Race Director Christian Prudhomme has curated an intriguing race route for this year’s Tour. On first viewing, the parcours seems designed to play to the strengths of the superior time trialists like Evans and Wiggins with 96km of individual Time Trials over two stages and a prologue. On closer inspection, Prudhomme has peppered the route with ample opportunities for ambush by the climbers and other opportunists – the first week in particular.
There are seven genuine stages for the sprinters (2, 4, 5, 6, 13, 15, 20) with the added possibility of denying the break on Stage 18; five stages for the opportunists and rouleurs (1, 3, 8, 12, 18); four medium mountain stages (7, 8, 12, 14); four high mountain stages (10, 11, 16, 17); five stages with uphill finishes (1, 3, 7, 11, 17); a prologue and two Individual Time Trial stages (9, 19).
For any of the second tier of contenders to leapfrog the two big favourites they’ll need to attack early and attack often – not just on the high mountain stages but on the uphill finishes in the first week and the medium mountains in week two. The racing promises to be exciting from the get-go and if all goes to plan, Prudhomme will have ensured that the race isn’t decided until the final gruelling 52km time trial on the penultimate day.
Why he wins
Defending champion and two-time runner up, Cadel Evans is by far the best credentialed of all the riders lining up in Liège for the 99th edition of the Tour. His quiet confidence in his ability to deliver a second victory is built on a foundation of both having done it before and having an even stronger team at his disposal for his title defence. Five of his 2011 team reprise their roles, including captain on the road, Hincapie along with Moinard, Quinziato, Burghardt and Schär. And in 2012 the Team BMC brains trust gains the brilliant tactical smarts of Cadel’s good friend Philippe Gilbert – as well as having its climbing stocks bolstered by Tejay Van Garderen and Steve Cummings. Expect to see Gilbert antagonise and animate the front of the race in week one in order to provide Evans with a launching pad to sneak seconds through attacking riding – much as he did on stage 1 of this year’s Dauphiné, a stage Evans won.
If Christian Prudhomme had have asked Cadel Evans to design the parcours on which he wanted to defend his maillot jeune, I’m pretty sure it would look a lot like the this year’s route. Some 96km of time trialling to upset the pure climbers [✓]; some lumpy, bumpy, blowy early stages to unsettle the nervous wheels [✓]; some serious mountain stages to weed out the pretenders but not absurdly Angelo Zomegnan-like [✓]. The only thing missing is a TTT, something Evans has come to enjoy since leaving the stumblebums at Lotto behind. The only thing that will have surprised Evans about this year’s race is the form that Bradley Wiggins is bringing to it and the fact that Wiggins now arrives at the Grand Depart as the bookies’ favourite. Fortunately for Evans, with some sharp uphill finishes in week one that suit his punchy, racing style, and the fact that the mountains this year are steep, he’ll have calculated that the route still suits him more than it does Wiggins – especially when it comes to climbing and descending.
Evans and his BMC team mates will be looking to swarm all over the front of the race whenever there looks to be an opportunity to put Wiggins under pressure. They’ll be looking to set Evans up not to just take time but to ratchet up the psychological pressure too. By Tour’s end, Team Sky will be sick of the sight of those red and black jerseys muscling towards the front and increasingly mentally fatigued as they have to continually wrap their brains around what Lelangue, Evans, Gilbert and Hincapie are cooking up next. Team BMC know that in order to manufacture victory they have to crack the Brit and it will be their calculated game of mental disintegration that brings Wiggins undone and ensures a second Tour victory for Evans – long before the final test against the clock on stage 19.
Path to victory
The theory is quite simple but putting it into practice considerably more difficult – Evans has 18 stages to find a minute. With Wiggins expected to put time into him in the Prologue and the two individual Time Trials (5 seconds, 25 seconds and 30 seconds respectively), he’ll need to scrap and race for precious seconds in the first week (Stages 1, 3 and 7), steal time on some of the steep ascents and nasty descents (Stages 8, 10 and 14) and then grind out more time in the two difficult Pyrenean stages (16 & 17). If he arrives at the Stage 20 Time Trial with 30 seconds or more on Wiggins he’s in with a real show of defending his title. Although the Stage 19 Time Trial (52km) is 14km longer than the Stage 9 Time Trial (38km), Evans will have grown stronger over the course of 3 weeks racing and it is doubtful that a fatiguing Wiggins will put much more time into Evans over the longer distance than he did on Stage 9.
