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July 1, 2015
So who’s going to win the Tour de France then? My current choice has to be Vincenzo Nibali, fresh from his Italian championship win on Saturday and seemingly in the exact same form of 2014. But then two weeks ago I would have said Chris Froome, right after he’d won the Dauphiné-Libéré, beating Nibali in the process. And back in late-May I’d have said Alberto Contador would win this year’s Tour, seeing how emphatically he won the Giro d’Italia, and has since won the Route du Sud. Maybe at the end of July I’ll be explaining how Nairo Quintana won the 2015 Tour, seeing as how the Colombian has yet to put his head above the firing line to let us see his form – he is the dark horse amongst the front-runners, for sure. The fact is, I find it impossible to choose a winner right now, because the top four favourites are too closely matched, but that’s a great thing for the race.
I’ll be praying that Nibali, Froome, Contador and Quintana, plus a majority of the their closest challengers, make it through the fraught first week of time trials, narrow Ardennes lanes, cobbles, windswept coastlines and so deliver a fantastic climbing demonstration to a waiting public. This never happened in 2014, when Nibali was left alone and unchallengeable after crashes took out both Froome and Contador in the opening week. Nibali won too easily, and so the Tour needs a battle this time around, it needs the top four and a select few others to go head-to-head, day-in, day-out, until a new champion has been proclaimed after the Alps and Pyrenees. Only then will the public be satisfied, with all doubts settled, and perhaps with a few surprises thrown in for the better good. Yes please, let’s have a few surprises, they’re always good for post-race dinner-table discussions with a second or third bottle of red.
Just who are the challengers to the top four? Now that’s a tougher question still, because on paper there are up to fifteen cyclists capable of making a breakthrough into the podium zone. Tejay Van Garderen and Andrew Talansky would lift American spirits if they got near the podium, just as Thibaut Pinot, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Romain Bardet plan on doing for their French public. Alejandro Valverde will never be far away, even if he has supposedly conceded team-leadership to Quintana. Rafal Majka, a double stage-winner and best climber last year, was always a top-10 designate, but is even more so with Contador to assist and defend this time – they can just ride away together. Astana will get one of their support men into the top placings too, just by nature of having to be there for Nibali. This leaves people like Bauke Mollema, Rui Costa, Wilco Kelderman, and Robert Gesink to fight for the left-overs, but I guarantee one Dutchman will make it, inspired by The Netherlands hosting the Tour start.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I wouldn’t want to be a sprinter in such a drama-searching Tour. Just four, but possibly five, stages are inked-in as heading for a mass-sprint. It’s only because the Tour is the Tour that so many sprinters are even turning up – if this was the Giro or Vuelta they simply wouldn’t bother. Yet we have the likes of Cavendish, Bouhanni, Kristoff, Greipel, Demare, Degenkolb, Sagan and Matthews heading for some great showdowns in their search for glory. Sagan and Matthews actually have a chance at six or seven sprint-finishes, with Le Havre, Mur de Bretagne and even the Mur de Huy quite within their capabilities, and it is these two sprinters who stand out as being favourites to win the Green jersey in Paris. It has now been seven years since Cavendish burst onto the Tour scene by winning four stages in 2008, and last year was the first Tour when he won nothing after crashing out on stage 1. Kristoff might be the current fastman of them all, but Cavendish has had the better of him already in 2015, and has, I am sure, been saving his best form for July. If he’s recovered from his crash, Bouhanni just has to win a stage for his Cofidis team, but of the four stages available to the pure sprinters, I can see Cavendish taking out two. A word of warning though: Degenkolb won a really steep uphill finish in Dubai in February, so don’t be too surprised if he is also vying for Green on this merry trip around France.
This is essentially a Tour of two Tours, the nervous one that takes the peloton through a maze of obstacles and potential catastrophes during eight stressful days. And then the second Tour, the one that serenely crosses twenty-seven major climbs as well as twenty-or-so 3rd or 4th category climbs on its way from the Pyrenees to the Alps. One is a mind-breaker, the other is a leg-breaker, and both Tours have the capacity to create an awful lot of strife for the ‘stars of all three disciplines. With so few mass-sprints, but so many climbs, would-be escapers can forget about winning, or at least not bother escaping at all. For with no individual time trials of any real substance, the sprinters are going to chase everything down for Yellow on the flat stages, and the climbers, too, will be looking to gain time and win stages in the hills and mountains. The sport is ever-more dependent on the Tour for its money and exposure and existence, and there’ll be very few gifts handed out in the coming weeks.
Thankfully, there will be a trove of side-stories to enjoy as the Tour rolls away from Utrecht with its first yellow jersey wearer. Trek has drafted-in Stijn Devolder to make the chances of a Fabian Cancellara win on the cobbled stage 4 that bit more likely – or to help defend his lead should he win that opening TT which is a perfect distance for the Swiss legend (as it is for favorite, Tom Dumoulin). Of British interest is the fact that the Yates twins, Simon and Adam, are both in the Tour and aiming to impress in the climbing stages. It’s great to see Alex Dowsett racing too. The French will get one last chance to see the Europcar team race before they disappear at the end of the season. Because of a complete lack of wins, one assumes a replacement sponsor has already been found, but if one hasn’t, then expect to see plenty of men in green trying to succeed. The MTN-Qhubeka team has made it into the Tour for the first time, and includes five Africans in its line-up. It’s great to see a new Continent of cycling break into the big-time, and I just know one of these plucky guys will make a name for himself.
