Just as the training methods used by Team Sky to prepare its riders for the Tour de France have become so precise, the outcome of the world’s greatest bike race has become much too predictable. Today, every team director knows the strengths, weaknesses and current form of every possible contender. And a surprise champion is just not on the cards. Or is it?
Of the 99 editions of the Tour to date, there have been six truly unexpected winners, four of them in the event’s first 50 editions, but only two since. That could mean, with the 100th edition about to begin, one of two things: upsets are not possible anymore or another big surprise is due. But first, let’s look at the major upsets of the past 110 years to see if there is a pattern to those victories
1904: Henri Cornet
This second edition of the Tour was badly affected by all types of cheating and attacks on the racers by hooligans. And after defending champion Maurice Garin and the following three finishers were disqualified at a hearing three months after the race, the fifth-place rider Henri Cornet (who finished three hours behind Garin!) was d the winner. Cornet, 20 at the time, remains the Tour’s youngest ever champion.
1912 Odile Defraye
Though this modest Belgian rider had previously won his national road title and the Tour of Belgium, Odile Defraye almost didn’t get selected for his Alcyon team (led by defending champion Gustave Garrigou) and he wasn’t listed among the likely Tour contenders. He benefited from the alleged collusion of Belgian riders from rival teams—which led to former French Tour winner Octave Lapize pulling out of the race with his La Française team when he and Defraye were tied for the overall lead only five days from the finish.
1935: Romain Maes
When the Tour set off from Paris in 1935, the compactly built Romain Maes from Flanders wasn’t even considered a long shot to contest the yellow jersey. He had dropped out of his debut Tour the previous year, and at 21 he was regarded as a simple team helper for his Belgian national team leader Félicien Vervaecke, a talented climber who’d placed fourth in 1934. However, Maes (no relation to the following year’s winner Sylvère Maes) won the opening stage and held the yellow jersey from start to finish. His victory is still regarded as the biggest shock in Tour history.
1956: Roger Walkowiak
Even in France, the Tour success of “unknown” Roger Walkowiak was always regarded as a lucky one. It’s true that he was a last-minute starter for the regional team, Northeast-Center, when that team’s leader Gilbert Bauvin was promoted to the French national squad. And it’s true that he first took the lead after gaining 18 minutes on the flat seventh stage in a 31-man breakaway—but Bauvin (who eventually finished second overall at 1:25) was also in that move. Walkowiak lost the lead on stage 10, and four others wore the yellow jersey before the Alps. Then on the final mountain stage, a giant 250 kilometers from Turin to Grenoble via the Col du Galibier, Walkowiak overcame a 4:27 deficit on race leader Wout Wagtmans of the Netherlands to regain the yellow jersey. And to do that, the “unknown” French regional rider stayed with future Tour winners Federico Bahamontes and Gastone Nencini and finished with them in Grenoble, beaten only by specialist climbers Charly Gaul and Stan Ockers. Walkowiak’s win was a complete upset but it certainly wasn’t without merit.
1966: Lucien Aimar
In the absence of defending champion Felice Gimondi of Italy, the pre-face favorites were regarded as five-time winner Jacques Anquetil and his eternal French rival Raymond Poulidor, along with Dutchman Jan Janssen, Belgian Herman Van Springel and Brit Tom Simpson. Few people had eyes for Anquetil’s young French teammate Lucien Aimar, who dropped out of his debut Tour in 1965. But Aimar had a decent pedigree, having finished second to Gimondi at the 1964 Tour de l’Avenir (the amateurs’ Tour de France); he was also second in the Flèche Wallonne spring classic a couple of months before the 1966 Tour. In the race itself, Anquetil allowed Aimar to go with a 20-man break on the first mountain stage, to gain seven minutes on all the main contenders except Janssen. And when the Dutch rider took the yellow jersey in the Alps with a 27-second lead over Aimar, Anquetil worked hard for his teammate the next day into Turin by facilitating a surprise attack by Aimar that gained him two minutes and the yellow jersey—which he kept till Paris, winning the Tour by 1:07 from Janssen, with Poulidor in third at 2:02.
2008: Carlos Sastre
The hottest tips to win the Tour five years ago were Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valverde, Damiano Cunego and Denis Menchov. Carlos Sastre placed fourth the year before (more than seven minutes behind winner Alberto Contador), but at 33 the Spanish climber was nearing the end of his career and several factors weighed against him. He was only a mediocre time trialist and wasn’t expected to hold off specialists such as Evans and Menchov in the two individual time trials of 30 and 53 kilometers. Also, Sastre came into the Tour with poor results, finishing just 20th in his final preparation race, the Dauphiné. At the Tour, Sastre flew under the radar, riding support for his CSC teammate Fränk Schleck, who was in the yellow jersey before the final mountain stage—where amazing teamwork helped spring Sastre on the slopes of L’Alpe d’Huez to win the stage solo by two minutes. That was enough time to hold off Evans in the final time trial to beat the Aussie by 58 seconds.
A 2013 upset?
The most common feature of the six surprise Tour winners was their team affiliation and/or tactical nous: young riders with a prominent team leader (Aimar, Maes and Defraye), a rider who had strong tactical support from his team (Sastre), or an underestimated rider who took advantage of long-distance breakaways (Walkowiak). Going into the 100th Tour, starting on June 29, the hot favorite is Team Sky’s Chris Froome (his odds are 4/6) ahead of Saxo-Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador (5/2), with Katusha Team’s Joaquim Rodriguez and Froome’s teammate Richie Porte the only others given a better than 20/1 chance.
As we know, nothing is a done deal at the Tour, and Froome’s path to the yellow jersey could be a bumpy one, particularly as he won’t have 2012 winner Brad Wiggins or five-star teammate Mick Rogers to help him. Wiggins, of course, isn’t starting and Rogers is now Contador’s right-hand man. So Froome will have to rely on just Porte to guide him on this Tour’s four mountaintop finishes, rather than the three top climbers (Rogers, Porte and Froome) that Wiggins had last year.
Also, the rivalry between Sky and Saxo will be intense, which could open up the GC race to four teams with multiple threats. Movistar has Alejandro Valverde as its nominal leader, but can also rely on his talented young teammate Nairo Quintana, who’s just returning from two months of high-altitude preparation in his native Colombia. BMC Racing has two challengers in veteran Cadel Evans and young lieutenant Tejay van Garderen. Garmin-Sharp has Ryder Hesjedal and Dan Martin (and perhaps Tour rookie Andrew Talansky). And Belkin (current Blanco) has Bauke Mollema and Robert Gesink in the mix.
Of all these challengers, the riders who could most likely derail the Team Sky locomotive by infiltrating the long-distance breakaways or tactically driven moves that were successful in former times are Quintana (with 22/1 odds), Hesjedal (50/1) and Gesink (200/1). The odds of a major surprise are slim, but as history shows, the impossible is always possible.
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