The Tour de France is set for one its most open affairs in years, and while Chris Froome heads in as race favourite, the 100th edition will be anything but the dreary affair that played out in 2012, writes Al Hinds.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM

A streak of individual brilliance very rarely paves the way for Tour de France success. In the history of the Tour de France post the second World War only a handful of riders have had the athletic ability of an Eddy Merckx, a Fausto Coppi, or Bernard Hinault to single-handedly boss a Grand Tour in a way that has made their teams appear surplus to requirements.

In the modern era, the top riders are clustered closely together, separated by fractions, a percentage point here and there the difference between winning, and 10th. More than ever, the chance of Grand Tour success comes down to a well-oiled team.

And that doesn't just mean pulling a rider back from an ill-timed puncture, keeping them out of the wind and away from crashes in the often decisive first week, or picking up bidons from the team car - those are just the basic ingredients, the flour in the cake.

As the legendary La Vie Claire Sporting Director Paul Kochli explained in Richard Moore's book "Slaying the Badger"; cycling is a game, it's not simply an endurance sport, there is drafting, there are tactics involved, and they play an important role in how any race, but particularly a Grand Tour plays out.

Kochli didn't believe in teams simply riding the front of races to control things as Sky did in 2012, he preferred his riders to take the race to their opponents, something he did to alarming success in his first two Tours in charge with La Vie Claire in 1985 and 1986. Kochli placed four and five riders respectively in the top-12 in '85 won by Hinault, and '86 won by Greg LeMond.

If LeMond wasn't attacking, Hinault probably was, and if the Frenchman wasn't it was Andy Hampsten or Niki Ruttimann. It's a philosophy that relies on strength and depth within a squad, but is no less effective in 2013 as it was in the 80s. A team's lieutenants, its super domestiques can pressure the captains of other squads by riding themselves into the right break at the right time, endangering their rivals' positions and allowing their own captains to ride defensively - and comfortably - behind.

For those that aren't history aficionados perhaps you'll recall the way Cadel Evans was completely worked over by Team CSC in 2008, culminating in Carlos Sastre's Tour winning attack on Alpe d'Huez. Evans was gritty and determined throughout the '08 Tour, and was arguably the best rider at the race that year but was turned inside out by CSC - a team which boasted a stacked deck, three aces; the experience of Sastre, flanked by Frank and Andy Schleck.

Over the three week event Evans dug in, but could do little but succumb to Sastre just four days from the finish on the 21-switchback ascent. He'd been exhausted, and utterly out-gunned by CSC. Lesson learnt, even a lone ranger like Evans has put a premium in strengthening his Tour support in ever year since.

So what does this all mean for this Tour 100? Unlike my colleague, Philip Gomes, who wrote after the Criterium du Dauphine that the Tour was all but a fait accompli for Chris Froome, I'm genuinely of the belief that this will be one of the most open races in years.

Team Sky has been gutted, its lost the cool head and diesel engine of Michael Rogers, and its anchor in Bradley Wiggins. Froome has been impressive this year and in Richie Porte has one of the best super-domestiques in the business, but there are dark clouds on the horizon, it won't be all clear skies as it was last year on a formulaic parcours.

Alberto Contador's Saxo-Tinkoff has to be the most serious challenger. Not just because Contador is outright the best three week rider of the last decade, but because unlike in 2011 when he looked fatigued after the Giro, and 2009 where he had to beat his own team just to crack yellow, but because of the strength of his four key lieutenants.

Rogers, Roman Kreuziger, Nicholas Roche and Jesus Hernandez give Contador support and Saxo versatility should it need it. Can Froome watch the 2012 Vuelta winner as well as keeping a leash on Kreuziger or Roche? Time will tell.

Meanwhile Eusebio Unzue has assembled one of his most imperious Movistar teams to date with Alejandro Valverde to be aided by Pais Vasco king Nairo Quintana and recent Suisse winner Rui Costa. All three are capable of finishing in the Tour's top-10, even the top-five on their day. Quintana and Valverde crushed Joaqium Rodriguez at last year's Vuelta in the final week with their two-pronged assaults, and with Costa the team gets one extra layer of depth to play around with at the Tour.

The Cadel Evans-Tejay van Garderen combination will also be important to BMC's chances of spoiling Sky's party as long as both can work together cohesively in the same team, something we've had but few glimpses of this year. If they can bring it together they could be one of the more formidable duos in the race, but unlike Froome and Porte, they are as I mentioned, largely untested together.

With runs on the board this year, this is still very much Froome's race to lose, he is the race favourite for a reason but the Kenyan will come under attack. He may be the strongest stage race rider on the circuit at the moment, but how will he play the tactical game over the three week race? Sky won't be able to keep the race together like they did last year, not on this route.

Inevitably there will be points where the British-Kenyan is exposed. How will he handle the pressure, and weather the storm that's coming for him? How will Sky? The answers to those questions will be what defines this year's race, and will determine where yellow ends up 22 July.