. After coming up short in 2013, he has changed his approach in 2014, opting to train at altitude, and has built a formidable team around him to assault this year’s Tour. Contador has a natural cyclist’s physique and has quashed everyone from Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck and Lance Armstrong in his career to date. Froome at this stage remains an unconquered foe, but Contador has far from given up hope of changing that blemish on an otherwise blistering record.
4. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Career Highlights: Vuelta a Espana (‘09)
Descriptor: The Unfulfilled
Time is running out for Alejandro Valverde. Once considered the most exciting Spanish talent since Indurain, ha!, Valverde’s Grand Tour potential, has differed vastly from his fate. An explosive climber capable of distancing the best on a sharp finish, Valverde has had no trouble winning races, but his inconsistency over three weeks has been his biggest pitfall to a Tour de France win. Valverde’s Grand Tour career has been heavily overshadowed by compatriot Alberto Contador, and now on his own team from Movistar’s wunderkind Colombian, Nairo Quintana. With Quintana likely to line up at the Tour de France in 2015, this year marks Valverde’s last real tilt at the French Grand Tour. As form goes, Valverde’s has been as good as any of his rivals, with eight wins, and most recently second overall at the Route du Sud, he’s well-placed ahead of the Tour. Of course, a lot would have to go right, particularly before the final time trial in Bergerac where he’ll likely lose time, for the Spaniard to claim overall honours, but stranger things have happened.
5. Tejay van Garderen (BMC)
Career Highlights: Best young rider Tour de France (‘12)
Descriptor: The Momentum Man
Apprenticeship well and truly over, American Tejay van Garderen has finally been given the total backing of his BMC team after two years in the service of the team’s talismanic recruit Cadel Evans. The Australian has handed the reins of leadership to the young American, forgoing his chances at the Tour, or rather being told he was forgoing them, to focus on the Giro d’Italia. That should open the door for the American to thrive, at least in theory. Van Garderen has the athletic ability to win a Grand Tour, perhaps, one day, but, other than his 2012 performance he doesn’t have the runs on the board to be a convincing contender just yet. At the Tour of Oman earlier this year van Garderen was only out-climbed by Chris Froome, but illness, and inconsistency have blighted much of his 2014. July is a key test for van Garderen, a chance to show BMC that it can double down on the American and back his charge for Grand Tour success down the road. The American is great when he rides with confidence, and mediocre when he doesn’t. Let’s hope for the former for BMC, and the 25 year old’s sake.
6. Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp)
Career Highlights: Criterium du Dauphine (‘14)
Descriptor: The Hotshot, The Dark Horse
The Criterium du Dauphine has put Andrew Talansky’s name right up amongst the top contenders, even if, like van Garderen his Grand Tour history is far from convincing. Talansky finished 10th at last year’s Tour de France, a performance all the more impressive considering he had little help in the race’s third week. With no team time trial, and only one individual time trial, Talansky’s ability to climb will come to the fore at the 2014 Tour de France. His greatest strength is also his greatest weakness, his emotion. Talansky can be a victim of emotion when hot-headedness gets a hold of him, but similarly, has the potential to take advantage of bolts of creativity that more calculated riders like Froome would never dream of. The Criterium du Dauphine was bookended by instances of both, and ultimately, he walked away with overall victory. Might Talansky spring a surprise?
7. Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida)
Career Highlights: World Championship (‘13)
Descriptor: The Underrated One
A world champion fighting for yellow? It’s not something we’ve seen for quite some time but Rui Costa’s decision to leave Movistar at the end of last year for more money and more chances of his own at Lampre-Merida may just create such an opportunity for the Portuguese at the 2014 Tour. Costa is a crafty rider, taking his third Tour de Suisse victory last week with a controlled display that showed only momentary weakness, but plenty of patience, as he rode down Tony Martin. Rui Costa is a huge unknown riding his own race at a Grand Tour, but his quality cannot be understated. A good all-rounder, Rui Costa appears, like Nibali to improving deeper into the year. Winning the Tour de France is not beyond him. This year? Hmm.
8. Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol)
Career Highlights: Fourth at Tour de France (‘09 and ‘12)
Descriptor: The Cursed
The biggest problem for the lanky Jurgen van den Broeck is his nationality. Being Belgian, van den Broeck has had to contend with a press intent on finding its next Merckx or Van Impe when such a pursuit is folly. A strong Grand Tour rider certainly, but expectations of the Lotto man rewriting legends are overwrought. Jurgen is Jurgen. Van den Broeck could easily vie for the podium, his form, and ability suggest he could even be capable of more. Going further however will be a tall order, particularly with a team that is at least partly focused on the ambitions of a sprinter in Andre Greipel. Just ask Cadel Evans how that works out.
Who’s your tip to win the Tour de France?
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