The third Grand Tour of the season, The Vuelta a España, got underway today. And if it seems like no time since the Tour ended, that is because it isn't. A quick vacation for myself, a week or so to get back to normal and bang, another big race.
The third Grand Tour of the season, The Vuelta a España, got underway today. And if it seems like no time since the Tour ended, that is because it isn't. A quick vacation for myself, a week or so to get back to normal and bang, another big race.
I’m going to make a few bold predictions here. In three weeks time when the Tour de France rolls onto the Champs-Élysées, Chris Froome will be in yellow, Peter Sagan in green and Rafal Majka in polka-dots. Something tells me I wouldn’t get great odds on such a sweep. Majka is no sure bet for the mountains classification, and nor is Froome for yellow, but Sagan seems almost a cert for the points competition.
Of the 21 stages on this Tour, there are about 11 that Sagan could win. He won’t do that, of course but he’ll win some and he’ll finish second in others. I wouldn’t surprised if he finished in the top 10 of half the stages. He’ll still finish an hour or two down on general classification, but he’ll make his mark like few others. Indeed he could well find himself in yellow within the first week if he puts in a solid prologue on Saturday.
The first yellow jersey of this Tour could go the way of Tony Martin, which would be nice for the Germans given they’re hosting the start. Martin isn’t what he once was against the clock, but he’ll have been targeting this one and there’s no Tom Dumoulin or Rohan Dennis to get in the way. The main contenders for yellow in Paris won’t lose too much time in the prologue but the days ahead will test them. There’s the potential for cross-winds and we’ve seen what damage those can do to someones Tour aspirations down the years.
Stage two to Liège should belong to the sprinters, unless Chris Froome has it in his mind to do a Miguel Indurain. In 1995, on the road to Liège, the great Spaniard went on a flier with Johan Bruyneel, catching all his rivals unaware and snatching 50 seconds. It put him into the yellow jersey and the following day he won the time trial and put down the foundations for a 5th Tour win. Of course the time-trial comes the day before they ride into Liège this year, and is much shorter. It’s unlikely we’ll see shades of ’95 in ’17.
Stage three though could provide an opportunity for gaps. There’s a short-sharp uphill finish that may allow a change of leader overall. This is where Sagan could mount his bid for a few days in yellow. On such a rolling stage it is also where some pretender will look to grab the mountains jersey for a few days.
Stage four will be another sprinters day. Cavendish to reduce the gap to Merckx in all-time stage wins to three? Cavendish is short of form after an early season illness, but has turned up anyway. Part out of sponsor obligation but part out of the belief that he can find form in the race and grab a stage win or two. Only the Tour has the sway to bring Cavendish out to race such a big event this soon in his comeback. Any wins might come towards the back end of the Tour, if he survives the mountains, but sprints in the Tour are as unpredictable as they come. So many sprinters target wins here and come with their ‘A’ game. As such there can and will be chaos in the field. All Cavendish needs to do is feature at the front and his experience, if not his form, might see him to an early win.
Stage five and things come alive early. It’s the first major summit finish, at Le Plance des Belles Filles. You may remember that name as the place Froome got his first stage win in 2012. Also where Nibali won in 2014 and grabbed back yellow for good on a day in which Alberto Contador crashed out. Froome wasn’t there that day, he himself had crashed out a few days before. I can only hope we don’t hit the climb this year with similar casualties. I want this race won on the road and not by riders having to abandon. But no doubt the opening week of the Tour is one of extreme nervousness. Everyone wants to be near the front in case of a crash or cross-winds. And crashes and cross-winds there will be. By the time this stage is over we’ll have a fair idea of who is in form early and who has work to do. The list of riders still in contention could be down to half a dozen, if not fewer. It will be a hard climb for some coming so early, but for many it will be a relief. It would give the standings a good sorting out and allow the race to settle down in the days ahead.
