Tour de France: Top-five general classification contenders

There’s much uncertainty leading into the 2012 Tour de France, with recent injuries and quiet showings throughout the season catapulting some of the favourites into the ‘unknown’ category. Alberto Contador is of course absent from this year’s race and this may instil confidence in a number of contenders, while others will hope to turn around a year of poor form. Some, like Bradley Wiggins will be arriving back at the Tour after being forced out last year in the crash-marred first week or from skipping last year’s race.

Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins are the top-ranked favourites, but what about the remaining spot on the podium, top five or top ten? Many of last season’s top-ten finishers aren’t looking so sharp, with injuries preventing the likes of Thomas Voeckler from attending his national championships.

Andy Schleck would have been one of the main protagonists but a fall in the time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné and subsequent fractured pelvis means he will miss the race. Denis Menchov may have timed his condition perfectly as he demonstrated by winning the Russian time trial title earlier this week. Menchov often needs a pre-Tour, grand tour in his legs before being able to be competitive but with Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a’Espana titles he cannot be ruled out. His Geox-TMC team’s omission last year and disappointing Vuelta in 2011 means he is not included in the top-five. Ivan Basso has pledged his support to his teammate Vincenzo Nibali and following his assault at a second Giro title, it would appear his condition is not be up to the task regardless.

With such uncertainty we look at a list of five riders who have the potential to win the race or at least finish on the podium...

Name: Cadel Evans
Age: 35
Team: BMC Racing Team
Career Highlights: 1st Critérium International (2012), 1st Tour de France (2011), World Road Race champion (2009)
Tour debut: 2005
Best Tour finish: 1st (2011)

Summary: There’s no doubting Evans’ ability to lead his BMC Racing Team at this year’s Tour. This will be his eighth Tour start and despite the disappointment of 2009 and 2010, he’s proven he can climb with the best and time trial quicker than the pure climbers. Evans has received criticism over the years for not being aggressive enough but the confidence and leadership he showed last year quashed such doubts.

Evans had hinted he would begin his season slowly and in his first outing of the season, Tirreno-Adriatico, he made little impression. Just a week-and-a-half later however, he turned up to Critérium International where he won the time trial on his way to the overall victory.

Evans’ Ardennes campaign was cut short due to illness and he lacked the form to repeat last year’s win at Tour de Romandie. However, he showed the kind of aggressive racing often missing to win a stage and finish third overall at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné despite being off the pace in the 53km time trial against Bradley Wiggins. "I still have some improvements to make before the Tour" he said.

His BMC team is specifically designed for winning the overall and unlike Wiggins, his team will have nothing but yellow in Paris on the agenda. This may prove crucial at the end of three weeks.

Name: Bradley Wiggins
Age: 32
Team: Sky Procycling
Career Highlights: 1st Critérium du Dauphiné (2012), 1st Tour de Romandie (2012) and 1st Paris - Nice (2012)
Tour debut: 2006
Best Tour finish: 4th (2009)

Summary: Bradley Wiggins has the backing of what looks to be the strongest team in the race. There is a team of domestiques at the Briton’s disposal who, on any other outfit, would be worthy of a protected role. However, this year Sky is looking to secure the first ever win in the Tour by a Briton and they appear to have timed the team’s form perfectly.

The way Sky led the Critérium du Dauphiné is not necessarily how the Tour will unfold but it was a controlled performance by the team which had Michael Rogers (Aus), Chris Froome (Gbr) and Richie Porte (Aus) finish inside the top-ten. These three will line up as super-domestiques and yet they could have a leader role if they were on any other team. All of them understand this Tour is about Wiggins and personal motives will not be tolerated unless approved by their directors.

Wiggins is a solid bet for a top place in the general classification despite matters being complicated with the inclusion of road world champion Mark Cavendish. With ambitions to win the green and yellow jersey, it could be too much to ask from the team which may be forced into taking charge on the road from day one.

Name: Vincenzo Nibali
Age: 27
Team: Liquigas - Cannondale
Career Highlights: 1st Tirreno-Adiatico (2012), 2nd Giro d’Italia (2011), 1st Vuelta a Espana (2010)
Tour debut: 2008
Best Tour finish: 7th (2009)

Summary: Vincenzo Nibali has ridden enough grand tours as a young rider to prove his endurance over a three-week race. He shows initiative in the mountains when necessary and, on a good day, doesn’t need to wait for a last-minute attack to the line. His time trialling is below Wiggins and Evans but he seems to understand the importance of improving this area.

