The biggest race on earth starts today, which means we’re three weeks away from an historic 100th finish in Paris.
The Centennial edition of the Tour de France is underway from Corsica, with a flat stage tailor-made for a sprint finish. A testy and fresh peloton, however, means there’s no safe stretch in the first week of racing, least of all the chance to don the yellow jersey. Mark Cavendish has voiced his intent to take the maillot jaune by day’s end, though he’ll have to beat Andre Greipel and Peter Sagan, along with a host of other sprinters, to make it happen.
Whoever takes the first jersey is highly unlikely to take the last, and while the sprinters will have their day (likely, seven of them in this year’s Tour) the GC men will take center stage early. Some testing climbs great riders in the second two stages, with a team time trial greeting racers back on the mainland. This year, the name on everyone’s lips is Chris Froome, and with no Brad Wiggins in his rearview mirror, he’s free to fly with the full support of the World Tour’s best team.
Alberto Contador has downplayed his role as Froome’s main, and some would say only, antagonist. The Spaniard is back after essentially missing two Tours, one being wiped out due to a doping ban and the other while serving it. He is still one of the most successful Grand Tour riders in history, even with a string of wins taken from his palmares. However, the three minutes he lost to Froome at the Criterium du Dauphine’s time trial, roughly the same stage as the individual time trial at the Tour, will cast a big shadow on Contador’s 2013 Tour. Contador will test Froome to the very end, and no rider is as devastating an attacker as an on-form Alberto Contador.
BMC enters the Tour with two riders that finished in the top ten last season. After a surprising third place at the Giro, Cadel Evans is the confirmed leader of the outfit, with Teejay Van Garderen voicing his commitment to serve as decoy and pilot fish for the 2011 champion. Evans is mentioned as a podium candidate, but both of the BMC men seem to be slightly under the radar with so much attention on Froome and Contador. Evans, for his part, is riding as well as ever, including his world championship season in 2009, and his year in the rainbow jersey in 2010. Armed with a solid team Evans, and indeed Van Garderen, will be dangerous if left within striking distance after two weeks.
One of the more interesting scenarios comes from the Astana camp. Janez Brajkovic was once called the next great Tour rider, something he’s never quite lived up to, if you call a top ten last season disappointing. His 2010 was lost sheparding a dejected Lance Armstrong before crashing out of a wide-open 2011 Tour. This year, with the addition of Jakob Fuglsang, he’s been demoted, as it were, to second chair, with the Dane becoming Astana’s leader. With no Vicenzo Nibali in the race, Fuglsang becomes the top option, and while he has had a solid spring, somehow doesn’t feel like a true Tour contender. Brajkovic has said he’ll help Fuglsang, though admitted he has a relatively free role. Don’t be surprised to see Brajkovic in the top ten after a week, and Astana holding two great cards to play.
Joaquim Rodriguez is now known as the rider who almost can, and nearly did, before losing to a storming Ryder Hesjedal at last year’s Giro. His Vuelta went well, and this year he chose to ride just the second Tour of his career due to its favorable parcours. Of all the favorites, he is the least mentioned, and there’s no good reason why not. He has the explosive climbing ability to match Froome and Contador, and the greatly reduced time trial kilometers means he has a chance to stay in touch in those tests, as well. Katusha have sent Dani Moreno as a more than capable lieutenant, and there’s really no reason to think Purito won’t be a demanding rider on the high slopes.
Garmin have the most widely open team of all, including Ryder Hesjedal, Dan Martin. Andrew Talansky and Tom Danielson. They’ve skipped bringing Tyler Farrar, whose perpetual top ten and a whining excuse have become an embarrassment and distraction to a team that has evolved into a deep GC squad. Think of the boys in blue as the daily wild card. They have three or four riders perfectly capable of a podium, and haven’t mentioned supporting one more than another. If they are willing to take chances, a rider of Dan Martin’s caliber could slip away to take a minute somewhere along the line to stay in the race or even broach the top three.
Robert Gesink is the leader of the new Belkin outfit, but the long shot of the year might just be Bauke Mollema. He’s capable of climbing and time trialing with the best, as so long as he doesn’t lose time trying to urge along an up and down Gesink, could be the surprise of the Tour.