Team Sky's Tour de France squad has a slightly different look to the one that has lined-up in recent years. Seven of the nine riders remain the same from last year's selection, but there have been some crucial changes, with the loss of Wout Poels to a knee injury and Ian Stannard due to illness.
Poels was a particular blow, as he has been the linchpin for leader Chris Froome in the past two editions. Team Sky directeur sportif Nicolas Portal believes that this year's team can match up to the nine that set off from Mont-Saint-Michel last season.
"I think the team is pretty good - at least as good as last year, maybe better. We'll see. We need a strong team with this kind of parcours," Portal told Cyclingnews. "We had Mikel [Landa] last year, and obviously he was ok, but he was not that good. This year, he seems really strong, and if we have a 100 per cent Mikel Landa, then it's going to be unbelievable.
"It was a shame for Wout, but we tried to cure him. We need him at the Vuelta, for sure. We have Kwiatkowski who was really good this year and also at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Ian Stannard had a small issue, it wasn't a sickness but something like this so we replaced him with Christian Knees."
Another difference for the team is that three-time winner and defending champion Froome has not yet notched up a victory for his 2017 palmares. Each time Froome has won the Tour de France, he has gone into the race having won the Dauphiné. This year, he could only manage fourth after looking in trouble on some of the mountain stages and losing out to rival Richie Porte in the time trial. It is also the first time since 2012 - when he was working for Bradley Wiggins - that he has started the Tour without a win that season.
Portal would, of course, have preferred if Froome had managed to take home a record fourth Dauphiné title, but he hopes that the slower burn this year will pay dividends when the Vuelta a España rolls around in August.
"Am I happy because he didn't win a race? No. I'm happy with him, and I would like him to win but it doesn't influence winning the Tour," Portal said.
"If you don't win the Dauphiné then you can still win the Tour. We have worked very hard to plan for this double of the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España. The Tour de France is the main goal, and that's why we think that it is more important to give him a slightly easier programme before the Tour de France to make sure that he comes to the Tour fresh and ready and then he can do a double up with the Vuelta."
Open and aggressive racing
The organisers of the Tour de France have been consistently tweaking with the format over the years, in order to spice things up. Last year saw a slight reduction in time trials and summit finishes, forcing Froome to launch an attack on the descent to Bagnères-de-Luchon on stage 8 to take time on his rivals. This year, the kilometres against the clock have been cut down once again to a measly 36.5km. There are only three summit finishes, and while there are five high mountain stages, there are fewer medium mountain stages. This opens the gate for more people to contest high GC placings and Portal is expecting an aggressive contest where the merest sign of weakness will be pounced upon by others.
"There's not that much time trialling, there are only two, and they're not long so you can't really gain time on the time trial," Portal told Cyclingnews. "You can't really gain much time on the three summit finishes, either. You have to get the three right, and if you start to lose on one, then it will be tricky. It will be the same for everyone. I think that it's going to be really aggressive every day. If one team or rider shows a weakness, then the others are just going to try and kill him, so it's going to be tricky."
Porte has been named more often than not as Froome's biggest contender, and Portal does not disagree. However, he believes that with a Grand Tour under his belt already this season, Nairo Quintana will be stronger rather than weaker at the Tour de France.
"I think Richie is clearly the number one favourite right now. He almost won the Dauphiné, and I think that if he had a stronger team, then he would have won it but this is something to learn. We have made some mistakes in the past, and I think BMC is doing the same but for sure they are going to learn from this," explained Portal.
"I think for Nairo, he is going to be really strong. I have always thought for him that going fresh into a Grand Tour is not that good. I think that he has to race really hard before. He's got such a big engine and talent, and I think that he needs to go deep to make the step to be above the others. I think that Quintana will be another one [to watch] and Valverde also."
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