Tour de France analysis: Rating the four main GC contenders
The 2015 Tour de France promises to be thrilling four-way battle between a richly talented elite group of riders: Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana.
It could be one of the most open and exciting General Classification battles ever seen at the Tour. Ahead of Saturday’s Grand Depart in the Dutch city of Utrecht, Luke McLaughlin assesses the main contenders.
Grand Tour victories: Tour de France (2007, 2009), Giro d’Italia (2008, 2015), Vuelta a España (2008, 2012, 2014)
Fresh (or fatigued?) from his Giro success, it would be an astonishing feat if Alberto Contador completes a third career Tour de France victory. The late Marco Pantani was the last man to do the Giro/Tour double, in 1998. If there’s a rider capable of matching the Pirate, it’s Contador.
Following the Giro, the Tinkoff-Saxo rider sealed overall victory in the Route du Sud, convincingly beating Quintana in the penultimate ‘Queen Stage’ with a daring descent off the Port de Bales, dismissing any notion of suffering ill-effects from the Giro. He will be surrounded by one of the strongest and most experienced teams in the race with Roman Kreuziger, Ivan Basso, Michael Rogers and Peter Sagan in their ranks. Polish climber Rafał Majka, who won a mountain stage in 2014, will be a vital ally on the highest terrain.
Contador and Nibali are the most natural all-round riders among the main contenders. Contador’s ability to sense weakness in his opponents – and his instinct for when they are going to attack him – is unsurpassed. Those racing smarts may prove crucial, but how much gas is left in the tank? No-one really knows how he will feel in that punishing final week in the mountains, culminating on the iconic Alpe d’Huez. But like all great champions, he knows how to find a way to win.
He will perhaps feel a little less pressure than the likes of Froome with a Grand Tour already in the bag this season. Contador’s boss, the controversial tycoon Oleg Tinkov, believes cycling’s biggest races must always have the biggest names on the start line if the sport is going to fulfil its potential. This star-studded Tour is a chance to prove his theory, and the signs are good for Contador.
Grand Tour victories: Tour de France (2013)
Team Sky’s main man triumphed in the Critérium du Dauphiné before claiming his Tour de France title in 2013 – as Bradley Wiggins had done the year before. Froome’s come-from-behind victory in this year’s thrilling Dauphiné – one of the best ever one-week races in the history of the sport – showed that he’s hitting top form at the right time.
Team Sky’s collective power crushed many of their rivals in the mountains, before a couple of explosive solo accelerations by Froome saw off Tejay van Garderen and sealed a narrow victory. Froome insisted he had some improvements still to make following the Dauphiné and if that’s the case his rivals should be worried – he should prove incredibly difficult to beat.
After the route announcement last October, Froome hinted he could even skip the Tour de France because, with a relative lack of individual time trial kilometres, the parcours didn’t suit him. But he looks hungry and in great shape now. If he has a weakness it could be his bike handling and ability to avoid crashes. The first week will be hectic, with a return to the cobbles on Stage 4: as Froome himself said, it’s almost like a week of Classics races back-to-back. It is sure to be a nervous beginning, especially with the way Froome crashed out last year.
Froome has a fine team around him, however, including fellow Brits Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Pete Kennaugh – a close-knit unit who will ride selflessly for their leader. The UCI recently ruled Froome and Team Sky can’t use a motorhome, so he’ll sleep in the UCI-appointed hotels like the rest of his team; a marginal loss but it’s unlikely to prove significant. The Kenyan-born rider looks well-placed to win his second Tour.
Team: Astana Pro Team
Grand Tour victories: Tour de France (2014), Giro d’Italia (2013), Vuelta a España (2010)
Last year’s champion will surely face a tougher challenge if he is to win the race again in 2015. Quintana has been added to the equation, Froome is in better form than in 2014 and Contador is aiming for a Grand Tour double. And of course, it’s doubtful that his main rivals will crash out again, as they did last year.
At the Dauphiné, Nibali sent out mixed messages. He sat up on the long Pra Loup climb. Some thought he couldn’t take the pace while others believed he was merely riding to a carefully co-ordinated training plan. The following day his scintillating attack lit up the race – he was eventually beaten by World Champion Rui Costa in an uphill finish, though.
Like Froome, Nibali will naturally have aimed to peak for Le Tour and he called his victory at the Italian national title last weekend a ‘liberation of all the pressure’ – he’s candidly admitted he found the extra expectation that came with being Tour de France champion a burden.
Will he regard the cobbles as an opportunity to attack, rather than defend, as he did last year? His phenomenal ride over wet cobbles in 2014 was the most significant factor in his eventual victory and the prospect of a repeat is tantalising.
As an all-rounder, the wily Sicilian brings more to the roads than the likes of Froome and Quintana – but not Contador. His descending is in a different, higher class than his rivals but don’t be surprised to see the likes of Froome and Quintana put some time into him on the longer climbs. His team is characterised by experience and power: the likes of Jakob Fuglsang, Lars Boom and Michele Scarponi will be willing and capable lieutenants in the GC battle. A rider like Nibali can never be written off.
Grand Tour wins: Giro d’Italia (2014)
Of the four main GC contenders, Quintana is the unknown quantity, at least in terms of his racing schedule this year. Last year’s Giro winner has eschewed a conventional European build-up in favour of high-altitude training in Colombia while enjoying his mother’s home cooking. In March, he did find time to become the first Colombian to win Tirreno-Adriatico.
Plenty of experienced observers (including our own Gary Imlach) are backing Quintana to win his first Tour, given his proven ability as a climber and the mountainous final week that lies ahead. Like Froome, Quintana is a fearsomely fast climber but he still lacks the all-round bike handling skills and racecraft of Contador and Nibali. For the first time he’ll be assisted by British rider Alex Dowsett, who makes his Tour de France debut for Movistar. (Dowsett already has a Grand Tour stage win under his belt: an individual time trial victory at the 2013 Giro). The vastly experienced Spaniard Alejandro Valverde will also be riding for Quintana.
Quintana has played down his Route du Sud loss to Contador, insisting the Spaniard ‘risked everything’ with his hazardous descending. But it was surely a psychological blow. Quintana has proved he can win a Grand Tour – and looks to be in superb form – but will he have the experience and the composure to deal with the triple threat posed by Contador, Froome and Nibali? It should be fun finding out.