There will only be three American riders at the Grand Départ of the Tour de France in Utrecht on Saturday, a third of the number of riders who started the race last year, and the smallest number in nearly two decades. But even though that number is surprisingly low, considering that there are 20 American riders racing for WorldTour teams this year, the US still has a shot at top performances in the overall classification and in mixing it up in the bunch sprints.
Potential GC contenders will be BMC Racing's Tejay van Garderen and Cannondale-Garmin's Andrew Talansky, while Tyler Farrar will return to the French Grand Tour for the first time since 2012 as a key player in MTN-Qhubeka's lead-out train for Edvald Boasson Hagen.
The Tour de France will kick off with a 13.8km time trial through Utrecht and Talansky, the newly crowned US time trial champion, is looking forward to wearing his stars-and-stripes jersey during the opener. It's an opportunity made even more special because the race is held on July 4, Independence Day.
"I think it is going to be a great start," Talansky said at the team presentation on Thursday. "It's always special to start the Tour with a time trial and being the US national champion, starting with the stars-and-stripes jersey on the fourth of July will be a great experience."
Talansky will be looking for a good performance in the opener to kick off the overall classification, however, his bigger goals will be geared toward strong rides through the mountains and a top-10 overall placing.
Cannondale-Garmin have three cards to play in the GC with Irishman Dan Martin and Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, and that will likely take some pressure off of Talansky during the three weeks of racing. He recently completed the Critérium du Dauphiné in 10th place, and although he won the overall title at the event last year, he still believes he is on track for a good performance at the Tour.
For Talansky, returning to the Tour de France is also an opportunity to redeem himself from the misfortunes he experienced during last year's event. He told Cyclingnews at the start of the season that he had unfinished business with the race after he was forced to abandon on stage 12 as a result of back-to-back crashes in stages 7 and 8. He believes that the ups-and-downs experiences of last year have made him better equipped to handle the unpredictability of Grand Tour racing this time around.
Talansky has shown himself as an outside contender, finishing 10th overall at the Tour de France in 2013 and he is hoping to improve on that result this year. "Absolutely, yes, achieving a top-10 is the minimum," Talansky told Cyclingnews at the start of the season.
"I mean a top-10 is the minimum to improve on from a couple of years ago. I think that if I get to ride the race that I would like to, and we have things go generally right – because you're never going to have everything go perfectly – but if things go just a little better than last year, then I think it will lead to a great result."
As far as overall contenders are concerned, Tejay van Garderen has made it clear that he is looking to be one of the top three riders on the overall podium in Paris on July 26. He has twice finished fifth, in the 2012 and 2014 editions, and is the nation's best shot at a top overall place this year.
Van Garderen, 26, will be exclusively backed by his BMC team at the Tour and he proved to be worthy of such a position after placing second overall to Chris Froome (Team Sky) at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June. During that race, he climbed to second place in both Pra-Loup and Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, two of the event's mountaintop finishes, however, he lost the overall lead to Froome on the final climb to Modane Valfréjus.
"I took a lot of motivation out of the Dauphiné result, so I'm just excited to get things going," van Garderen told reporters in a team teleconference last week.
Van Garderen has already shown that he is a podium contender for the shorter, mountainous WorldTour stage races, but he is still trailing slightly behind the so-called Fab Four; Froome, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) when it comes to the Grand Tours.
Instead, van Garderen forms part of the second tier of contenders for the Tour de France that include riders like Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ).
"Those four names have all won Grand Tours and have podiums in Grand Tours, won stages in Grand Tours and some of them have won all three Grand Tours, or multiple times all three Grand Tours, so there is a reason that they are put in the five-star favourite status. I hope to that after this year's Tour to be put in the realm with those guys."
Van Garderen will no doubt give it his best shot at making the final podium, and even at winning the yellow jersey, but if that dream doesn't come to fruition this year, he is confident that it will happen at some point in his career.
"I'm very motivated and I'm very confident," van Garderen said. "I'm in a really good place going into this Tour; I think we have a really good team and just all the vibes I'm getting for this Tour are just very good. I really want to make the podium or even higher – anything is possible – but to say I'm putting in all my chips, I'm going to do it this year and it's now or never? It's not now or never. You know, I've got a good six to eight more years of trying to make the podium or win the Tour."
Tyler Farrar, 31, will bring valuable experience to MTN-Qhubeka's Tour de France line-up, especially when it comes to sprinting. The veteran sprinter, who has won a stage at the Tour, two stages at the Giro and three at the Vuelta, won't be the protected rider in the team's lead-out train. Instead he will be using his experience in bunch kicks to support Edvald Boasson Hagen.
The Norwegian sprinter, also a former two-time stage winner at the Tour, will be aiming for top places in the sprints. He has an honest shot at succeeding after taking three top-four places (including a third place) in stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné, where the team fine-tuned their lead-out train ahead of the Tour. Boasson Hagen also recently won two national titles in the road race and time trial.
MTN-Qhubeka have also put their faith in Farrar as the on-road captain during the three weeks of racing as they embark on their wildcard debut at the French Grand Tour.
Their nine-man team includes five African riders; Merhawi Kudus, Daniel Teklehaimanot, Louis Meintjes, South African champion Jacques Janse van Rensburg, and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg. The team is also equipped with experienced riders Steve Cummings and Serge Pauwels.
Farrar last competed in the Tour de France in 2012 and he admitted that bunch sprinting may have changed a bit since then but he is looking forward to helping the team in any role that they need him to fill.
"There's been quite a progression in field sprinting over the last few years," Farrar told Cyclingnews at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
"It's a pretty amazing generation of sprinters at this point. I think that my role is mostly about trying to help Edvald. I may get a shot at a few stages but I'll be there to play any role that the team needs me for – whether it's sprinting, leading out or on the cobbles."
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