With just days to the start of the Tour de France, Cyclingnews takes a look at the top ten contenders for overall glory in Paris.
Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-SunGard)
He begins the 2011 Tour de France with last year’s race still unresolved, and even if he arrives in Paris in yellow again this year, his Tour will not be over until the Court of Arbitration for Sport hearings in August. Against such a backdrop, even Contador must know that nothing he does on the road this July can deflect the merest shard of attention from his positive test for Clenbuterol at last year’s Tour and the absurdly drawn-out process of establishing his level culpability or otherwise.
As the Giro d’Italia proved, however, Contador is more than equipped to withstand such intense scrutiny, much like his fellow countryman Pedro Delgado at the 1988 Tour. Contador was ominously dominant in Italy, dropping his rivals seemingly at will and ceding stage wins to his allies, and if he transfers that form to the Tour, it’s hard to envisage anybody coping with him. He appeared a little short of race rhythm at the Spanish championships, but then he was someway off his best at last year’s Tour, and still had the wherewithal to brush off Andy Schleck.
Not only does Contador climb faster, time trial better and recover quicker than most of his rivals, he has the instincts of a fighter and knows precisely when to land his killer blow. With Bjarne Riis behind the wheel of his team car, that tactical acumen has only been strengthened. During a lumpy first week, Contador could well decide to test Andy Schleck out early on, albeit in the knowledge that nothing he does will dilute attention from the impending CAS verdict.
Photo: Riccardo Scanferla
Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek)
Amid the furor over his slipped chain on the Port de Bales twelve months ago, it was initially overlooked that the 42 seconds Schleck lost to Contador in the prologue were even more costly to his Tour challenge. Similarly, when Contador appeared to be floundering on the slopes of Avoriaz at the end of week one, Schleck singularly failed to go for the jugular in spite of the apparent exhortations of Bjarne Riis, and wound up gaining just 10 seconds for his troubles.
While Schleck is a rider of undoubted talent, it is difficult to pinpoint where he can pick up time on an in-form Contador. Not only is the Spaniard comfortably stronger in the time trial, he has never been seriously discommoded by Schleck in the mountains, either. Schleck is bullish about the strength of his team compared to Contador’s, but there is also a sense that as an attacking duo, the Schleck brothers have never quite been the sum of their parts.
Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
Very much en vogue as a dark horse for the Tour, Sanchez has spent most of the spring telling anyone who will listen that a podium finish will be the limit of his ambitions and that even a repeat of last year’s fourth place would be a tall order. The Olympic champion was just squeezed out by Denis Menchov for the final spot on the podium then, and was also narrowly pipped for a stage win by Andy Schleck at Avoriaz, so he will be looking to rectify one or both of those near misses this time out.
Tellingly, Sanchez has tailored his preparation around the Tour this year. The punchy climber has all the attributes to shine in both the Tour of the Basque Country and the Ardennes Classics, but although he was in the mix in April, he left the distinct impression that he was holding something in reserve for later in the year.
3rd place at Flèche Wallonne was the standout performance of his spring, while he stayed out of trouble at the Dauphiné to finish 17th overall. The route of this year’s Tour should also be to his liking. Not only should he shine in the mountains, Sanchez has the nous not to get caught napping during the undulating opening week.
Photo: Rafael Gómez Alonso
Cadel Evans (BMC)
The Australian made a conscious decision to race fewer days in the first half of the season in order to save himself for July, and the signs thus far have been very promising. Even with a limited diet of racing, there has been more feast than famine for Evans in 2011, with victories at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie, and a solid second place at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné. As he pointed out in January, he was over 1:30 clear of Alberto Contador when a fractured elbow ruined his 2010 Tour, and he has done everything possible since to give himself a fighting chance this time around.
One of the few overall contenders who wouldn’t have minded a few extra time trialling kilometres, Evans is still a reliable performer in the mountains. In the wake of his 2009 world championship win, he shed himself of his reputation as a calculating rider, but he remains more aware than most of how to dose his effort over the course of a three-week race. How close that leaves him to Alberto Contador remains to be seen, but after two disappointing Tours, Evans is ready to challenge for a podium place again.
Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
Given the melodrama of the Schleck-Contador battle of 2010, Van Den Broeck’s steady ride into 5th place was somewhat overlooked, but although the Belgian came in under the radar, there was nothing fortuitous about his final placing. When the heat was turned up on the final climb, Van Den Broeck was generally marked present and correct, and at 28 years of age, he should now be entering his prime.
But with Contador and Schleck still very much at the top of the pecking order, and with a cabal of solid grand tour riders of similar aptitudes vying for the third spot on the podium, Van Den Broeck will have to improve considerably to better last year’s showing. Encouragingly, he has shown some signs of doing so. A junior world time trial champion, he had neglected the discipline as a professional, but he has put in some solid displays against the watch this year.
He also took his first-ever professional victory at the Dauphiné and will surely enter the Tour with his confidence at an all-time high. That might well make all the difference – Van Den Broeck admitted to Procycling earlier this year that the pressure of carrying Belgian hopes at last year’s Tour had been something of a burden. A win for teammate Philippe Gilbert in the opening week might lighten that load.
