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Grand Tour Contenders Showing Early Strength

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John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada

We’re still in February, three months before the Giro d’Italia and five months before the Tour de France, but speculation about those Grand Tours is already in the air, with many of the likely contenders and their teams already showing their mettle.

Let’s first take a look at Team Sky and the British team’s likely leaders at those two Grand Tours. On Thursday this week, Chris Froome made an audacious solo surge descending the last short climb at the Tour of Oman, testing the opposition—not unlike the move he made on the first hilly stage of last year’s Tour. The same day at Spain’s Ruta del Sol, Team Sky made a full-court charge in the final kilometers of the second stage, with henchman Geraint Thomas setting up teammate Richie Porte for an attack on the climb to an ultra-steep finish. (Already, last month, Porte won the most difficult summit-finish stage of the Tour Down Under.)

And how about Movistar? Its veteran team leader Alejandro Valverde (who won the Ruta del Sol’s prologue time trial Wednesday) easily followed Porte on that final climb Thursday, then blasted up the 16-percent kick to the line to win the stage by four seconds from Belkin’s Bauke Mollema—whose Dutch co-team-leader Robert Gesink started his 2014 season strongly with sixth at the Tour Down Under. And Valverde’s successes came just three weeks after his Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana dominated Argentina’s Tour de San Luis with its three mountaintop stage finishes.

The same day that Froome was on the move in Oman, and Porte and Valverde were battling in Spain, the first hilly stage of the Volta Algarve in Portugal saw three other team leaders facing off over the final climb: Alberto Contador of Tinkoff-Saxo, world champion Rui Costa of Lampre-Merida, and Michal Kwiatkowski of Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Just as he did at the hilliest race in Spain’s Mallorca Challenge last week, it was the 23-year-old Pole, Kwiatkowski who soloed to the stage win.

Yes, it’s only February, but the competitiveness of team leaders so early in the season is a strong indication that this year’s Grand Tours will be the hardest fought in a long, long time. There were very few true contenders in 2013. Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali was a dominant winner of the Giro; Froome (a year after teammate Brad Wiggins) won the Tour going away; and Nibali was Horner’s only viable rival at the Vuelta a España. Expect many more men to be in the hunt for victory in all three races this summer.

GIRO Besides Porte, who will lead Team Sky in Italy, there are already a number of potential contenders. At the top of this list is Movistar’s Quintana, who clearly has the wherewithal to win a Grand Tour after finishing as runner-up to Froome in Paris last year. But the Colombian climber still has a long learning curve before winning a race like the Giro, where an inexperienced young rider has to overcome untold obstacles to come out on top. Just ask Cadel Evans, who in his debut Giro 12 years ago was wearing the leader’s pink jersey on the last mountain stage when he cracked 9 kilometers from the stage’s summit finish, losing a quarter of an hour before the line. The Aussie, now 37, is tackling the Giro with BMC Racing for the third time in four years. In 2010, he again wore the maglia rosa, only to fight sickness before finishing fifth; and last year, riding the Giro as prep for the Tour, he battled through the harsh conditions to take third.

Evans already showed his return to form at the Tour Down Under last month with an impressive stage win and second overall, and he seems more than ready to contend at the 2014 Giro—especially as he’ll be aided by recent BMC recruit Samuel Sanchez, a former podium finisher at the Tour and Vuelta who placed 12th in the 2013 Giro. Among the opposition will be another Spanish veteran, Joaquim Rodriguez of Team Katusha, who has podiumed at all three Grand Tours in the past two years and is hoping that he can overcome his notoriously weak time trialing in the longer (46.5 kilometers) of two individual time trials. He’s favored by the other TT, which ends with a near-20-kilometer climb up Monte Grappa.

Because Nibali is not defending his Giro title, his new, 34-year-old teammate Michele Scarponi will be leading Astana; and in some respects the Italian will be the one to beat as he hasn’t finished worse than fourth in the past four editions of the Giro. Of course, Scarponi already has a Giro victory to his name after a dominant Contador lost his 2011 victory because of his backdated Clenbuterol suspension.

Two other ex-Giro winners will also start this year’s race. Two-time champ Ivan Basso of Team Cannondale, now 36, can aspire to his form of 2010 win, when he did battle with Evans on the climbs when they were both being coached by the late Aldo Sassi. And Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal is hoping he can regain the condition that saw him win in 2012 after an epic duel with Rodriguez.

Depending on who’s riding best, the podium could await either Hesjedal or his Irish Garmin teammate Dan Martin—who will be boosted by the opening days of the Giro being held in Ulster and Ireland. The same goes for 29-year-old Nicolas Roche of Tinkoff-Saxo, son of 1987 Giro winner Stephen Roche, whose career reached a new dimension when he wore the 2013 Vuelta leader’s jersey for a day and finished fifth overall. Another contender might well be Vuelta winner Chris Horner, 42, now with Lampre-Merida, who has started off his 2014 campaign with some solid support riding in Mallorca and the Algarve.

TOUR
It’s possible that a few Giro contenders, such as Evans, Hesjedal and Martin, could also show up at the Tour in July. But the ones who are certain to be in line for wearing the yellow jersey are Sky’s defending champ Froome (perhaps with Wiggins as his deputy), Tinkoff’s two-time winner Contador, Astana’s Nibali, Belkin’s Mollema (and potential deputy Gesink), Movistar’s Valverde, Lampre’s Costa, Omega-Quick Step’s Kwiatkowski and his new Colombian teammate Rigoberto Uran, Trek Factory Racing’s Andy and Fränk Schleck (assuming the Luxembourg brothers can find their true mojo), and the up-and-coming Americans Tejay van Garderen of BMC and Andrew Talansky of Garmin.

So, with 10 teams in the hunt for overall victory, this Tour could well be a cliff-hanger—especially because the first half of the race contains five possible race-changing stages: stage 2 through the hills of Yorkshire, England; stage 5 across lengthy sections of Paris-Roubaix cobblestones; and stages 8, 9 and 10 in the Vosges mountains of eastern France. Also, the only time trial, a hilly one, is the day before the finish in Paris.

VUELTA Spain’s national tour will feature the most mountaintop finishes (eight) of the three Grand Tours, which should again favor the past two winners, Horner and Contador, while others in with a victory chance are perennial contenders Rodriguez and Valverde, and possibly Giro starters Sanchez or Quintana. Also on the start line will be Wiggins, but he is planning to use the race as preparation for the world time trial championship that takes place in Spain right after the Vuelta.