The 2015 Tour de France has the potential to be a real humdinger. Of the riders who have won a Grand Tour who are still riding (Contador, Nibali, Basso, Cunego, Hesjedal, Quintana, Scarponi, Froome, Wiggins, Horner and Valverde), the cream will be present, and with a mouth watering course available on which to demonstrate their fares. So, which riders will be trying to secure the Grand Boucle?
The “Big Four”
Alberto Contador El Pistolero – Tinkoff Saxo, 32.
Summit finish wins: 2007 Plateau de Beille, 2009 Verbier
Why he’ll win: Contador is the general classification rider of his generation, having entered 13 grand tours and won 7 of them, with a further two being wiped from his record thanks to disqualifications for his clenbuterol offence. Whilst not quite up there with other legendary names in the sport (Hinault entered 13 and won 10, whilst Merckx entered 16 and won 11), he’s one of only three of the eleven Grand Tour winners in the current peloton who have won more than one, so he knows what he’s doing. His main weapon is his ferociously fast climbing, which has served him well since 2007, as well as his ability to accelerate on the mountains. Perhaps his most underrated ability is his mental strength and cunning – his name means “accountant”, and he certainly seems to calculate very well, including in the mind games department, with injuries played up or down to achieve the desired effect. With his time trialling much more prone to fluctuations then of old, he will be glad that it is limited this year as well, but his skills in recovery will be his greatest asset given his Giro win wasn’t that long ago.
Why he wont: For all his reputation as an attacking, all action rider, Contador has only won three stages of the Tour, which is a pretty poor return considering his dominance of the events. Stage wins will become all the more important this year with the return of time bonuses, and Contador’s sprint is not as good as his rivals. However, the most important factor will be that he previously had a psychological edge over the others that is now slipping – as shown at the Giro, Contador is beatable in the mountains, and with the Giro in his legs, his rivals will be keener than ever to put his to the test as soon as possible. Contador has also never had much luck with the cobbles on his previous visits, losing 73 seconds to Andy Schleck in 2010 and a whopping 2’35 to Vincenzo Nibali last year. However, perhaps it’s going to be third time lucky.
Crystal Ball: To evoke the cliche, if there’s anyone who can pull off the Giro-Tour double, it should be Contador. However, the Giro probably took a lot more out of him then he intended, especially thanks to Astana’s relentless pace, and the Tour route combined with a fresh roster of cyan-clad Kazakh representatives as well as his major rivals in energised form could prove to be too much. Contador has usually benefited from his time trialling, and its probably on balance a disappointment for him that there isn’t more of the discipline. Can he pull off the double and re-ascend to the throne he last occupied in 2009, 7 years ago? I’d happily put money on him returning to the podium, but the top step seems perhaps one too far considering the opposition.
Vincenzo Nibali The Shark – Astana, 30
Summit finish wins: 2014 La Planche De Belle Filles, 2014 Chamrousse, 2014 Hautacam
Why he’ll win: Aside from being the most stylish of the Grand Tour contenders, Vincenzo Nibali is also by far the canniest. His nickname is the Shark, and it is apt given his ability to smell blood in the water and pounce on his opponents weaknesses. He also possesses the most complete skill set of any rider in the peloton, with Mountains, Gradients, descents, cobbles and time trials all being his playground. His ability to hang tough when put on the defensive is impressive, and his bike handling is simply sublime. With a classics overload rather than flavour in the first week, his experience of the one day races, with near misses in Milan San Remo and Liege Bastonge Liege, will come to the fore. Nibali is also of course the defending champion, which will add another layer of confidence and toughness to him, not that he needs any as one of only six riders to have won all three Grand Tours in their career. And of course, there’s his team, Astana, who if the Giro is anything to go by, will be the dominant force on the road and a key part of defending Nibali’s title.
Why he wont: Nibali has, like 2013, been playing with our minds as to what form he is in. A glorious solo exploit in the Dauphine was bookended by a couple of disappointing endeavours, but then so was 2014. Perhaps the biggest worry is that his climbing style is not as punchy as the other contenders, and those who believe he only won in 2014 because the other contenders dropped out claim he cannot match the climbing speed of Froome and Contador. His complete skill set also leads to accusations that he is a jack of all trades rather than a master of one, and in a Tour looking very much like being decided on uphill finishes, he will suffer accordingly.