Why he doesn’t win
If the form and wits of Wiggins stands up to three weeks of aggressive, high pressure racing, the size and quality of his engine could see him pull out enough time in the Time Trials to make it all but impossible for Evans to win. To some extent, the chances of Evans relies on the ambitions of the climbers in the race – Schleck, Gesink and Nibali especially. If the other climbers don’t attack on the steep slopes, Wiggins has more chance of hanging in and denying the rest of the field the opportunity to take the time they need.
Why he wins
Brad Wiggins is a uniquely accomplished rider. Imperious on the track between 2003 and 2008 – with three Olympic gold medals and six world championships to prove it – he looks set to become just as accomplished on the road too. Throughout his career Wiggins has demonstrated a real talent for consistently attaining every goal he sets himself through both meticulous preparation and bucket loads of hard work. Having an extraordinary engine at his disposal and the brains trust of the British track program (and now Team Sky) has also helped.
Over the past 12 months Wiggins appears to have taken some really significant steps towards becoming a genuine Grand Tour rider. His credentials up until his 3rd in the 2011 Vuelta really weren’t that impressive. Yes, he was 4th in the 2009 Tour but that was a strange race where the parcours and the tactics on some of the tougher stages (and within some of the teams) worked against it as a spectacle and as a real test. Up until then he was more likely to be outside the top 100 in a Grand Tour rather than being firmly ensconced in the top 10. His 3rd behind climbing sensation Cobo and team mate Froome was built on the back of an excellent Time Trial and some pretty decent climbing, only faltering (and losing the leader’s jersey) on the really steep slopes of the Anglirú. Since then, he’s pulled out a string of extremely impressive results, winning both the individual time trials and the overall at three high profile stage races in 2012: Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné.
The team assembled by Sky in support of Wiggins is one of the best we’ve seen since the glory days of US Postal. Froome and Porte could be leading teams of their own. Michael Rogers brings a wealth of experience and a massive three-time world time trial champion engine to the table. Newly crowned Norwegian champion Edvald Boasson Hagen proved at the Dauphiné that he’s just as capable of doing a massive turn on the front up a mountain as he is scooping up stage wins on all sorts of terrain. Throw in a couple of hard working domestiques in Christian Knees and Kanstantsin Siutsou and Wiggins could not be better served. That team racing on a parcours that includes 96km of individual time trials is exactly the right mix of ingredients to all but guarantee success for the lanky Brit. If he holds his nerve and displays that alleged new found torque on the steepest climbs (apparently developed whilst training in Tenerife earlier this year) he wins.
Path to victory
The proposition for Wiggins is simpler than that for any of his rivals. With four simple steps victory is his:
- stay upright in week one and don’t panic.
- take substantial time in the stage 9 individual time trial
- follow the wheels in the mountains in week 2 and week 3
- vanquish his rivals in the 52km stage 19 time trial
Why he doesn’t win
The distraction of Cav and his stage aspirations in the first week leaves Wiggins with two less riders in support of his GC bid and that’s a significant disadvantage – regardless of just how good the rest of his team is.
One thing Wiggins can’t escape is that he has never been at the pointy end of a Grand Tour GC when it came down to the business end of the race. The closest he’s been was when he led the 2011 Vuelta and, unfortunately for him, he cracked. Failing to deal with a mountain goat like Cobo in the Vuelta is one thing, being put in the thumbscrews at the Tour by genuine, accomplished GC riders like Evans, Nibali and Menchov, is another thing altogether. Wiggins is great handling pressure when he can control the circumstances – and his record on the track is testimony to that. But three week stage races are full of thousands of moving parts – man, machine and the elements. And when Wiggins gets out of his comfort zone he tends to bristle at the media, lash out at what he sees as distractions and then he begins to lose focus. His rivals know this better than anyone and they intend to exploit it.
