This year’s Tour might well be the most open race in years. We consider the players.
Our Picks For the 2013 Tour de France
The centenary edition of the Tour de France starts in Corsica Saturday, and it promises to be one of the most competitive races in years. Whereas last year’s course and competition played to the methodical strengths of eventual winner Bradley Wiggins and his Team Sky machine, the 2013 edition should prove more volatile. The fields is stacked with explosive climbers compared to last year’s crop of steadier big-engine type of riders, so there’s potential for a shake-up on nearly every one of the 11 hilly or mountainous stages. And given that the race concludes with a climbing ITT followed by three brutal mountain stages in the Alps, the overall may very well be up in the air until the final processional onto the Champs Élysées. Here are our picks.
Tour de France Contenders: Christopher Froome
It might seem a disadvantage that Sky hasn’t brought Bradley Wiggins, who has yet to recover from flaming out of the Giro d’Italia. But the absence of the defending champ should make Froome’s job easier as he won’t have intra-team politics to distract him. And though pundits will cite Froome’s lack of Grand Tour experience as his biggest pitfall, the Brit has learned a lot in the last 12 months, finishing second in 2012 to Wiggins (and looking stronger in the mountains than his team leader along the way), taking a respectable fourth at the Vuelta a España on Tour-depleted legs, and plowing to first overall at four of the five weeklong stage races he’s entered this year (and a close second at Tirreno-Adriatico).
Froome is one of the best time trialists of the top contenders, and Sky comes loaded with another powerful team, including first lieutenant Richie Porte, who would be a contender for the win at any other squad. In short, it’s hard to argue against a repeat victory by Team Sky in 2013. But in an unpredictable race the like Tour, that’s perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome.
Tour de France Contenders: Alberto Contador
Ever since his 2012 suspension for a Clenbuterol positive, El Pistolero has seemed to lack the firepower that saw him dominate every grand tour he entered. He’s had a mostly solid spring, with good results but no sign of his past supremacy. And though leading up to the Dauphiné earlier this month he stressed that he had no designs on winning, his abysmal TT performance on Stage 4 in which he hemorrhaged two minutes and 46 seconds to Froome over just 20 miles (he blamed allergies) surely couldn’t have helped his confidence. Then again, Froome and the other competition must remember last year’s Vuelta, in which Contador was clearly not firing on all cylinders and had a fairly weak team to support him—and yet still managed to win.
The 30-year-old is one of the most intelligent and irrepressible racers in the peloton, and with five grand tours already to his name (not including the two that he was stripped of for doping) he’s obviously not heading to this Tour for second. He also brings one of the strongest supporting casts he’s seen since his controversial and stacked 2009 team at Astana, including heavyweights Michael Rogers, Roman Kreuziger, Sergio Paulinho, and Benjamin Noval. He has everything it takes to win this Tour provided he’s at his best, and based on his experience we bet he brings his A-game.
Tour de France Contenders: Joaquim Rodriguez
Last season, Rodriguez, one of the nicest and most underrated riders in the pro peloton, finished a heartbreaking second place at the Giro d’Italia and a crushing third at the Vuelta a España. In both instances, he looked to have the wins in the bag but gave up crucial seconds in the closing days. Some will look at those results and say that the Spaniard doesn’t have what it takes to clinch a Grand Tour title, but don’t write him off in this mountainous edition. His past near-misses (he was third at the 2011 Vuelta, too) have surely fueled the fire to move up to the top step of the podium, and his ability to launch fast-paced attacks on extremely steep terrain is nearly unmatched and could see him picking up small chunks of time that add up to an insurmountable lead over three weeks.
He’s also spent time in the wind tunnel in recent years to improve his time trialing, evidenced by a respectable 7th place finish in last year’s stage 11 Vuelta ITT. And though he doesn’t have the strongest team in the race, there’s a likelihood of an on-the-road alliance with the other Spaniards looking to depose Team Sky. Finally, at age 34, Rodriguez surely knows this is his last, best chance at winning the Tour, which could serve as the extra motivation he needs.