Crystal Ball: As much as I would love Nibali to defend his title, becoming the first to do so since Contador in 2010/Armstrong every year since 2000/ Miguel Indurain depending on which version of history you prefer, it would be a surprise to see him triumph. Whilst nothing should be taken away from his 2014 triumph (staying on the bike is after all a basic necessity of bike racing), his ability to challenge the Quintana/Froome/Contador triumvirate in the mountains is no doubt going to be severally put to the test, and its hard to see him coming out on top. As I’d like to see him on the podium, I’m going to say he’ll probably end up 4th/5th, as no doubt I’ll inevitably be wrong..
Chris Froome Froomey – Team Sky, 30
Summit finish wins: 2012 La Planche De Belle Filles, 2013 Ax-3-Domaines, 2013 Mont Ventoux
Why he’ll win: Froome has an ability to suffer like no one else, which perhaps explains why he seems to look in a perpetual state of agony, no matter if he’s winning or losing. For a tall man, he all has an impressive climbing ability born out of his rapid cadence, which allows him to accelerate furiously. Froome is also the man who arguably has the best record against the others on summit finishes, having won all that he is competed in bar Alpe d’Huez and Semnoz ( where admittedly he did lose time). He also has a team who have the experience of having won the Tour twice, and serving under real pressure. They’re also happy to do the donkey work for him. Why he wont: Since looking imperious in the first two weeks of the 2013 Tour, cracks have appeared in Froome’s armoury. His bike handling came under scrutiny after a series of crashes at the 2014 Dauphine and Tour, although this was perhaps unfair and more due to his unlucky positioning at the time. That said, his team do seem to desert him at times, with Sky riders often suffering the dreaded “jours sans” on a collective basis. Froome also does not seem to fare well in bad weather, which can be quite prevalent in the mountains where the race will be decided. He is also an unknown quantity on the cobbles of Northern France, having never quite reached them last year. Another concern will be Sky’s flagging form in TTT’s, which has been markedly below that expected of the riders they have. Sky should be seeking to deliver Froome out of the first week with a lead, not a deficit. Crystal Ball: Froome could be in danger of becoming the latest incarnation of the “Eternal second” after Poulidor/Ullrich/Schleck. He has already notched up three second places in Grand Tours, and with no time trial to offset any potential mountain losses, that could be the difference between him being on the first or second step of the podium. This of course assumes he gets through the first week, where there is almost a hanging expectation that he will come to grief in some manner after his adventures last year.
Nairo Quintana Movistar, 25
Summit finish wins: 2013 Semnoz
Why he’ll win: Quite simply, because he’s an incredibly gifted climber who seems to float up mountains with the greatest of ease. The course is to his advantage with its swathes of long final climbs and as a former King of the Mountains he should be best placed to take advantage. He’s had the opportunity to mature since placing second in his 2013 debut and showed that by winning the 2014 Giro in difficult circumstances. He could have perhaps been going for the clean sweep if he hadn’t crashed out of the lead of the Vuelta last year. He also has the backing of an underrated team in Movistar, who have a joker in the pack with Alejandro Valverde avaliable to use to force the other teams to do the work.
Why he wont: It all depends on whether he can get through the first week. Whilst the Murs of Bretange and Huy shouldn’t be a problem, the crosswinds, rain and cobbles may well be, especially for a man who weighs just 58 kilos. Coupled to that, there is now a weight of expectation on his shoulders to deliver another Colombian grand tour win. Quintana may find himself as the rider with the “teammate conundrum” as well – the first week uphill finishes could push Alejandro Valverde into the lead, or perhaps just with a significant time gap on his younger teammate, and with the Spaniard desperate to get on the Tour podium, it will be interesting to see what team orders are established if such events played out.
Crystal Ball: Assuming he gets through the first week without significant time loss, Quintana should be in the prime position to become the first Colombian to win the Tour. He has the ability, the team, and the course to play with, so unless we’ve all been deceived by his climbing ability somehow, or all that time at altitude in Colombia hasn’t been so fruitful for his form, he should be the favourite.
Possible Podium Contenders
Alejandro Valverde The Green Bullet – Movistar, 35
Summit finish wins: 2005 Courchevel, 2012 Peyragudes
Why he’ll win: A forgotten past Grand Tour winner (he won the 2009 Vuelta), Valverde knows how to win, and has shown he has the climbing skills to do so. With time bonuses returning, his infamous fast finish will be a lethal weapon, and his classics acumen will be on show in the hilly first week finishes. Valverde has also been seemingly getting better with age, having lost a couple of attempts at the Tour due to his involvement in Operacion Puerto. As the talisman of Movistar, he can expect a great deal of support if he gets himself into a Tour winning position.
