Who will win is a question that will only be answered when the three-week Tour finishes on the Champs Elysees in Paris on Sunday, July 26. However, the debate over who will do what, has been running for months as riders compete during the 2015 season.
Cyclingnews has spoken to Cadel Evans -the first Australian to win the Tour de France in 2011, about the ‘Big Four’ and how he saw their strengths and challenges for the Tour that starts in Utrecht, the Netherlands on July 4.
Who is Evans' pick for the podium? “Nibali, Quintana and Froome. I’m not saying in which order though," Evans replied, edging his bets.
VINCENZO NIBALI, 30, (Italy/Astana): Winner of 2014 Tour de France, 2013 Giro d’Italia and 2010 Vuelta a Espana; 2nd in 2013 Vuelta and 3rd in 2012 Tour de France
Best 2015 season results: 12th overall - Criterium du Dauphine, including 2nd in stage 3 team time trial and 2nd in stage 6 to Villard de Lans; 10th overall - Tour de Romandie, including 9th stage 5 to Champex-Lac; 13th Liege-Bastogne-Liege
Race days: 35 days
Asked what will count most in Nibali’s favour when he defends his Tour crown, Evans says: "Not only his Tour de France performance [from last year], but he has also won the Giro, Vuelta a Espana and the Tour. He knows how to win Grand Tours."
An extra asset for Nibali will be his energy from the fewer race days he has tallied compared to Contador, although Froome and Quintana have raced less.
"He will be coming into the Tour a lot fresher. He has not been winning in February and March. He has been doing an old school way [of preparation]," Evans said.
Nibali will be as exposed as anyone to the hazards of the first week of the Tour in the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France – especially on the fourth stage from Seraing to Cambrai that has six sectors of cobblestones. But Evans believes Nibali will be better suited than his rivals, based on his third place on the cobblestoned fifth stage to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut last year.
"Obviously, he will still have to get through that first week, but he will be less scared than anyone else," Evans said. "He will be looking forward to the cobbled stage. Weather and luck will always be a factor, but as a bike handler he is very good."
Nibali will also have a very strong team – and expectations are that it will be stronger than the one that helped fellow Italian Fabio Aru win this year Giro d’Italia.
Nibali’s major concern, says Evans, will be: "If he can handle Froome in the mountains."
ALBERTO CONTADOR, 32, (Spain/Tinkoff-Saxo): Winner of 2007 and 2009 Tour de France; 2015 and 2008 Giro d’Italia; 2014, 2012 and 2008 Vuelta a Espana
Best 2015 season results: 1st overall - Giro d’Italia, incl. 2nd stage 12 to Vincenzo, 3rd stage 13 time trial to Valdobbiadene, stage 14 to Madonna di Campiglio and stage 16 to Aprica; 2nd overall Ruta del Sol - incl. 1st stage 3 to Alto de Hazallanas, 2nd stage 4 to Alto de Allanadas; 4th overall - Volta a Catalunya; 5th overall - Tirreno-Adriatico.
Race days: 44 days
There is no doubt how Evans rates Contador who beat him for a Tour win by only 23 seconds in 2007. The Australian labels the Spaniard as: "The biggest and most experienced of Grand Tour riders who has not just won all the Grand Tours, but on numerous occasions."
Aside from his climbing ability, Evans, like many, believes that Contador’s mental edge is one of his greatest attributes; especially when his back is against the wall.
"Whenever he is in a challenging situation he can control and handle himself," Evan said.
However, Evans is reluctant to say that the seven times Grand Tour winner is a better rider now for his toughness of mind.
"He is more mature, but I’m not sure he is physically better. He is very smart and level headed," Evans said.
So does Evans believe Contador can pull of the Giro-Tour double? It is a feat that no cyclist has achieved since the Italian Marco Pantani did it in 1998. Contador came closest to achieving it in 2011 when he won the Giro d’Italia – a victory that was later stripped of for because of his ban for doping in the 2010 Tour – and then placed fifth in the Tour.