The next two stages should belong to the sprinters. At some point an early break might survive, but those are few and far between these days. The main reason is race radios. Team managers can inform those leading the chase in the peloton what kind of speed they need to maintain to bring back those desperadoes up the road. The second reason is a byproduct of the first. Sprint stages have become more important than ever. The sprinters, their teams and sponsors cannot pass up the chance of a stage victory.
From here we hit the northern Alps and the serious climbing begins. But climbing stages seems to come in pairs, separated then by flat stages for the sprinters. The hope for those entering the daily early break now, is that after a hard day in the mountains the sprint teams might sit up. If a stage is rolling enough a huge group will go up the road and stay away. Here someone will make their career by grabbing a stage victory. That is if Sagan doesn’t infiltrate these kind breaks on rolling stages. Looking to snatch up points from his sprint rivals who cannot survive such hills, it’s on these roads he’ll win the green jersey.
But for all the mountain stages, we will only see one summit finish before stage 18. That comes on stage 12 and even it isn’t a savage finish. There will be gaps but what this Tour is going to do is force those who lose time in the first week, to take risks elsewhere. They cannot wait for stage 12 and then stage 18. They will have to get creative. To attack early, to try split the pack, to isolate rivals, to attack on the descents into a stage finish. The same old tactic of waiting to the final 3km on a summit finish to win and lose the Tour may not work in 2017. It could lead to a drab old Tour, but likewise it could lead to some real unpredictable racing.
The Tour organisation have taken a risk with this route and I salute them for it. I only hope the riders live up to their end of the bargain. And so they should. There are a lot of stages that lend themselves to creative racing and those who take their chances will receive their rewards in Paris.
And speaking of stage 18. No doubt that it is the queen stage. A summit finish on the Izoard. The last chance for a climber to make his mark and win a stage. Also the last chance for a climber in contention to extend his lead ahead of the time-trial, or to take back time lost. Whatever time a rider has gained or lost up to now could be up for grabs today. It’s very inadvisable for anyone to wait to make their move today, but if time-gaps are still tight, as we hope they are, then this stage will be fascinating.
A break of domestiques, free of their duties, will survive on stage 19 before the penultimate stage time-trial in Marseilles. By now we will have reached the south coast of France and so much unknown as I write this now will have become known then. The green jersey and mountains classification will be over. The only men left capable of winning a stage of this Tour will be men good against the clock, and the sprinters. That said, time-trials this late in grand tours can be funny old things. Tired bodies litter the peloton now. This sudden required effort over 22km could throw up a surprise, either in stage winner or in the performance of GC men. And let’s not forget there is a short-sharp little climb in the middle of it. What kind of spanner that throws into the works will be fascinating to see. We can only hope the yellow jersey is still on the line.
And then Paris. The only unknown by then will be which sprinter will win the unofficial sprinters world championship. Much like the time-trial the day before, tired legs could upset the predictability of the outcome. If he’s still racing by then, with renewed form, I can see Cavendish regaining his King of Paris crown. Then again, Sagan is due here.
So it all lies in wait, and it might be best not to return to this preview once it has finished. The likelihood is that the way this Tour unfolds is far removed from what I have suggested. Still, I cannot help myself and I end this piece more excited for tomorrow than I did when I sat down to write it.
It’s Tour de France eve and the show begins in less than twenty-four hours now.
Another Tour is upon us. The most wonderful time of the year. The biggest race of them all. La Grande Boucle; the Large Loop. The Tour de France. Though less a loop in 2017 and more a winding journey south. No traditional clockwise or anti-clockwise route; instead a line that slithers its way down through France like a snake.
Starting in Düsseldorf, Germany, the race will travel through Belgium and Luxembourg, reaching France by day four, and the south coast of France by stage 20. That will settle the race before its sudden appearance in Paris for the sprinters classic.
Between now and then we should get everything we expect: Drama, action, story lines, pain, suffering, winners and losers. A rolling three week drama that is part soap opera, part reality TV show, part sporting event. A moving circus that will roll in and out of towns the length of France; there one moment, gone the next, in a bid to tell its story. There will be things we expect and many things we don’t. Heroes will be born and legends made. Some will enhance their reputations, others will make them.
