It’s just as well the Tour de France takes place in July and not in April, especially for most of those riders we expect to be battling for the yellow jersey. But with nine weeks remaining before the prologue time trial in Liège, there’s still time for all of the contenders to come to a peak in July—even the recently maligned Schleck brothers.
From this point in the season until the Tour, every rider follows a different path based on their experience of the race, their current fitness and their race schedules. A year ago, for example, eventual winner Cadel Evans was unsure of his fitness after a mountain-bike crash in training, but he managed to win the Tour de Romandie (thanks to a great time-trial performance), and he went on to finish a solid second to Brad Wiggins at the Critérium du Dauphiné prior to the Tour.
Evans’s two runners-up at the 2011 Tour, the Schlecks, had just reached some good form by placing second (Fränk) and third (Andy) behind Philippe Gilbert at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But Andy barely showed his face in the two stage races he then rode: eighth at the Amgen Tour of California and 19th at the Tour of Switzerland. While Fränk’s pre-Tour results were equally unimpressive: 21st at the Tour of Luxembourg and seventh in Switzerland. Despite that mediocrity, the Schlecks used those weeklong stage races to be ready for the Tour. Who says they won’t be able to do the same again?
But let’s take a look at all the probable contenders for a 2012 Tour that right now looks like being even more wide-open than last year’s. I’ll review the top 10 candidates in the order they are currently rated by the world’s leading betting companies and briefly name the riders who could beat the odds. (Riders’ ages are those that they’ll be at the start of the 2012 Tour.)
1. Cadel Evans (Australia, 35, BMC Racing)
The defending Tour champion intended to replicate his 2011 season by starting the same races to bring himself to a similar level by July. That hasn’t happened. Over the New Year, the Australian traveled to Africa with wife Chiara to adopt a year-old Ethiopian boy, and then his January and February training was delayed by a cold snap in Europe. As a result, Evans was far from the form that earned him victory in last year’s Tirreno-Adriatico, but he made up for this, confidence-wise, by winning the two-day Critérium International in Corsica (where the 2013 Tour starts). One similarity with last year’s program was missing the two Ardennes classics, last year because of his training accident, this year because of a sinus infection. And he is now finding good form at the Tour de Romandie. He has said he’ll be happy to support his U.S. teammate Tejay Van Garderen in this Saturday’s alpine stage before testing his legs in Sunday’s hilly time trial. The chances are that Evans (and his BMC team) will be just as strong as last year at the Dauphiné in June and close to 100 percent for the Tour—where he’ll be a firm favorite to defend his title.
Current odds: 2-1
2. Brad Wiggins (Great Britain, 32, Sky)
The multiple world and Olympic track pursuit champion always had the ability to become a Tour contender. But that potential didn’t show until he lost some 15 pounds after the 2008 Games and focused on road racing: fourth place at the 2009 Tour was the result. In 2010, his new team, Sky, “over-prepared” him by sending him to a rugged Giro d’Italia before the Tour. And last year, after winning the Dauphiné ahead of Evans, he famously crashed out of the Tour with a broken collarbone on stage 7 when sitting in sixth overall only nine seconds behind the Aussie. Since then, Wiggins has been phenomenal: third at the 2011 Vuelta a España, winner of last month’s Paris-Nice, and now the race leader in Romandie. And he’s again riding the Dauphiné before the Tour. Barring accidents, Wiggins will be Evans’s strongest challenger in a Tour that has three time trials totaling 101.4 kilometers of racing against the clock, the quirky Brit’s specialty.
Current odds: 3-1
3. Andy Schleck (Luxembourg, 27, RadioShack-Nissan-Trek)
It would be foolish to rule out a young man who has finished on the Tour podium in each of the past three years, including first place in 2010 (after Contador’s positive doping result and suspension). But so far this year, the younger Schleck has not finished top-20 in any race he has finished, and his only remaining preparation for the Tour is a 10-day high-altitude training camp in Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains starting next Friday, and the June 3-10 Dauphiné. Should the Luxembourger even come to the Tour start in Belgium with his best form on June 30, he will have to ride a very aggressive race to overcome what could be as much as a six-minute loss to Evans and Wiggins in the time trials. And he’ll have a hard time shaking off the two favorites on the Tour’s three summit finishes. If Schleck makes it into the top five, he will have done well.
Current odds: 4-1
4. Denis Menchov (Russia, 34, Katusha Team)
After finishing on the podium of the 2010 Tour, Menchov’s record has been average. He was 40th at that year’s Vuelta, a distant seventh at last year’s Giro and fifth at the Vuelta. He didn’t start the 2011 Tour because his then Geox team wasn’t invited. Now with Katusha, Menchov began the year well by placing fourth at February’s Ruta del Sol, but things have since gone downhill: he abandoned Paris-Nice, placed 11th at the Volta a Catalunya, 12th at the Circuit de la Sarthe, and quit Romandie on Wednesday after placing 100th in the prologue. Maybe the Spanish-based Russian can turn things around by July. If so, then his traditionally strong time trialing could still see him again finishing top five.