He may have ‘only’ a single grand tour victory on his palmares, the 2010 Vuelta a Espana, but he has finished on the podium of the Giro d’Italia twice; 2nd in 2010 (elevated from third after Alberto Contador was stripped on the title) and 3rd in the 2011 edition.

The need to be patient may be critical to his success as his number one road captain Ivan Basso will likely enforce. Basso and his domestiques took control of the race in the Giro to suit his capabilities and this leadership will be an asset. Nibali has matured in the last few seasons but there is no denying Basso’s experience on the road. If Basso has recovered successfully from his Giro campaign he will be invaluable to the "Shark of Messina".

Nibali has achieved a number of wins this year, including the brutal mountain stage to Jabal Al Akhdar (Green Mountain) and second place overall at the Tour of Oman, plus the hilltop finish of stage five and the overall classification at Tirreno-Adriatico. He has also shown his endurance over longer one-day races, and was frustratingly close to winning one of the season’s Monuments at Milan San-Remo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, where he was third and second respectively. It’s an impressive list for the Italian, who opened his season in January with the Tour de San Luis. A heavy block of training leading into the Dauphiné may excuse his lacking in the mountains but he should be fit come Tour time.

Name: Fränk Schleck
Age: 32
Team: RadioShack-Nissan
Career Highlights: 3rd Tour de France (2011), 1st Tour de Suisse (2010), 1st Amstel Gold Race (2006)
Tour debut: 2006
Best Tour finish: 3rd (2011)

Summary: Fränk Schleck may not have the natural potential of his brother but Andy will be absent this year, leaving Fränk with a sole leadership role - a situation the older brother hasn’t been in since Andy’s debut in 2008, but even then his lead was shared with eventual winner Carlos Sastre.

This will be new territory for the Luxembourger who was quick to express he didn’t want to be the designated leader at the Tour: "Because if I put in a disappointing performance, then everyone can afterwards complain that I was not good enough," he told Het Nieuwsblad.

A number of riders at the Tour de Suisse believed he was one of, if not the strongest, in the race, and was seen attacking on the climbs far from the finish. Has his form peaked too soon?

"I'm not a machine. You should be realistic. I am already very lean and in great shape, I cannot continue to maintain this level," he said following the completion of the eight-day race.

Together, Andy and Fränk are a serious force in the mountains but you have to wonder if their talents wouldn’t be better used separately and away from each other. This year will expose Fränk’s reliance on his younger brother and will also answer the question as to whether his team problems have affected his preparation and focus.

Name: Robert Gesink
Age: 26
Team: Rabobank
Career Highlights: 1st Tour of California (2012), 1st Tour of Oman (2011), GP Montréal (2010)
Tour debut: 2009
Best Tour finish: 6th (2010)

Summary: The 2012 Tour of California winner crushed his rivals to the top of Mount Baldy in stage seven. He caught the remnants of the early breakaway, including Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan), and finished ahead to two Colombians - Coldeportes climbers, John Atapuma and former U23 world road race champion Fabio Duarte.

Gesink can climb. That has been proven on multiple occasions but where he excels, he also shows weakness. His descending has marginally improved since he lost the race lead in Paris-Nice - essentially on a descent - to Davide Rebellin in 2008, but his ability to stay upright has impeded his grand tour hopes in the past. The Dutchman’s slim and lanky build doesn’t do him any favours when the road heads downward. And unfortunately he won’t have the luxury of Basso’s team escorting him downhill as Nibali prefers to take opportunities and risks wherever he sees fit.

Gesink came away from California on a high but arrived at the Dauphine seemingly behind expectations. His condition improved as the race progressed but it was a common sight to see him teetering off the back of the leading group, unable to cope with the accelerations and instead making his way slowly into contention. Gesink had the fifth best time in the stage seven time trial - a dramatic improvement from 26th in the opening prologue, where he lost 31 seconds to Peter Sagan (Liquigas - Cannondale) - but he will lose time to Evans, Wiggins and Menchov. With a fourth overall in Suisse one can assume his form will have progressed by the start of the Tour in Liège.


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