And it all unfolds before us, live. Unlike a TV show, a stage show or a movie at the cinema, there is no script. Nobody will have seen what you’re seeing the night before or the week before. If you watch it live – as you now can from stage start to stage finish for the first time this year – there can be no spoilers. That’s a beautiful thing about sport on the whole, but the Tour de France and everything it is, is the embodiment of this. And whether you’re in it, or with it; following it through France or following it from your armchair, you cannot help but get swept up in it.
Some people will tell you the Tour de France is too big now. That it isn’t what is the best of bike racing. It’s almost become the cool thing in recent years to favour of the Giro or the Vuelta. But those people will still sit transfixed to their televisions watching it. Every cyclist dreams of winning a stage or a jersey of the Tour de France more than any other race. It is the race that more riders target than any other. Be it a stage win, getting in a break, grabbing a jersey for a day or two, winning a jersey or winning the whole thing. Every competitor tunes up for the Tour and every fan tunes in.
And for me it is the Tour de France, and the story of it, that lives longest in the memory of any given year of cycling. I can name the winners of the Tour de France going back almost fifty years. I cannot do that with any other race. And to tell the truth, having been cycling for over twenty-five years, the Tour was always the one event I had to watch. Only in the last half decade, with the power of the Internet allowing me to watch the sport like never before, have I begun to immerse myself in the whole calendar. Growing up riding and racing bikes I may have glanced at another race, or sat and watched Paris-Rouabaix, but it was the Tour I went out of my way for. It was the Tour I would make sure to record the half-hour highlights show of on Channel 4 every evening. Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen were as much a soundtrack to my month of July as any hit song of any given year. I’d watch, record, watch again, note results, read my dad’s copy of Cycling Weekly for race reports and results, and digest the lot. I could take or leave the rest of the year.
That was the Tour, and still is. Even now with all the other races I watch, from the Tour Down Under to the World Championships and all the Monuments and Giros and Vueltas between, it is the Tour that still captures my imagination. It’s the one I look forward to most.
So then here I am and here we are, days away from another one. The whole thing right in front of us. The Tour de France for cycling fans is like a Christmas Day that lasts for three weeks and a day. Soon enough all this build-up, hype and excitement will end. On Saturday morning, at 3:15pm local time, to be exact, the looking forward will stop. The first man will roll down the starting ramp and the Tour de France will begin.
I have been so busy lately that I almost forgot about the Giro starting last weekend. I assumed it began on the Saturday when in fact it was a Friday start. Aside from short clips I seen nothing of the racing. And it was only today, on Monday, when I would finally have the chance to follow it. So of course there would be no race to watch. That Friday start was so they could transfer from Sardinia to Sicily today.
Scenery aside, it doesn’t sound like I have missed too much. The first few stages were flat and belonging to the sprinters. It’s tomorrow when things will kick off with a mighty summit finish at Mount Etna. It could be explosive!
From then on there will be few times when missing stages will go unpunished. This 100th edition of the Giro has got a brilliant route traversing most of the country. There are some savage mountain stages packed in toward the back in. The lineup of contenders is long and distinguished. Indeed, on paper, this has the makings of the best Grand Tour of the lot. I’m not sure if its the unflappable Chris Froome that has turned so many off targeting the Tour in July? Either way, a lot of them have shown up here. Nairo Quintana included.
Since the race is already underway I will skip any in depth preview. What I will do though is predict my top five finishers and see how well, or how bad, I go. And this isn’t easy. There’s a few big hitters in Quintana and Nibali but there are a bunch of others who have never won a Grand Tour but who are capiable. Then there are more who on their day could all challenge for a place on the podium. My best option here would be to put all those names in a hat and pull out five names. I won’t do that though…or so I’ll tell you.
