With fewer than three weeks to go until the start of the Tour de France – hard to believe, we know – all things indicate that we may be in for a vintage year, especially going by the results of some of the major contenders across the weekend.
Richie Porte (BMC Racing) sewed up the Tour de Suisse title, ahead of Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), while Alejandro Valverde won the Route d’Occitanie, and last year’s runner-up to Chris Froome at the Tour, Rigoberto Uran, won a stage and finished second overall at the Tour of Slovenia.
Froome – to give the defending champion a quick mention – took a while to find his race-winning legs at the Giro d'Italia, whether that was as a result of his pre-race crash, and subsequent crashes, or because he simply wasn’t in as good form as he has been at previous Grand Tours. He certainly came good to take the title, though, and is hoping to defend his Tour title, despite the salbutamol case that still hangs over him, and indeed the sport.
Clearly, if Froome starts the Tour – and all things suggest that he will – he cannot be discounted and, indeed, will be considered the favourite, despite the fact that interest in said salbutamol case will be magnified many times over on cycling’s biggest stage.
If Froome doesn’t start, or is unable to contend for the title, his Team Sky teammate, Thomas, has proved that he’s capable of stepping into the breach with his win at the Critérium du Dauphiné on June 10. Thomas’ best Grand Tour finish is 15th at both the 2015 and 2016 editions of the Tour, but this year, more than ever, whether riding in the service of Froome or for himself, the 32-year-old Welshman is looking very much like he could be right up there this year on the strength of his Dauphiné victory.
Froome’s friend and former teammate Porte also looks to be heading in to this year’s race with as big a chance as ever of clinching the top prize. The Australian has had a relatively slow start to the season, but proved he was a cut above the rest in Switzerland. Before crashing out of last year’s Tour, Porte appeared incredibly strong and he has to be considered a major favourite this time.
Finishing second to Porte at the Tour de Suisse was Fuglsang, who looks like a very good outside bet for a Tour podium place this year. While third-placed Quintana’s time trialling still leaves a lot to be desired, the Movistar man may be able to do enough in the mountains at this year’s Tour. With only 31 kilometres of individual time trialling at this year’s race, if the Colombian were to come out of the Pyrenees with the yellow jersey on his back, and depending on the significance of his lead, you’d have to fancy his chances of just holding on.
A lot will depend on how things go within the Movistar team, who head to the Tour with a three-pronged attack thanks to Quintana, Mikel Landa and Valverde. The latter’s win at the Route d’Occitanie at the weekend proves that his form is as good as Quintana’s right now.
Mitchelton-Scott’s Adam Yates will be hoping to match his twin brother Simon’s impressive exploits from the Giro d’Italia. Adam finished second overall to Thomas at the Dauphiné thanks to his win on the final stage, and had a great week all round, while French hopes are pinned on Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), who showed extremely well at the Dauphiné to finish third overall.
Bahrain-Merida leader Vincenzo Nibali – the 2014 Tour de France champion – has had a quiet build-up to the race, riding the Dauphiné as training, and is now ramping up his form with a training camp in the Dolomites, while Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) showed that he, too, is coming into form nicely after his stage win and fourth place overall at the Dauphiné.
And Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, who has now been confirmed as riding by his Sunweb squad, could be yet another potential winner. Dumoulin was unable to defend his 2017 Giro d’Italia title, but finished a strong second to Froome.
So, despite the confusion surrounding the Froome case, his rivals’ recent demonstrations of top form mean there is plenty to be excited about this July. This really could be one of the closest-fought Tours, between an unprecedented number of protagonists, for years.