Tour de France: Where are the dark horse contenders?

Uran, Valverde, Gesink and Mollema need luck and tactics to get ahead

It is only the first rest day of the Tour de France, and with nine stages down most of the pre-race contenders are are left with the conundrum of clawing back several minutes on 2013 Tour champion Chris Froome.

While many are watching to see what inventive strategy Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) can come up with, and waiting to see if Tejay van Garderen (BMC) can continue his impressive run when the race hits the high mountains, there are still some outside contenders who could surprise.

Gone are Pierre Rolland (Europcar) and last year's Tour runner-up Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), both have an insurmountable gap that only an epic Floyd Landis-like breakaway could solve.

AG2R's Jean-Christophe Peraud, third last year, is now 3:30 behind. His teammate Romain Bardet, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin) are around four minutes or more behind, and while a final podium could be possible, winning the Tour is well out of reach.

But there are still a few riders who can animate the race: men with strong teams and smart directors who could make life difficult for Team Sky. Cyclingnews looks at the status of the dark horses.

Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quickstep) 6th at 1:18

Uran was widely overlooked as a Tour de France contender largely because he focussed his season on the Giro d'Italia, trying to improve upon his back-to-back second place finishes. But a cold in the first week, a crash in stage 11 to Imola left him struggling to find comfort on the bike and he had a terrible time trial and then faded to 14th overall in Italy.

Many have discounted Uran because of his Giro fatigue, but the Colombian champion used a lot less energy in the difficult third week of the race than Contador. Although he had another crash on stage 3 of the Tour de France that injured his back, he made it through the team time trial in a good position, only conceding 45 seconds to BMC - not bad considering the team lost its main motor Tony Martin in that stage 4 crash.

"I think we have done a good TTT considering that Tony wasn't here with us," Uran said yesterday. "With him we could have done better, but we are satisfied with our result.

"I'm happy about this first week of Le Tour. My goal was to work with the team and be useful for them. I think I have done well with these objectives. Starting Tuesday it is another Tour de France entirely. We will see what the road can bring. As I said at the start of this race, we will go day-by-day."

Uran will be largely on his own in the high mountains as the team focuses its efforts on stage wins with Mark Cavendish, but he has shown with both of his Giro d'Italia podium finishes that he can freelance his way to a good result.

Rigoberto Uran crosses the line

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) 7th at 1:50

Of the teams in the Tour de France, Movistar are the only ones with a possible dual attack for the general classification, and Valverde at 1:50 and Nairo Quintana at 1:59 are in a unique position to play team tactics. Although Valverde committed to helping Quintana pre-race, the team must now take any opportunity they can get to move up, and the first mountain stage tomorrow will be the beginning of that attack.

After missing out on the crosswind split on stage 2, the team reduced the deficit to most of the contenders with its strong performance in the team time trial, and bouyed by that result they are keen to take on the Pyrenees.

"Those pointed out as big favourites have all in fact shown they're up for the fight, and now it's time to tackle the mountains very consciously, without ruling out any rivals," team manager Eusebio Unzue said. "Surely the Pyrenees will offer some surprises, and we will have to wait until the Plateau de Beille climb to really know who are the biggest candidates. This first chain of mountains will create serious changes in the GC, prior to a final week full of difficulties. We're happy with how everything went up to date, apart from that time lost on stage two, and remain hopeful for what's to come." 

After narrowly missing out on the Tour de France podium last year with a substandard time trial, Valverde will have no such worries for the rest of this year's race. Only many mountains stand between the peloton and Paris from here on out, and Valverde showed his climbing legs on the Mûr-de-Bretagne. If Quintana has problems in the mountains, Valverde will be a strong card to play.

Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana (Movistar)

Robert Gesink (LottoNl-Jumbo) 15th at 2:52

Before the team time trial, Gesink was on track for a top 10 finish in the final GC, sitting in 11th at 1:38. After the stage, he's got some ground to make up and is 15th at 2:52 from Froome. The Dutchman's hopes fell victim to some technical issues during the team time trial, but he vowed to try to make up for it in the mountains. Very much back on form after years of struggles, Gesink should not be underestimated when the road tilts uphill.

“I think we did fairly well, although I had hoped for a slightly better result. We made a few minor mistakes,” Gesink said after the time trial where Bram Tankink and Laurens ten Dam were dropped early on, the latter due to a shifting error.

“Laurens made an error with his levers. He feels embarrassed, but I've known all the guys on the team for a long time and I know that we always try to help each other as well as we can. Of course, I’d preferred not to lose one minute and 14 seconds, but we are heading into the mountains now and there’s a lot of time to win there. Laurens already promised me that he will do his utmost best for me in the final two weeks.”

Although Wilco Kelderman was touted as a co-contender, he was caught up in the crash in the first week and has been nursing a back injury. But he showed in the team time trial that he is once again able to put out power, and will be a key rider for the team in the high mountains.

Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo)

Bauke Mollema (Trek) 16th at 2:56

Of the pre-race contenders, Trek's Bauke Mollema was one of the hardest hit in the overall rankings after the team time trial, dropping seven spots to 16th and giving up 1:24 on race leader Froome. After coming sixth in the 2013 Tour de France and 10th last year, Mollema now has a lot of work to do to improve upon those results. He sits 16th, 2:56 behind Froome.

The Trek Factory Racing team was sorely missing Fabian Cancellara, who abandoned the race after finishing stage 3 with two fractured vertebrae. When Markel Irizar struggled to stay with the team, which needed five men to complete the team time trial, it came down to Stijn Devolder to fill Cancellara's role.

Sport director Kim Andersen followed the team during the race and was impressed with Devolder's effort. “It was hard, but also a fast parcours, and it would have been a big difference to have Fabian [Cancellara] there for this course," Andersen said. "We were expecting Markel to be our fifth guy at the end, but he had an off day, and Stijn was really strong and compensated! Both Bob [Jungels] and Stijn were really, really strong today. It was not too bad - we were not looking for a placing, but just to not lose too much time – and when you lose 50 seconds to a team like Astana that is not bad at all.”

Of course, the 1:24 they lost to Team Sky is quite a bit more daunting. But Mollema will have help in the form of super-climber Julien Arredondo and Haimar Zubeldia in the mountains.

Bauke Mollema (Trek)

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