2017 Giro d’Italia top 5 predictions on GC
1. Vincenzo Nibali
The reigning champion is being written off by many this year, but they wrote him off last year too. Being the 100th edition of the Giro he will be very motivated and it also helps the race visits his home in Sicily. Nibali has been quiet this year but that is down to the singular focus in which he is approaching this race. It’s all in on the Giro whereas that isn’t the case for Quintana. This might make the difference.
2. Thibaut Pinot
The Frenchman will enjoy the lack of pressure racing in Italy by comparrison to France. We’ve seen what he’s capable of in that pressure cooker so he could raise his game further here. He’s due another good Grand Tour and his time-trialing has improved in recent years. He’ll be consistent, won’t lose too much time anywhere and as a result will find himself on the podium in Milan. He might even leapfrog Quintana into second in the final time-trial.
3. Nairo Quintana
The shock prediction for there will be nobody surprised if he goes on to win it. But Nibali’s focus and Quintana’s eye on the Tour might make the difference. He’s got one bad day in him I reckon and he could lose time in the time-trials…though likely not a lot to the Italian. It’s in the later mountain stages when Nibali will try every trick in the book to catch Quintana out that might swing the balance.
4. Bauke Mollema
He’s strong against the clock and he’s excellent in the mountains. He’s very consistent. Granted he has a bad day in him, but so does everyone else vying for a top five placing and they all could have one. He’ll conserve time well in the high mountains and make up some ground against the clock. Countrymen Kruijswijk and Dumoulin can do this too, but I’m not sure they’re as well rounded as Mollema.
5. Ilnur Zakarin
Another rider who won’t lose a lot of time in the time-trials and who can ride well in the mountains. He’s due a high placing in a Grand Tour and might have had it last year but for a couple of clumsy crashes when it mattered most.
Note I have left the Sky duo of Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas off the list. I’m not sold on the former as a long term GC contender and Thomas is completely unproven as a team leader. I’d love to be wrong about that though, especially on Thomas. That said, one of them will crack the top ten at least.
I didn’t pick Nairo Quintana to win. I’m not convinced the Giro-Tour double is achievable these days, though he is one who could, and I still think that deep down his key target is the Tour. Can he pull back though and not burn himself out chasing glory here? It might be hard and if he cannot then he could well prove me wrong by going on to win this. If he wants it, he’ll win it.
There are names like Dumoulin, Kruijswijk, Jungels and Adam Yates who I have also left off. All ambitious and you have to think one of the two Dutchmen, along with Mollema, are due a podium placing, if not a win by now. How close have all three came in recent Grand Tours before a late collapse? Jungels is a future Grand Tour winner and along with Zakarin and the three Dutchmen could go well in the time-trials. Yates will lose too much time in that discipline to crack the top five. And it’s the two time-trials that could throw a spanner into the works of the climbers. The first comes after stage 10 and is a hilly 39.8km. The second is a flat 29.3km on the final day. Serious time will have to won in the high mountains if you don’t rate your race of truth abilities.
Tomorrow on Etna is the first opportunity for these time gains. It will give us a better picture about the form of each rider. Coming so early in the race and after a rest day, it will also catch one or two out. But in coming early it also leaves plenty of time for those who struggle to recover. Especially those who have a time-trial in them. But by the time they summit Etna several names I’ve mentioned here might already be out of contention. Tuesday’s stage four and everything that will follow will be compelling to watch.
You know something, I was going to wait until Monday before I wrote again and in doing so review everything we’ve seen at the Olympics so far, but then I remembered the Vuelta a Espana starts this weekend. Yes…and who knew? So a few words on that seem crucial.
It has completely flown under the radar, or perhaps it is I who has simply moved in under a rock with the Olympics being on. It’s the only thing that has been on my television each night and it’s about the only thing I’m doing any serious reading on during the day. With the track cycling thrilling us and the BMX now underway and the mountain biking still to come this weekend, I completely forgot about the Vuelta.
