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COUNTDOWN TO THE TOUR: PART I

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A tactically aggressive Tour is in the cards

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

There’s rarely been a season like this one for drama at the world’s major stage races, nearly all of which have been decided by the use of smart and/or aggressive tactics. It happened on Sunday at the final stage of the Tour de Suisse; it also happened on the last day of the previous week’s Critérium du Dauphiné; and it happened on the Stelvio stage of the Giro d’Italia. And it looks like this new, dynamic style of racing will continue at the upcoming Tour de France.

The season’s aggressive theme began with the early-season Tour Down Under and Paris-Nice races, neither of which featured time trials, and both of which were decided on stages where attacking paid off. In Australia, it looked like BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans was on his way to victory after he attacked over the Corkscrew climb on stage 3 to gain 15 seconds—but he lost out two days later to Orica-GreenEdge’s Simon Gerrans on the summit finish of Old Willunga Hill.

At Paris-Nice, AG2R La Mondiale’s Carlos Betancur (who won’t ride the Tour) secured the overall win by taking two hilltop stage victories (and the time bonuses) to put Lampre-Merida’s world champ Rui Costa into second place. That same week in Italy, Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador had to do something special to unseat the early race leader, Michal Kwiatkowski of Omega Pharma-Quick Step. After winning stage 4 on a mountaintop finish, Contador was still 16 seconds behind the young Pole, with Movistar’s Nairo Quintana a further seven seconds back.

Knowing that the race ended with a time trial more favorable to Kwiatkowski, and aware that stage 5’s hilltop finish on the Muro di Guardiagrele was extremely steep (25 percent) but less than a kilometer long, Contador decided to make his move on the preceding climb, the Passo Lanciano. His surprise attack, 4 kilometers from the summit and 33 kilometers from the stage finish, shattered the field. Race leader Kwiatkowski crumpled, losing six minutes by the end, and Quintana couldn’t hold Contador’s wheel and lost two minutes. “I knew it was risky to try and attack so far out,” Contador told the media, “but I really wanted this victory—and I like to do things like that.”

In the two UCI WorldTour races that have taken place in Spain, Team Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez used the two mountain top finishes to secure a narrow victory, over Contador and BMC’s Tejay van Garderen, at the Volta a Catalunya—another race without a time trial. And at the Tour of the Basque Country, Contador shocked the on-form Alejandro Valverde of Movistar on the very first stage. After initially following Valverde on the ultra-steep climb to Gaintza, Contador jumped past his fellow Spaniard a kilometer from the top and time-trialed the final 7.5 kilometers to take the win and easily defend his lead for the remaining five days.

Although 2013 Tour de France champ Chris Froome clinched victory in Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie in the final-day time trial, he really won the race in the mountains of stage 3. After Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali attacked at the very foot of the long final climb to Villars, Froome jumped after him then made a sharp counterattack, even though he still faced 10 kilometers of climbing and a total of 25.5 kilometers to the finish in Aigle. Only Katusha’s underestimated Simon Spilak managed to join him, and they ended the stage a minute clear of eventual third-place finisher Costa.

In the most recent WorldTour races, aggressive tactics paid off for Quintana at the Giro, Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky at the Dauphiné and Costa (for his first win of the season) at the Tour de Suisse. Quintana won’t be riding the Tour—Movistar is putting everything behind Valverde—but Talansky and Costa will both be aiming for high finishes in France next month.

After his dramatic come-from-behind victory at the Dauphiné (see details in my last week’s column), Talanksy was asked about his ambitions at the Tour. “No, I’m not a favorite,” he said. “This is the Dauphiné; the Tour de France is another race…. My goal in the Tour is to do better than last year. If everything goes well, maybe top 10, even top five.”

As for Costa, he was criticized for not contributing to the last-day breakaway in Switzerland that unseated longtime race leader Tony Martin of Omega-Quick Step. But after putting in an excellent time trial (ahead of Fabian Cancellara and a half-minute slower than Martin), Costa was strong enough and smart enough to jump after IAM Cycling’s Mathias Frank and Team Belkin’s Bauke Mollema on the penultimate climb 46 kilometers from the finish—while Martin, with no teammates left to support him, didn’t have the climbing legs to chase them down.

Both Frank and Mollema had teammates ahead who had infiltrated an earlier breakaway, and those riders helped create a two-minute gap before starting the 20-kilometer-long climb to the finish in Saas-Fee. Martin rode valiantly on that long, not overly steep ascent, but the yellow jersey he’d worn since the opening day was lost. Costa followed the leaders, and when Frank attacked strongly with 3 kilometers remaining, Lampre’s world champion responded quickly before racing ahead alone to take the stage and the overall victory—his third consecutive Tour de Suisse title.

Asked about the significance of this in view of the upcoming Tour, Costa said, “Now, there is the Tour de France, a very different race with another level of riders. But what’s certain is that this Tour de Suisse was important for my physical preparation and confidence.”

So, looking ahead to the Tour, what can we determine from this season of aggressive tactics? Past winners Froome and Contador remain the odds-on favorites, especially in view of their various 2014 performances. Froome confirmed his climbing skills and time trial talent in Romandie, and a high-speed crash likely contributed to his loss at the Dauphiné; while Contador came close at the Dauphiné after brilliantly aggressive victories in the Basque Country and Tirreno-Adriatico. But the strength and smarts shown by Talansky and Costa in their respective wins, along with the earlier victory by Rodriguez in Catalunya, put them among the list of genuine contenders; while the chances of Nibali, Valverde, Mollema, Frank, Kwiatkowski and van Garderen can’t be ignored.

I’ll discuss all of these contenders’ chances, and the equally important strength of their teams, in Part II of this “Countdown to the Tour” later in the week.

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson