Tour de France 2018 | Yellow Jersey Contenders

 Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

It’s going to be a heated GC battle at the TDF this year, with around of 14 teams bringing a rider capable of a top 5 result. As we saw in the Giro, it’s getting harder for teams to control the race too, now that they’re only allowed to bring 8 riders each.

 

So what about the route? It’s a backloaded one; the first nine stages won’t even require use of the left hand shifter, but it gets brutal after that. The Alpine stages are hard, particularly the one the Alpe d’Huez, while two days in the Massif Central could cause problems too. It’s all about the third week though, as three tough days in the Pyrenees and a hard time trial will cause some enormous time gaps.

 

It’s certainly not a Tour for your Time Trial Specialists (sorry Tommy D); with only one time trial of 31km being included. That TT will be about who has strength in their legs, rather than chrono pedigree, as a hard route is littered with climbs.

 

There’s a Teams Time Trial too; Stage 3 will provide a test of overall team strength, while that whole first week will be tricky with exposed stages along the coast where race splitting crosswinds are a given. But the race’s most important day might be Stage 9; where 21.7km of cobblestones will surely eliminate at least a few overall contenders.

 

Chris Froome is probably going to win every Grand Tour for the foreseeable future now that the UCI have cleared him of his Adverse Analytical Finding. ASO’s eleventh hour attempt to block him from starting seems to have done little more than kick UCI into doing something, which in this case was to wet themselves and give in to cycling’s behemoth. Sky will bring a super strong squad to support him, but it’s a slightly different looking squad, filled with classics riders there to support their Kenyan overlord through the North of France – that’s a theme we’re seeing in a lot of these teams this year, as teams have placed a greater emphasis on support in the flatlands, rather than mountains. Froome will be riding high after finding out that his Grand Slam has been crowned as legitimate, and until somebody beats him, its hard to believe that anybody might be able to.

 Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

 

His teammate Geraint Thomas believes he has a chance though, and has even convinced himself that he’s going to be an ‘equal leader’. Geraint, buddy, equal leaders are a myth. Brailsford may as well have said he’s going to let you be bigfoot. At the end of the day, if there’s only Froome and Thomas from Sky riding in the lead group at the foot of Alpe d’Huez, and Froome punctures; Thomas will be told to give him his wheel. His win in the Dauphine was huge, and an enormous confidence builder, but Thomas has never been able to cut the mustard in a three week race, even if bad luck has often been a factor.

 

Thought Sky had leadership problems? Well hello Movistar, who are trying to manage Landa, Valverde and Quintana. There’s some benefit of having three leaders; they’re three times more likely to still have a rider in the mix after the first rest day. But it’s going to be difficult to manage if they get to the final few stages with multiple riders still harbouring ambitions; particularly if Landa is one of them. Landa follows team orders like he’d follow you into shark infested waters – if Quintana was sitting second on the final mountain stage and Landa’s another minute back, could you really trust him to lay it all on the line for his leader instead of hitting out himself?

 

All three have been reasonable this year; Valverde didn’t dominate spring classics like he has previously, but won the recent Route d’Occitanie; Quintana showed his form at Suisse, winning a key mountain stage; while Landa had a consistent, if unspectacular spring. All three could foreseeably finish on the podium, but it’s going to take cohesion for them to win. Stage 17 could be perfect for them if all three are highly placed on GC; they could ride tempo from the gun, and take turns attacking all day. They’ll also ride a strong Teams Time Trial, with the rest of the squad being good on the flat; it’s a team capable of shaking things up this Tour.

 

Richie Porte took the biggest win of his career a fortnight ago at the Tour de Suisse, it’s crowned him as the best week-long stage racer going around in recent years. That’s the problem though; something’s always gone wrong in longer races. It’s been a long way back from a terrifying crash last year, and Porte knows he doesn’t have too many chances left. This could be his best yet though, with Froome potentially tired after the Giro, Movistar potentially facing intrasquad mutiny, and a lot of riders not looking like they’ve been in their best form so far this season. Porte can win, but he’s going to need luck.

While Froome will be backing up from the Giro, so too will Tom Dumoulin, who’s making his first Tour GC attempt. Dumoulin’s strength at the Giro when the route didn’t overly suit him was astounding. For the whole three weeks, he was so strong – unfortunately Froome was just stronger in a couple of key places. It’s an endearing quality and he’s likely to be one of the better supported riders at this year’s TDF. You wonder how he’ll go backing up for a second Grand Tour though, especially when the Giro was so hard, and this Tour route doesn’t suit him either. He was to share the leadership with Wilco Kelderman, but Kelderman crashed in the Dutch National Championships and has had to pull out of the TDF.

 Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

Photo: Twila Federica Muzzi

 

Vincenzo Nibali returns to the Tour for the first time since 2016, and you could count his Bahrain Merida team as one of the strongest in the race in terms of key domestiques; Domenico Pozzovivio and the Izagirre brothers will be supporting him here. Nibali hasn’t has the best of years aside from his dramatic Milan San Remo win (which to be fair, is more than enough in his eyes). At Dauphine he was a long way from the front of the race, but that’s par for the course for him; he’s never done well leading into the Tour, even when he won the race. He’s a canny operator and this course suits him – it might be a stretch for him to win, but he’s a genuine podium contender.

 

Adam Yates has the pressure on his shoulders, after Mitchelton-SCOTT left Caleb Ewan at home to chase overall glory. Using his brother as a reference point, he could be ready for an overall tilt; it makes sense that some of the lessons learnt from the Giro might be applied here. The two are similar style riders, and this is a backloaded Tour, just like the Giro was (though not quite as tough). But Adam’s had a much more interrupted build up this year, with a fractured pelvis derailing his spring. He bounced back well at Cali and Dauphine though, winning a stage and finishing second at the latter.

 

Lotto-NL Jumbo are bringing in two contenders; Roglic and Kruijswijk. Roglic is amongst the hottest property in cycling right now, with a stunning transformation from time trialist to GC contender. He’s won three stage races this year; his home race of Slovenia, and two very hard races in Romandie and Basque Country. His climbing has improved out of site in the last few years, but he’s still unproven, so we’ll doubt he can be an overall threat until he does actually does it. Lotto have maintained that Kruijswijk is their leader, and he’s another guy that’s unproven. Obviously he nearly won the Giro in 2016 until he crashed on a descent , but he’s done little to prove that wasn’t a flash in the pan. He’s a good rider, but he’s only shown once before that he can ride at the level needed to win.

 

Romain Bardet’s finished on the podium the last two years, proving that he’s a genuine contender. This year’s course is made for him too, with a low amount of time trialling, and stages that will reward aggressive racing. He’s got a super strong team behind him too, so he should be well supported through the mountains. After a quiet early season, he kicked into gear in the Ardennes and then raced well at the Dauphine (not sans controversy). He looks to be gearing up for another big assault, but you wonder if he’s made the next step to be challenging Froome just yet.

 

There’s so many great GC contenders here. If you’re overwhelmed, here’s a quick ranking, so that you can become properly whelmed.

 

Tier 1 - Froome

Tier 2 – Quintana, Porte, Nibali, Bardet, Dumoulin

Tier 3 – Uran, Thomas, Landa, Valverde, Fuglsang, Yates,

Tier 4 – Zakarin, Roglic, Kruijswijk, Jungels Mollema ,D. Martin

 

Until he isn’t, Froome’s the best GC rider in the world, no matter what’s going on in the background. To round out the podium, we’ll back Porte and Bardet.

Alex Clements