I think in the back of my mind I knew it was coming up and I think this past weekend I seen something about it starting next weekend, but I kind of left it slip back out of my mind until just now when I was flicking through Twitter and seen that the team presentations were underway. Yes, another Grand Tour is upon us and it gets underway in two days time.
It’s surreal in a way to think that there riders at this Vuelta who have already been and returned from Rio. Take someone like Chris Froome who since the beginning of the summer — a summer in which I’ve done minimal cycling, plenty of drinking and lots of relaxing — has spent three weeks racing around France to victory, has gone and done the ride London in England at the very end of July (others like him done the Classica San Sebastian in Spain), flown to Rio for the road-race on August 6, stuck around to take bronze in the time-trial on August 10, and has flown back across the Atlantic to Spain to get himself ready for the Vuelta.
Such is the life of a professional cyclist.
So who all is at this Vuelta?
Well it’s a heck of a start list. Besides Froome, Nairo Quintana is there hoping to redeem himself after a poor Tour by his standards, as is Alberto Contador who abandoned the Tour through injury and who is hoping he’s recovered in time as well as fresher than the rest to mount a challenge. Alejandro Valverde is there too, of course, looking to achieve the rare feat of finishing all three Grand Tours this year in the top ten. In fact, the Spaniard has finished in the top ten of the past four Grand Tours dating back to the 2015 Tour (3rd, 7th, 3rd, 6th respectively) and of the nine Grand Tours out of a possible twelve he’s started since the Vuelta in 2012 he’s finished in the top ten in all with five podiums.
Others looking to shine include Tejay Van Garderen, Andrew Talansky, Robert Kruijswijk, Esteban Chaves, Warren Barguil, Pierre Rolland, and Louis Meintjes.
As for a top 5 prediction, I’ll turn a few heads perhaps and go as follows:
1. Esteban Chaves
2. Nairo Quintana
3. Chris Froome
4. Alberto Contador
5. Alejandro Valverde
Yes, a Colombian battle for the title and a more rested Chaves to turn heads.
The Tour de France starts this Saturday and, as it is every year, it is one of the most hotly anticipated editions of the race in its history…or since last year. It’s hard to believe it’s almost here again. Maybe it’s just me but it doesn’t seem that long ago that I was lamenting the end of the 2015 edition, wondering what I was going to do with my time? As ever I found something to do, clearly, and so here we are again. And maybe it is also just me in feeling as though this Tour has just sneaked up on us. Perhaps it’s the ongoing European Championships in France, or Brexit, or the fact I will miss a lot of the first week.
Yes as France becomes the epicenter of sport this July, I’ll be headed into the wilderness for a weeks holiday with the family. As a result my typical in depth Tour musings will become a little less frequent as I endeavor to stay as far away from technology as I can realistically allow…though completely aware that I will check in at least once a day to read a race report, analyse the results and maybe even catch the last 10km of each stage.
I have to admit though, I’m too excited for this holiday that I haven’t allowed myself to become too concerned with missing the opening week of the Tour. Last years opening week was epic and while anything can happen, a quick glance at the opening week leaves me hopeful that I won’t miss too much, in the early part at least.
I will miss seeing the start at the spectacular Mont-Saint-Michel to the historic World War II sight at Utah Beach, but it will be a sprinters stage and yet another attempt by the Tour organisation to get Mark Cavendish into yellow for the first time. It will be worth trying to see the finish just to see if he can finally do it. I have to figure Marcel Kittel will spoil that party.
The following day to Cherbourg-en-Cotentinhas has a sharp uphill finish that will see the yellow jersey change hands and perhaps catch out a cold set of legs of a contender before the sprinters take over again for a couple more days. The dream scenario for the Tour might be to see Cavendish take yellow on Saturday and Peter Sagan take it on Sunday.
Cross-winds and crashes will doubtlessly play their part over those two days and the days that follow and the roads are rolling enough on stage 5 that the contenders will need to be aware and that a day long break should survive.
