Despite the outstanding form of Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky here at the 2012 Tour de France, there is little doubt that, had he lined up, Alberto Contador would have been the pre-race favourite and the man to beat. He always is - the two-time winner is widely recognised as the best Grand Tour rider of his generation. The Spanish superstar was ruled out of this year's race in February – and stripped of his 2010 Tour title and the 2011 Giro d'Italia crown – following a six-month ban for a positive test for clenbuterol at the 2010 Tour.
Contador's absence from this year's event has been felt at many levels: by the fans, the sponsors, the media and by his Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team, which has spent much of the 2012 season trying fighting for WorldTour scraps at the back of the peloton. But according to Dutch rider Karsten Kroon, Saxo Bank can be proud of their performances over the last couple of weeks, where they have been conspicuous on the majority of the stages.
Michael Mørkøv and Chris Anker Sørensen have both been involved in multiple breakaways; Mørkøv held the polka dot jersey for the first six stages and Sørensen is certain to finish third in the mountains classification. And despite being unable to resist talking up Contador's imminent comeback to the sport at the Eneco Tour, Kroon told Cyclingnews that the team has defied some lowly expectations here without Contador in its ranks.
"I think with the team we've had a great Tour," Kroon told Cyclingnews at the end of stage 18. "Obviously we are missing Alberto Contador, who is the best rider on the team. He is only going to come back in the Eneco Tour but I think with the riders we had here we've had a great Tour.
"I think especially Michael Mørkøv and Chris Anker Sørensen did great and I think we were in the break 12 or 13 days. I don't think there's a lot of teams who can say that. We gave it our maximum and we had a great atmosphere in the group.
"After the Tour I am going to do some crits and then I'm going to do the Eneco Tour with Alberto and I hope to support him there and keep him safe for the Vuelta."
Kroon was part of the breakaway himself on yesterday's eighteenth stage and he loved every minute of it – jokingly claiming it was "easy" in comparison to the previous two days on the high hills of the Pyrenees.
"[It was] easy – no it was the last real stage in the Tour so all the teams wanted to be there and had to be there and it was like a junior race," he said.
"After 60km we went away with 16 guys and it was a really hard moment. It was a tough climb when we went away and it was a really strong group. I didn't think that the peloton was going to come back but a lot of teams had to keep on riding so we never got a lot of time. But it felt great today and I was proud to be there. Unfortunately we couldn't stay there until the end."