Tour de France Contenders: Alejandro Valverde
Though he’s frequently been mentioned as a contender in the past, this Spanish climber more often than not puts in far too erratic of performances to really contest for the wins. However, he seemed to find some consistency at the 2012 Vuelta, where he finished ahead of Rodriguez and Froome and second only to Contador, and he has staked his season on a podium finish at this year’s Tour. Riding in his service is one of the strongest teams in the race, including the two climbing phénoms Rui Costa and Nairo Quintana, who could make it difficult on the other teams by getting up the road and potentially even challenging for the overall themselves.
Like Rodriguez, Valverde has a fast finish and could pick up valuable seconds with late-stage sprints in the hills, though the Tour’s lack of time bonuses works against him. He, too, has historically struggled in time trials, though his fourth place in the ITT at last year’s Vuelta show that he’s been working on it, and Movistar’s second place in the Giro d’Italia’s team time trial should add confidence. On paper, he has a top three finish in him, but the question will be whether or not he will wilt under the pressure of expectations as he has in the past.
Tour de France Contenders: The Rest of the Pack
Ryder Hesjedal, Team Garmin-Sharp
After his breakthrough win at the Giro d’Italia in 2012, the Canadian looked ascendant as a grand tour candidate. But he’s struggled with crashes and health issues ever since. He started his Giro defense solidly but was forced out prematurely with a chest infection, and then returned to racing at the Tour de Suisse looking surprisingly strong before crashing out again. If it weren’t for the scattershot run-up, Hesjedal would have to be considered a top contender. But he enters the race with lots of question marks.
Richie Porte, Team Sky Pro Cycling
The only stage race rider who has been more impressive than Porte this season is the Tasmanian’s teammate and good friend Chris Froome. Porte won Paris-Nice, finished second at Critérium International and the Dauphiné behind Froome, placed second at Tour of the Basque Country, and rode to 8th at Romandie while helping Froome to the win. Should sickness or a crash fell Froome, Sky would have no problem rallying around Porte and Porte would have no problem assuming leadership.
Tejay van Garderen, BMC Racing Team
Having finished fifth overall and best young rider at last year’s Tour, van Garderen made good on his promise as America’s next grand tour contender. He won his first stage race this year at the Tour of California, further cementing his credibility, and though he enters this Tour in the service of Evans, if his leader should falter the 24-year-old could well prove the dark horse.
Andy Schleck, Radioshack-Leopard
The likeable Luxembourger crashed out of the 2012 Dauphiné with a devastating sacrum fracture, and he has yet to regain his momentum. The troubles on his RadioShack team last year, with director sportif Johann Bruyneel embroiled in the Lance Armstrong doping scandal and Schleck’s older brother Frank banned for doping, didn’t help. But the team is under new management, and Andy has shown a bit of his past panache at this spring’s Tour of California and Tour de Suisse. It’s unlikely he’ll race back to his previous glory this Tour, but you never know.
Jurgen van den Broeck, Lotto-Belisol
Though he’s rarely mentioned as an outright favorite, this underrated Belgian has some consistent grand tour results to his name, including fourth overall at the 2010 and 2012 Tour de France and eighth at the 2011 Vuelta. He looked lean and on form at the Tour de Romandie in late April, and his anonymity amongst the favorites might provide him the perfect opportunity to sneak onto the podium.
Andrew Talansky, Team Garmin-Sharp
Like Tejay van Garderen, Talansky is another up-and-coming American who is largely considered too young to really contend but has the potential to surprise. He finished an impressive second overall (behind Richie Porte) at the prestigious Paris-Nice, which presaged good things to come, but then faltered at Romandie, which he entered with high expectations. He’ll be racing for Hesjedal and experience, but keep an eye on him if he happens to sneak into a break on a mountain stage.