It’s at the end of the first week in which the action really beings to kick off. Friday has a category one climb of the Col d’Aspin just before a descent into the finish and Saturday is a beast of a day with four mountain passes, including the Tourmalet and Peyresourde, but which also finishes at the bottom of a hill in Bagnères-de-Luchon, were Thomas Voeckler has won twice in the past, before Sunday’s first summit finish to Andorre Arcalis.
By then I should be safely back on my armchair for what promises to be an epic Sunday of sport: The first summit finish of the Tour, the European Championship final in Paris, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and the Wimbledon final of the tennis. It’s the sporting fans dream day and it will give me flashbacks to the same weekend in the summer of 1998 when the Tour de France started in Dublin (won in a prologue by Chris Boardman), the World Cup Final took place in Paris (won by France), and the British Grand Prix was held at Silverstone (Won by Michael Schumacher). The Wimbldon final that year, for what its worth, took place the week before but was won by Pete Sampras.
It’s a weekend in which British sport could revive their dismal summer after England’s failure at the European Championships. Chris Froome could stamp his authority on the Tour for a third time with a stage win, Lewis Hamilton could win at Silverstone and Andy Murray at Wimbledon. Only in the football will they fall short, unless of course Wales pulls off a miracle…though the final could yet be refereed by an Englishman!
Beyond that Sunday the Tour gets real as it heads towards the Pyrenees, but more on that later. For now, I know what I’m potentially missing and I know what I can find a few minutes to tune in for. Suffice to say it’s unlikely I’ll be writing much on here that first week, though typically my second day home will be to a rest day, but that should give me ample time to analyse the damage done and see who has lost the Tour and who might win it.
Rider of the week
Being the week before the Tour there was an extraordinarily light schedule as teams focus fully on their pre-Tour preparation and the riders involved run their final tune ups. As a result there was only one race of a decent level on the calendar, the one day Halle Ingooigem (1.1) in Belgium. It was won by Dries De Bondt of Verandas Willems ahead of Jens Keukeleire and Edward Theuns riding for the Belgium national team. As such, De Bondt gets the honour.
I do love the first mountain top finish of any Grand Tour. You really get the sense that you’re moving from the unknown towards some answers as to how the race is going to unfold; to what form certain contenders have, and who is no longer in contention. Until now everyone who has desires to win this Giro have played their cards close to their chest, though when the roads point up, especially with a finishing line at the top, there’s nowhere to hide and a riders form is duely exposed.
As things stand less than one minute separates the top 23 in general classification, but you can bet it won’t be like that tonight. All the main GC contenders are within that 23, except perhaps for Ryder Hesjedal who sits 27th at 1min 17sec, and as a result there is so much to play for.
With so many hard stages to come there is the possibility that many will look to keep their powder dry. Follow the moves but not expose themselves too much. But one or two will feel good enough to test the waters and it only takes one or two to break a finish like this one wide open.
Somebody like Vincenzo Nibali or Alejandro Valverde might see it as an opportunity to steal a couple of seconds while the likes of Mikel Landa must surely see this as his chance to bank some time ahead of what is likely to be a loss of time come Sunday’s individual time-trial.
And that’s where Tom Dumoulin comes in. The big Dutchman is a sure bet to put big time into his rivals on Sunday’s 40.5km race of truth and so will be tempted today to grab an extra couple of seconds today, but aware that maintaining the status quo will be a big coup for him. Despite being uphill, finish isn’t brutal by any means and the road levels out a couple of times on the way up. It may well suit him.
Dumoulin claims he doesn’t have GC aspirations and is only looking to defend his pink jersey for the first half of this Giro, but few believe him. He’s got pink now, he should have pink still, or again, come Sunday and the competitive juices will surely begin to bubble. We seen it at last years Vuelta and I think he’s got more at stake in this Giro game that he is trying to let on.
As I type this they’re into the final 30km so best to go and enjoy the show. We’ll see what state the overall standings are in in about an hour from now.