Wiggo is far from the best bike handler in the bunch and week one presents far too many opportunities for him to not just lose time but potentially find himself upside down in a ditch like he did last year. Evans and BMC will race week one extremely aggressively meaning that Wiggins will have to put himself in positions that his normally low appetite for risk wouldn’t allow him to contemplate. His rivals will hope to see him sweat and grow frustrated as they whittle away at his expected advantage from the Prologue and force him to race hard to ensure he maximises his advantage from the stage 9 time trial. That’s where Plan B kicks in – they want to see Wiggins in yellow after stage 9. Why? Because he will have to spend the first rest day swamped by interviews from a crowing British press – far away from his usual routine and comfort zone. Then Wiggins and Team Sky will have to spend the next two extremely difficult days in the Alps where they’ll be placed under enormous pressure by Evans, Nibali and the Spanish climbers. And it’s on the slopes of the Col de la Croix de Fer and La Toussuire that the first cracks are likely to appear.
Why he wins
With only two previous appearances at the Tour (20th in 2008 and 7th in 2009) Nibali has been one of the better performed Grand Tour riders of the past two years with a 3rd and a 2nd at the Giro and a win and 7th at the Vuelta. This year he gets his crack at the Tour as Team Leader with an excellent squad at his disposal, including Basso and Szmyd for the climbs. Also in his favour, Nibali has been on excellent form this year – a stage win and the overall at Tirreno–Adriatico, a stage win and 2nd overall at the Tour of Oman, 3rd at Milan-San Remo, and 2nd at Liège–Bastogne–Liège.
Nibali is a supremely cool customer on the bike and an excellent tactician. He knows when to be patient and manage his effort and he also knows when to have a dig – especially on the downhills. Few descend as well as the ‘the shark’ and this year there are plenty of opportunities for him to snatch time on the descents that the more nervous descenders like Wiggins won’t want a bar of. The Liquigas team management know that one of Nibali’s real strengths is his mental fortitude and like BMC they suspect that Wiggins is potentially susceptible to succumbing to the pressure when things don’t go to plan. Along with BMC, Liquigas showed at the Dauphiné that they’re prepared to attack Sky and Wiggins whenever the opportunity presents itself. An alliance between the two squads on stages 1, 7 and 8 doesn’t seem out of the question – there are seconds to be gained there and Nibali will be prepared to split the spoils with Evans in the first week – especially if it puts Wiggins on the back foot.
Path to victory
For mine, Nibali is a similar style of GC rider to Evans – mentally tough, a great descender, and a real racer – able to read and surf the rhythms of the bunch, looking for any advantage in the closing kilometres of any stage – whether it’s flat, uphill or downhill. The fact that Evans won the Tour last year will have given great heart to ‘the shark of the strait’. He’ll want to take time in the first week; put in a steady TT on stage 9; tighten the screws on the steep climbs of week 2; hunt for time in the Pyrenees; and look to go into the final time trial on stage 19 with 90 seconds over Evans – the man he sees as his biggest threat. If he can manage to do all of that, he might just pull it off.
Why he doesn’t win
Liquigas have a two pronged approach to the Tour this year, with some of the team’s resources being devoted to the irrepressible Peter Sagan in the hunt for stage victories and the Green Jersey. Similar to Wiggins, there’s a question mark as to how much this might affect Nibali’s chances compared to Evans who has all of BMC at his disposal. The second problem for Nibali is that he’s not in the same class as Evans, Wiggins and Menchov when it comes down to the time trials. For all his class on the climbs and panache on the descents, the time he’ll lose on stages 9 and 19 might mean he is podium at best.
Why he wins
The big Russian has been flying under the radar all year but his win at the Russian National Time Trial championship last week (his first) is a real indication that he’s a serious contender coming into some serious form. Menchov’s last two Tour appearances – 2nd in 2010 and 3rd in 2008 – show he’s no pretender when it comes to the ‘big lap’. He was 5th at the Vuelta last year and along with Froome, was one of the few GC contenders who proved capable of almost matching Cobo on the steepest slopes. The secret for Menchov, like Wiggins, will be to be attentive in the first week, keep his powder dry in week two, and wind up his big diesel engine in the final week – making time in the high mountains and bringing it home in the final time trial. The pundits may underestimate him but you can be guaranteed the big favourites won’t. A serious threat.