Why he wont: Well, first and foremost, Movistar are supporting Nairo Quintana to win the Tour, and so Valverde is officially a “super-domestique“. A more likely reason he won’t win is that he is simply too conservative and consistent – before Peter Sagan became a running joke for coming second, it was Valverde (with occasional competition from Greg Van Avermaet) who held the unwanted crown of “most likely to come second.” He seems too prone to dropping off in the last week, where this years Tour will almost certainly be decided, to stand a real chance, and has nearly always had a customary bad day somewhere along the line.
Crystal Ball: He might finally sneak onto the podium if Quintana crashes out in the first week, or leaves it with an insurmountable time gap, but even if that happened, it seems unlikely he would be able to beat the hordes of other contenders off for the top placings. Ironically, his best chance is being used by Quintana as bait for the other riders, and them subsequently not chasing him. As a result, not winning a stage, especially with the first week, would be a surprise.
Thibaut Pinot FDJ, 25
Previous Results: 2012: 10th, 2013: WD, 2014: 3rd
Tour stage wins: 1 
Summit finish wins: None
Why he’ll win: This is a course for climbers, and Pinot is definitely one of those. Given his comparatively weak time trialling, it’s almost as though the course was made for him (indeed, that accusation has been made). His punchy (if unaesthetically pleasing) style is effective, and he seems to embrace the need to attack rather than follow. He should also be full of confidence after becoming one of the first Frenchmen on the podium since Richard Virenque, and having seemingly overcome his fear of descending which blighted his 2013 campaign. With another year of experience under his belt, Pinot could become the first Frenchman since Hinault to win the Tour. He could benefit from the “big four” watching each other and use his attacking prowess to sneak away.
Why he wont: It’s arguable Pinot’s success last year was due to the strength of the opposition, and a comparatively stronger field will be harder for him to break into. He will also be without Arnold Jeannesson, who served as an impressive domestique last year, and may find the team is not wholly dedicated to him as it splits its chances between himself and sprinter Arnaud Demare.
Crystal Ball: Pinot is seemingly the Frenchman most likely to end nation’s long wait for a winner of the Tour, but he may end up in the unofficial “best Frenchman” competition once more, with the podium likely to be locked out by the older, more experienced Grand Tour winners.
Tejay Van Garderen BMC, 26
Previous Results: 2011: 82nd, 2012: 5th, 2013: 45th, 2014: 5th
Tour stage wins: None
Summit finish wins: None
Why he’ll win: Tejay has shown he has moved up a level at the Dauphine, placing second to a charging Chris Froome, which was probably his best stage race result outside his Tour of California and US Pro Challenge wins. He is a consistent climber, and will have the backing of the World Team Time Trial champions BMC in his squad, a team with the classics accumen to get him through the first week and whom know what is required to win the Tour having done it in 2011 with Cadel Evans.
Why he wont: Van Garderen always seems to have a bad day which jeopardises his chances. Plus, as shown at the Dauphine, he can’t follow the top riders when they really get going. Couple with the lack of time trialling, his forte, and the fact BMC do not have a particularly strong team for the mountains, and he’s looking at 5th place again.
Crystal Ball: 5th might just become a habit for Van Garderen – it’s hard to see him troubling the top men in the mountains and there simply isn’t enough time trialing for him to make it back up. BMC will have the fire power for the first week, but after that, whilst Van Garderen might hang on for a few stages, it’s hard to see him actually making time on the likes of Contador or Quintana in the mountains.
Romain Bardet AG2R, 24
Previous Results: 2013: 15th, 2014: 6th
Tour stage wins: None
Summit finish wins: None
Why he’ll win: He still has the element of surprise despite his excellent placings in previous Tours, and should benefit from the experience last year of being burdened with the expectations of France. He is a prodigiously talented attacking climber who also has excellent descending skills, making this year’s course mana from heaven for him. Ag2R are also deceptively strong, and so he will be ably backed up.
Why he wont: You get the feeling this years hyper mountainous course has come too early for the current crop of French riders, who ideally need another couple of years to develop before seriously challenging. Bardet just needs that little bit extra to get up to the top. Ag2R’s team time trialling is also a bit of an unknown. If he doesnt find himself in a winning position, he may find the pressure from the expectant French public too much to bear. He may also discover that Jean Christophe Peraud manages to overtake him in the pecking order again.