"If anyone in this day and age can win the Giro and Tour its Alberto Contador," Evans said. "But if he starts well and then suddenly drops of half way I will not be surprised. Still, he will have a better team at the Tour [than at the Giro]. They will have been saving their ammunition for the Tour. It’s the most important race for them. Astana may be better, but Tinkoff will be more experienced. That can be important."
NAIRO QUINTANA, 25, (Colombia/Movistar) – Winner of the 2014 Giro d’Italia; 2nd in 2013 Tour de France
Best 2015 season results: 1st overall - Tirreno-Adriatico, incl. 1st stage 5 to Terminillo; 3rd overall – Tour de San Luis, incl. 4th stage 4 to Alto El Amago, 4th stage 6 to Filo Sierras Comechingones; 4th overall – Vuelta al Pais Vasco, incl. 3rd stage 3 to Zumarraga, 7th stage 4 to Arrate and 7th stage 6 time trial; 8th overall – Tour de Romandie, incl. 4th stage 5 to Champex-Lac
Race days: 35 days
Evans believes that to beat Quintana, his rivals will have to have time on him before the Tour reaches the Pyrenees and, if not, almost certainly before the Alps. With less time trialling this year, the pressure to get a jump on the Colombian will be even more. Although, Evans believes Quintana will have issues to address in the nervous first week in the rough and tumble stages including the day on the cobbles.
Choosing words carefully, Evans said: "When riding in the peloton, he doesn’t exude a sense of security and safety on the bike. The first week will be his challenge."
But if Quintana does survive the first week of the Tour unscathed and with little or any time lost, Evans has a warning: "In 2013 he was better than [designated team leader Alejandro] Valverde, but [as leader this year] if he gets anywhere as good in the mountains, we will see him at his best. It could be Quintana versus Froome."
Evans also expects Quintana’s teammates to rise to the occasion, reminding that Movistar’s collective consistency has always been a trademark of the Spanish team.
"Every year they seem to get better and better," Evans pointed out. "They are more consistent and solid. They don’t really have any stand out results but they are just always good. They may not be the strongest team but they will always be up there. The team will not be Quintana’s downfall."
CHRIS FROOME, 30, (Great Britain/Sky) – Winner of the 2013 Tour de France; 2nd in 2012 Tour and 2014 and 2011 Vuelta a Espana
Best 2015 season results: 1st overall - Criterium du Dauphine, incl. 1st stage 7 to Saint Gervais-Mont Blanc and 1st stage 8 to Modane Valfrejus; 1st overall – Ruta del Sol, incl. stage 4 to Alto de Allanadas and 2nd stage 3 to Alto de Hazallanas and 10th stage 1 (b) time trial; 3rd overall – Tour de Romandie, incl. 1st stage 1 team time trial
Race days: 27 days
Froome will be better for his less arduous pre-Tour schedule, says Evans.
"He will come into the Tour de France fresher and that will help later. In the third week that will help. That is when Froome and Nibali should come into their best and make a difference," Evans suggested.
However, Evans said it was timely that Froome got back into the winning groove at the Criterium du Dauphine where he won overall and two back-to-back stages.
"It will not harm him at all," he said of Froome’s success in the French stage race.
As with Quintana, Evans believes that Froome’s biggest worry will be the first week, especially as the anxiety and tension in the peloton may be higher in light of his Tour withdrawal on stage five last year before the race even reached the cobbles, due to crash injuries sustained the day before.
"Froome will have to get through the first week which won’t be so easy," Evans said, adding that Froome will not be alone in his apprehension about the first week. "The cobbles won’t be so good for Contador either," he added, citing the 2010 Tour when Contador was delayed by a crash in the third stage that passed over the cobbles.
"That is when having Classics guys around you can be incredible," says Evans who that same day saw his mountain biking prowess come to the fore.
Rupert Guinness is a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media)