Why he doesn’t
Menchov usually takes a while to find his form at the Tour and invariably has a bad day early that makes it difficult for him to make up for those early losses. With BMC and the opportunists from GreenEdge, Astana, Movistar, Saxo Bank, Vacansoleil and Saur-Sojasun looking to swarm off the front in week one, there’s some chance that Menchov might find himself behind the eight-ball early and drop time on Stages 1, 3 or 7. Equally, if Menchov is slightly off the boil in the Alps in week two, he might run out of stages to make up lost time in the Pyrenees and the final time trial.
Why he wins
For a rider touted as one of the next big things in Grand Tours, Gesink’s record at three week stage races doesn’t inspire enormous confidence. A fifth at the Tour in 2010 is his best performance to date (he was 33rd last year) and a 7th and a 6th at the Vuelta (2008 and 2009) hint at his promise rather than confirm it. What we have to remember is that Gesink is only 26 and is still a couple of years off really hitting his straps over three weeks of racing.
One thing we do know about Gesink is that he can well and truly handle the steep stuff – he was commanding on Mt Baldy at the Tour of California back in May and if he displays that kind of form on the steep climbs at the Tour, he’s capable of riding most of the field of his wheel – Wiggins included. Gesink is also capable of putting in a decent TT on Stage 9 over 38km but the 52km TT on Stage 19 will be a real test. Whereas Evans will need to find a minute in the mountains ahead of stage 19, Gesink will need to find at least 2 minutes and possibly as much as 3 minutes to hold off Wiggins. It’s a big ask but Gesink is a precocious talent and his break-out Tour performance is bound to come sooner rather than later.
Why he doesn’t
At just 26 Gesink is still a couple of years off his Grand Tour prime. Better suited to a more typical Tour route with a few less TT km and a couple more days in the high mountains – Gesink will struggle to put enough time into Wiggins and Evans in the mountains to claim the top step of the podium. Also against him, Rabobank (as is their fashion) are having a bet each way in 2012 – with Renshaw selected for the sprints and Luis Leon Sanchez potentially splitting the focus of the team for GC, especially given four-time Spanish National Time Trial Champion Sanchez’s ability against the clock.
Should Wiggins falter, Froome is the obvious candidate to step-up for team Sky just as he did in last year’s Vuelta. Not only is Froome a proven performer up the steepest climbs, he’s a more than decent Time Trialist, even pipping Evans by 10 seconds in the long time trial at the Dauphine back in June. At 27 years-of-age, Froome is on the fast track to becoming a big time Grand Tour contender. His second behind Cobo at the Vuelta was just a preview of the things to come for the Kenyan born Brit and even if Wiggins manages to hang tough, Froome is a better than outside chance to make the podium.
After withdrawing from the Giro, Schleck the elder looked in pretty tidy form at the Tour de Suisse. His forays off the front on the big climbs reminded us what he is capable of when the roads head upwards. It’s unlikely Schleck’s form will hold for the entire three weeks but there’s every chance he could cause some mischief on the steep climbs of the second week. To some extent he’ll be flying under the radar of the main contenders which may afford him the chance to attack uphill and put some time into the main favourites. To win he’ll need nearly five minutes up his sleeve before Stage 19 which seems unlikely. But after a forgettable season for both his family and his team, Schleck the elder has a point to prove and Top 5 is not out of the question.
Sammy Sanchez has been there or thereabouts during the last few Tours. Unfortunately for the Spaniard there was nothing at all to like about his form at the Dauphiné – he wasn’t even remotely close on any of the stages. And in this year’s Tour the TT distances all but rule him out. He may be given some latitude in the 2nd week but he’ll need close to 8 minutes on Wiggins and Evans to be in with a show – given he lost 7:27 to Wiggins on the 53km TT at the Dauphiné. He’ll need the luck of Oscar Pereiro to win this year’s Tour and that seems unlikely, which means he’s more likely to claim the Mountain Jersey for the second year in a row.
The Sunday Spin
A 30 minute weekly program on 612 ABC Brisbane Digital covering all things bike that goes to air Sundays at 2:30pm.
Tune in this Sunday 1 July to hear more of how I think this year’s Tour will play out. We’ll be talking GC, GreenEdge, the Green Jersey and more.