Photo: Roberto Bettini
Robert Gesink (Rabobank)
An explosive start to his season at the Tour of Oman was an early indication of Gesink’s aspirations for 2011, but in the weeks that followed, his spring fizzled out somewhat, rather like that of his Rabobank team as a whole. Lacklustre performances in the Ardennes classics appeared to signal a mild crisis and a slow start to the Dauphiné was a further cause for concern. Day by day, however, his form began to rise, and the Dutchman was one of the stars of the concluding weekend. His 2nd and 3rd place finishes on the final mountain stages were an important morale boost ahead of the Tour, and crucially, he still appeared to have considerable margin for improvement.
Much like Jurgen Van Den Broeck, however, Gesink knows that he will have to make a considerable leap in quality this July if he is to improve greatly on his 6th place finish of last year. Gesink is certainly not lacking in potential, and at just 25 years of age, he is still short of the peak of his career.
The white jersey and a top five placing will be the minimum expected return for the young talent, but it will be fascinating to see whether he is content to follow the lead group to consolidate that position, or go on the offensive to try and finish on the podium. An important Tour for the Dutchman, as he attempts to set the tone for the next five years of his career.
Photo: Rafael Gómez Alonso
Fränk Schleck (Leopard Trek)
Twice 5th overall and with a stage win atop l’Alpe d’Huez to his credit, Fränk Schleck enters this year’s Tour as the most deluxe of domestiques. Less capable in the mountains and no better against the watch than Andy, only extenuating circumstances will see Fränk step up to the role of leader of the strong Leopard Trek outfit, but the Luxembourger’s primary aim is to chaperone his younger brother to overall victory.
On paper, the Schlecks should be able to cause serious problems in the mountains, but tactically the duo have never been able to dovetail their efforts as smoothly as they would like. This is in part because they seem to prefer to go on the offensive as a pairing rather than taking it in turns to attack, and April’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège was a case in point.
While Philippe Gilbert was undoubtedly the strongest, the Schlecks’ two-up attacks were blunt and predictable, and they showed an alarming lack of imagination in the finale. The brothers will have to conjure up something a little more menacing if they are to put Contador on the back foot. In theory, the troika of Alpine stages should give them ample opportunity to try something, and it will be fascinating to see what kind of support Fränk can offer in the final week in particular.
Photo: Roberto Bettini
Chris Horner (RadioShack)
In the post-Lance Armstrong era, Johan Bruyneel’s team enters the Tour de France without a single designated leader but with a triumvirate of veterans who have delivered a series of eyebrow-raising performances in 2011 to date. Levi Leipheimer carried off the Tour de Suisse and Andreas Klöden snaffled up the Tour of the Basque Country, but Chris Horner’s victory at the Tour of California was arguably the most remarkable. The American, who turns 40 in October, simply rode the likes of Andy Schleck off his wheel to take yellow at Sierra Road, before easing clear of the field on Mount Baldy in the company of Leipheimer three days later to seal a strikingly dominant victory.
In theory, Horner’s 10th place last time out should have been the crowning moment of his career, but in the midst of the RadioShack veteran trio’s astonishing spring form, Horner has remarkably even shown signs of further improvement. Leipheimer and Klöden are stronger against the watch, but the lack of time trial miles in this year’s Tour means that Horner could well be RadioShack’s leading light once again this July. Should that trio falter, Bruyneel also has Janez Brajkovic at his disposal, but in any case, he appears to have rediscovered something of the winning formula of years gone by.
Photo: Roberto Bettini
Bradley Wiggins (Sky)
Had Wiggins won the Dauphiné and the British road title twelve months ago, a sizeable section of the British cycling media might well have exploded. Instead, Sky’s ambitions have been prudently downplayed after the chastening experience of the 2010 Tour, and they approach this year’s race with cautious optimism rather than the bombast of a year ago. That said, Wiggins was a deserving and confident winner of the Dauphiné and at least from the outside, he appears to be in a far more relaxed frame of mind than he was this time last year.
Sensibly, Wiggins refuses to aim for a specific placing overall but claims to be focused on delivering the best performance possible. With so many variables and on such a mountainous route, Wiggins is aware that he could conceivably ride better than he did in 2009 and still not come close to matching that year’s fourth place finish.
Indeed, much will hinge on how controlled the race is – if Contador is as dominant as he was in 2009 and if his Saxo Bank squad keep things tight, then Wiggins’ chances of a high overall placing will increase accordingly. In an attacking and open race, the Englishman will have to work hard to make the top ten. In any case, Wiggins appears to be resolutely confident in his own capabilities, and that marks progress from 2010.
Photo: Roberto Bettini
Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale)
When Basso divided up the calendar with Vincenzo Nibali at the Liquigas training camp last winter, he must surely have assumed that Contador was not going to be allowed to start the Tour when he opted to forgo the defence of his Giro crown. The protracted nature of the CAS appeals process means that his ambitions have since been subtly downgraded from overall victory to a podium place, but even that might prove to be a tall order for the 33-year-old.
Already suffering from fatigue at the end of April, a crash while training at Mount Etna in May threatened to derail his Tour preparation completely. A disastrous Dauphiné followed, although a training camp in the Dolomites may since have steadied the ship. Indeed, Basso has some previous in this regard. His form going into last year’s Giro was anything but scintillating, but he was the man with most left in the tank in the final week, even if he was a spent docket by July.
Severely limited against the watch and no longer able to make searing accelerations in the mountains since his return from his Operacion Puerto suspension, Basso will have to hope his diesel engine proves more reliable than some of his more explosive younger rivals.
Photo: Roberto Bettini