It’s Tour time!
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m excited for this year’s Tour de France. True, doping scandals from Lance to Alberto Contador to Floyd Landis to… come to think of it, who hasn’t been involved in a doping scandal?… have taken some of the shine off of the Tour. Your average American sports enthusiast probably isn’t even aware the race kicked off yesterday on the island of Corsica. Then again, cyclists and triathletes aren’t usually overly concerned with what everyone else is doing or what they think.
I am intrigued by an interesting course layout for this year’s 100th running of the Tour de France.
The island of Corsica hosts the first three days. There was no prologue time trial to establish a leader, so sprinters ruled day one as they saw the opportunity to put themselves in yellow on the first night. Outside of a crazy bus collision with the finishing banner adding to the confusion, many of the top sprinters – Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel, and Peter Sagan – saw their hopes flame out due to a nasty crash caused by Greipel roughly three miles from the finish. That set the stage for a fairly difficult climbing day across the spine of the island, one that will surely wipe the sprinters out of contention for the stage again today. It’s unusual to have such a stage this early, but I like it. You don’t have to wait a week into the Tour for some good, old-fashioned suffering against gravity.
Stage 4, on July 2nd, brings my favorite day back to the event – the team time trial. Expected to be a duel between Team Sky and Quick Step, these stages are immensely entertaining to watch. Everyone on the team receives the same time as the fifth member to cross the line (unless they get dropped, then they get their individual time). This is one of those days where leads can be built or broken based on myriad factors, and becomes even more interesting with a few teams battered from yesterday’s crash. A weak team time trial can doom a yellow jersey contender; a strong one can set him up for success and give him an edge heading into the second week’s climbs.
Several signature climbs make their appearances as summit finishes on Mont Ventoux (stage 15 – July 14th) and Alpe d’Huez are on this year’s route, the latter twice in one day (stage 18 – July 18th) for the first time ever. The DVR will be set for those, no question! Alpe d’Huez is the scene of my favorite iconic moment in the tour – the famous “look” by Lance back at an already-defeated and complete duped Jan Ullrich. (Yes, I know Lance was doping. So was Ullrich, and probably everyone else. I believed Lance doped well before he admitted it. The man dominated the most prestigious event in the sport during a time when almost every other top cyclist was involved in a doping scandal – but I still loved watching him ride. Though he may be right about needing to dope to win the Tour, it comes off as sour grapes from an attention-seeking fallen star right now.)
Perhaps the most exciting day will be the next to the last – stage 20 on July 20th. Normally, the tour seems to be all but decided by Wednesday of the final week. There might be an individual time trial left for Friday or Saturday to keep some suspense, but sometimes the time gap built by the leader is insurmountable barring a crash in those final days. I don’t think that will be the case this year. The 20th stage finishes with an hors categorie (French for insanely hard) climb to a summit finish. There is a chance that someone can make up minutes on that day, and vault themselves into yellow for the final runs along the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.
I don’t think any of the top contenders will feel safe until they are on the podium come July 21st.
In the weeks in between, a great battle for the green jersey (the points classification, usually going to the strongest sprinter) between Sagan, Cavendish, and Greipel will take shape on the flatter roads. Hopefully Sagan regains form after taking a beating in yesterday’s crash, because he is downright explosive on two wheels and a lot of fun to watch.
As for the overall contenders, I’m holding out hope for Team BMC’s Tejay Van Garderen to represent the U.S. well. The 24-year-old American finished 5th overall last year and won the Best Young Rider classification. Tejay opened this year by winning the Amgen Tour of California in impressive fashion. Rarely does early season success translate to good form for the TdF as his legs may not be as fresh as other contenders, but time will tell. He is “Plan B” behind 2011 Tour champion Cadel Evans, but I think Tejay will be the stronger man by race’s end. Either way, his best days are clearly still ahead of him, which is exciting for American cycling fans!
Realistically, I think Team Sky’s Chris Froome is going to be tough to beat. If not for teammate Bradley Wiggins’ superior time trialing ability in a time trial-heavy race last year, I believe Froome could’ve been the leader for what was (and probably still is) clearly the strongest team. It appeared that Sky called Froome off a few times last year to protect Wiggo and ensure he would win. With Wiggo out injured, it opens the door for Froome to go full bore for himself with a brilliant team supporting him.
It promises to be an entertaining three weeks! The DVR is clear… I’m following all the favorites on Twitter… Now, I just have to resist the temptation to jump on the road bike and blow myself up on some of Southern California’s mountains. Trying to set a PR on Palomar Mountain will have to wait until after race season!