One year ago, the Tour started in the UK, and gave the race its greatest-ever send-off with millions of fans crowding the Yorkshire dales and moors, and then cramming into the centre of London to cheer Marcel Kittel to victory. Every lane, every road, every street corner was packed with excited fans, the pubs stayed open all day and a right royal party was had by all. Now it’s the turn of Utrecht to perform, to show us what it’s got, to tell us whether the Dutch can get anywhere near the British turn-out of 2014. The Dutch have a cycling heritage ten times greater than the British, with a population almost four times times smaller. And they can be a noisy lot when a bike race pedals by, as it often does over there. I’ve no doubt millions will line the route as the Tour leaves Utrecht and heads via Rotterdam to a series of islands joined by impressively engineered dams to stop the North Sea coming in again. It is there that the Tour really starts, in Zeeland, with the winds blowing from the right and left, and where I hope I’ll be taking my first epic shots. So who’s going to win the Tour then? I’ll say Vincenzo Nibali, though ask me again after stage nine, and even again after stage twelve…
For anyone looking for the best places to take photographs of the Tour, here’s my brief synopsis. Just be aware of the stringent road closures, so plan ahead and get there well ahead of time, preferably the day before or even during the night.
Stage 1: (TT): stand behind the barriers on any one of the outside bends in Utrecht, you’re sure to get some exciting side-on shots.
Stage 2: Stop on one of the massive ‘dikes’ in the last 50-kilometres and see the peloton fly past, possibly split to pieces by the winds. The sea-bridges are massive, built to keep the sea out, and they’ll dwarf the Tour!
Stage 3: Has to be the Mur de Huy – get there early and find a spot in the last 300-metres up on the grassy hillside. Or if you are really early, grab a place behind the barriers on the outside of the last twisty corner with 400-metres to go.
Stage 4: Has to be the cobblestones, choose one of the last sections for the best, race-defining, action – better still the last section at Carniéres with 13kms to go!
Stage 5: A quieter stage, one for the sprinters, but it is hard to get near the finishes in the Tour. The race crosses World War 1 territory near Peronne and Albert, so maybe catch the race as it passes a famous war-memorial or cemetery?
Stage 6: Could be a day to get near the finish, it is an uphill one lasting one-kilometre at an average of 7-percent. The closer you get to the line the more agony you’ll see. Or, stop and watch the race speeding along the beautiful coast at Etréat?
Stage 7: Picnic time today, this is a countryside stage of wheat-fields and the like, settle down and watch the race pedal by as you sip your fine wine.
Stage 8: Head for the Mur-de-Bretagne, but early, and find a place up the long and very steep finish hill – sprinters versus the climbers for victory!
Stage 9: Another picnic day, but with a difference – set up your wine and baguettes in a field somewhere and enjoy the spectacle of nine-men teams going like the clappers.
Stage 10: The finish-climb of Col de Soudet is the only place to be to see the first mountain-top destruction of the Tours’ cyclists.
Stage 11: Go for the Col du Tourmalet, one of the classic Tour ascents – it’s beautiful and fearful; don’t bother with Cauterets, not terribly exciting.
Stage 12: Best view is about 1-kilometre from the finish at Plateau de Beille, overlooking the final bend. But the barriers start in the last three-kilometres, so think about staying down where they begin and getting some close-up shots of the race amongst some crazy fans?
Stage 13: This might be the day when sunflowers greet the Tour, so think about stopping nearby if you see some?
Stage 14: The final climb above Mende is a nasty brute, but it is also difficult to get at for spectators. So think about the 2nd cat Cote de Sauveterre instead?
Stage 15: The chances of a sprinter versus escaper duel is likely today, so think about stopping on the last climb with 60-kms to go, or even on its descent, and watch the escape and pursuit..?
Stage 16: I suggest the descent of the Col de Manse is the place to be, it’s a death-defying plunge to the finish in Gap, certain to offer some great photos - you can park at the bottom and walk up, or park at the top and walk down, this is an insane descent!
Stage 17: Tricky choice between the pretty Col d’Allos for scenery and action, or the final ascent to Pra-Loup for just action. Pra-Loup is not the prettiest road, so I’d opt for the Allos.
Stage 18: Another tricky choice between the beautiful Col du Glandon and the crazily-structured Montvernier ascent near the end. They climb the easier side of Glandon, but it’s stunningly pretty – they’ll be truly racing up and down the Montvernier.
Stage 19: Has to be Alpe d’Huez now that the Tour has lost the Col du Galibier to roadworks. The higher up you go on the Alpe the better the photos, as the peloton will split, and split, and split many times before the top. I’m a fan of ‘Virage 3’ which gives you overhead views and close-up action if you want it.
Stage 20: Hard to beat the Arc de Triomphe these days, the race goes the long way around the monument; it’s the best place to see the majesty of the Tour, and on about eight laps too. And the bars are nearby when it’s all over…GW