Current odds: 10-1
5. Alejandro Valverde (Spain, 32, Movistar)
Like the Schleck brothers, Valverde had a disappointing campaign in the spring classics after a strong return from a near-two-year doping suspension: second at the Tour Down Under, winner of the Ruta del Sol and third at Paris-Nice. And like the Schlecks he’s heading to the Sierra Nevada in May for altitude training ahead of Switzerland and another tilt at the Tour—but he hasn’t started the Grande Boucle since placing ninth in 2008. His weakness at time trialing rules out Valverde as a potential victor. He could win a stage or two in July but overall he’ll be top 10 at best.
Current odds: 25-1
6. Samuel Sanchez (Spain, 34, Euskaltel-Euskadi)
This enigmatic Basque seems to get better with age. He has placed seventh, third (after Contador’s disqualification) and fifth in his last three Tour rides, and he is riding stronger than ever this year in his 13th pro season, all with the same Euskaltel team. This season, he won a stage and placed second overall in Catalunya, he won two stages (including the hilly time trial) to take the Tour of the Basque Country, and last week he finished seventh in both the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège despite mechanical failures in both classics. A solid Dauphiné could see him set for July, with his descending skills and time-trial strength standing him in good stead at the Tour. If Sanchez doesn’t suffer more ill-timed mechanicals, another top-five finish is likely.
Current odds: 25-1
7. Vincenzo Nibali (Italy, 27, Liquigas-Cannondale)
After a number of up-and-down seasons, Nibali has clearly matured this year and is totally focused on a good tour result—instead of taking what might have been an easier option of winning the Giro. After brilliant results in 2010, including winning the Vuelta and placing third at the Giro (in support of teammate Ivan Basso’s victory), this talented Sicilian faltered last year. He didn’t win a single race in 2011, but a podium at the Giro (second to Michele Scarponi after Contador’s suspension) and seventh place at the Vuelta weren’t too shabby. This year, his form has stayed at a high level: fourth at January’s Tour de San Luis, second at February’s Tour of Oman and a brilliant winner of Tirreno-Adriatico in March. In the spring classics, he made the decisive attack at Milan-San Remo (third in the three-man sprint) and he was second at Liège after his long, solo break ended a kilometer short of victory. After preparing for the Tour at the Tour of California and the Dauphiné, he should be ready for a podium spot in July.
Current odds: 25-1
8. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Belgium, 29, Lotto-Belisol)
Everything was looking good for the quietly ambitious Van den Broeck going into last year’s Tour, where he was hoping to improve on his top-five finish of 2010. He had a steady spring program before devoting the month of May to training and winning the opening road stage of the Dauphiné—his first-ever international pro victory. He then climbed with the best in the Dauphiné’s remaining mountain stages to take fourth place overall. At the Tour, he was lying in 12th after eight stages when he was caught up in a nasty pileup on a slick downhill turn on stage 9, and a broken collarbone signaled the end of his Tour. This year, after finishing fourth overall at the Tour of the Algarve, third at the Catalunya and 12th in the Basque Country, he will again use the Dauphiné to hone his form for the Tour—and hope for better luck this July. His poor TT skills will likely let him down, but another top five is possible.
Current odds: 30-1
9. Robert Gesink (Netherlands, 26, Rabobank)
Everything seemed open to Gesink two years ago when he out-climbed all the top climbers (including the Schlecks) to win the toughest stage and take the leaders jersey at the Tour of Switzerland. His success was mitigated by dropping to fifth overall in the closing time trial, but he went on to finish a solid fifth at the Tour. His star continued to climb last year: He won the Tour of Oman, placed second at Tirreno-Adriatico and third in the Basque Country. But like Van den Broeck, this Dutch climber saw his chances of success at the 2011 Tour destroyed by crashes. This year, not much has gone right and Gesink is using the Tour of California to get his season back on track—but with so much time trialing at the Tour, he will be a long shot.
Current odds: 33-1
10. Chris Froome (Great Britain, 27, Sky)
Even to the British public, this African-born rider was a virtual unknown until he took the leader’s jersey at the Vuelta last August. He achieved that feat with a phenomenal second place to soon-to-be world champ Tony Martin in the stage 10 time trial at Salamanca, where he defeated his team leader Wiggins and Olympic TT champ Fabian Cancellara. Wiggins would take back the lead for a few days, but Froome was better on the ultra-steep climbs of northwest Spain and ended the race in second overall, just 13 seconds down on winner Juanjo Cobo, with Wiggins in third at 1:39. Froome confirmed his talent by taking third at the season-ending Tour of Beijing, but his 2012 campaign has been non-existent because of battling a parasite, a slow recovery from a chest infection and a training crash. He’s finally getting back on track at this week’s Romandie, but it will be a struggle to get back to top form by the Tour—where he can be an invaluable aid for Wiggins in the mountains.
Current odds: 40-1
Behind the 10 men most favored by the bookies are another dozen riders who could end up being contenders in July. I’ll write about them closer to the Tour, but for now this is the order in which the odds-makers place them: Pierre Roland, 45-1; Fränk Schleck, 50-1; Jani Brajkovic, 50-1; Tony Martin, 55-1; Chris Horner, 60-1; Levi Leipheimer, 66-1; Juanjo Cobo, 80-1; Lieuwe Westra, 100-1; Bauke Mollema, 150-1; Thomas Voeckler, 150-1; Christian Vande Velde, 200-1; Tom Danielson, 200-1.
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