Crystal Ball: He could do better than last year and finish lower down than 6th, which will be a problem for many riders this year. A stage win is more likely than the podium.
Joaquim Rodriguez Purito – Katusha, 36
Previous Results: 2010: 7th, 2013: 3rd, 2014: 53rd
Tour stage wins: 1 
Summit finish wins: 2010 Mende
Why he’ll win: If Rodriguez had been asked to design a course, he would have come up with something pretty similar to this. It features many of the short, sharp uphill finishes that he relishes, plus the return of time bonuses suits his sprinting talent at the end of stages. With time trial kilometers limited, and Katusha increasingly strong, he has a lot of motivation to finally crack his grand tour duck – he has, after all, stood on the podium of all three Grand Tours.
Why he wont: Rodriguez is now 36, so to win the Tour he would need to become the joint oldest winner of the race alongside Firmin Lambot. He seems to have lost the spark he had a couple of seasons ago, and just seems to lack that killer instinct which has made him more known for finishing second or third at Liege, the Worlds, the Giro and the Vuelta rather than the man who has won the Tour of Lombardy twice, multiple grand tour stages and the Vuelta a Catalunya twice. Katusha might actually be weakened by splitting their team between Rodriguez and green jersey hopeful Alexander Kristoff, plus their TTT can be erratic at best. Rodriguez also didn’t plan to ride the 2014 Tour because of the cobbles (he only did because of crashing out of the Giro), and now he will have to survive them and overcome his characteristic slow start to the race.
Crystal Ball: As much as many will be willing Rodriguez to glory, it sadly looks like his better days might be past him.That said, we said the same about Carlos Sastre in 2008, and Cadel Evans in 2011, and look how that turned out. Stage wins would be a worthy return for a rider who has some of the best palmares in cycling but only one Tour de France stage win to his credit.
There is always a host of riders at the Tour, and someone usually springs a surprise, like Jean Christope Peraud last year. There are a small group of top ten contenders such as Cannondale-Garmin’s Andrew Talansky, Trek Factory Racing’s Bauke Mollema, and the LottoNL-Jumbo Trinumverate of Robert Gesink, Laurens Ten Dam and Wilco Keldermann who can all get into the top 10/5 on their day. Then there’s the Portuguese rider Rui Costa, who, after years of being the best rider in the world in the month of June, has decided that he needs a proper crack at July for Lampre Merida. Europcar have Pierre Rolland, a winner at Alpe’ d Huez and La Touisuirre, who nevertheless has been overshadowed by even younger French hopes, and then there’s some unknown quantities such as Orica-GreenEdges’s Adam and Simon Yates. People like Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal may show up and give us a surprise, then there’s always a chance that a previous Tour podium finisher, Frank Schleck, or even his teammate Haimar Zubeldia, who seems to ride into the top 5 every so often, could raise their game for a day.
A fools game of course, as you can pretty much only ever be wrong, and no where more so than the Tour, where surprises are everyday and riders crash out or lose form in mere minutes. But I guess I should have a go…
Ie what I’d very much like to happen.
1st. Vincenzo Nibali – That would shut people up about him – defending a title is impressive. Plus he’s classy as hell.
2nd: Alberto Contador – Beating Contador on the road will make Nibali’s achievement all the greater.
3rd: Chris Froome – Three previous Tour winners on the podium would be lovely.
4th: Alejandro Valverde – The worst place to come – sorry Alejandro.
5th: Joaquim Rodriguez – Couldn’t have him coming 2nd or 4th. He can win on Alpe d’Huez.
6th: Thibaut Pinot – The strongest French rider.
7th: Tejay Van Garderen- It’s probably about his level.
8th: Pierre Rolland – He’s due to comeback to the high table.
9th: Bauke Mollema – Everyone seems to hate Trek so Mollema can do well
10th: Rui Costa – Purely because he’s amusing
ie what will likely happen (assuming everyone stays in the race)
1st: Nairo Quintana
2nd: Chris Froome
3rd: Alberto Contador
4th: Vincenzo Nibali
5th: Thibaut Pinot
6th: Tejay Van Garderen
7th: Wilco Keldermann
8th: Alejandro Valverde
9th: Romain Bardet
10th: Bauke Mollema