Today, on the eve of the 2012 Tour de France, we turn our attention to the select group who might contend for overall victory.
Bradley Wiggins is enjoying his most successful season on the road and looks perfectly prepared for what could be his definitive assault on the Tour. The Ghent-born Londoner has won every major stage race he’s entered this year, with the exception of the Volta a Catalunya, which he abandoned in treacherous weather conditions, and the Volta ao Algarve, where he finished on the podium after riding in support of teammate, and race winner, Richie Porte. In 2012, His physical preparation has clearly been perfected, but equally impressive has been the confidence with which he has conducted operations on and off the bike; sprinting to victory on stage one of the Tour d Romandie (yes, sprinting) and later demanding better questions of his interrogators in the media perhaps the best example of his self-belief on and off the bike. This is not the man who refused to stand in the centre of group photos for the team launch three years ago. Team Sky represent another massive weapon in Wiggins’ arsenal. They have grown in confidence with their leader, and in the Criterium du Dauphine in particular, delivered a masterclass in controlling the race. Winning the Tour isn’t easy (if it was, we’d all do it) but Wiggins has prepared as well as he could and will be surrounded by a talented team ready to do their utmost in support of their leader.
The defending champion is the joint favourite with Wiggins and the other half of a fascinating match up of two English-speaking riders with similar, but subtly different abilities. Both men have superb time trialing talents. Neither are pure climbers in the style of an Andy Schleck, but both have turned themselves into key performers in the mountains by dint of sheer hard work. Evans perhaps still has the edge on Wiggins in the mountains. His biggest asset, however, is his character: he displayed buckets of Aussie grit in last year’s Tour, winning the race with a series of champion’s rides. Often bereft of teammates at crucial moments of the race, Evans routinely took the initiative, the best example of his determination to shape his own destiny perhaps offered in his pursuit of Andy Schleck on the Queen stage of last year’s race, after much indecision and disagreement among an elite chasing pack. He may have to show similar self-reliance this year. With the exception of Tejay Van Garderen, BMC seem to have assembled a squad of Classics hardmen who will be able to protect Evans on the flat, but may falter on the climbs. Third in the Criterium du Dauphine after a quiet early season suggests the Australian has timed his preparation will and well and will arrive at the Tour in peak form.
After a year’s absence from the Tour, Denis Menchov will return to cycling’s biggest race with a new team and renewed ambition. A Russian, Menchov will lead the Russian-based Katusha Team, a team that has enjoyed success this year with Joaquim Rodriguez, who will be rested from the Tour after finishing runner up in the Giro. Crucially, Menchov knows what it takes to win a Grand Tour. Twice a victor at the Vuelta a Espana, and Giro champion in 2009, Menchov also has two podium finishes at the Tour to his credit. His success in cycling’s three week races is born of his combined abilities as a climber and a time trialist. While he doesn’t time trial as well as Wiggins, or climb with the sheer determination of Evans, his coolness under pressure and vast experience could pay dividends if the ambitions of his more naturally gifted rivals are derailed. A Menchov victory, possible rather than probable, would likely be a steady if unspectacular affair. A recent victory in the Russian national time trial championships suggest a timely return to form.
The 2012 Tour represents Leipheimer’s best chance of victory in the Tour, but at the age of 38, has it come too late? An excellent time trialist and strong climber, he possesses the skill set of our other contenders. Like Wiggins, he’s a winner of the Criterium du Dauphine, though Leipheimer’s victory in the premier pre-Tour stage race came six years ago. More recent performances suggest a timely return to form after a being knocked off his bike by a car on the eve of the Tour of the Basque Country left him with a broken leg and a season derailed. He’d begun 2012 well by winning the Tour de San Luis, and has since finished sixth in the Tour of California, a race he has won three times, and third in the Tour de Suisse, held earlier this month. His Grand Tour record is impressive, with two podium finishes in the Vuelta, one in the Giro, and third in the 2007 Tour. In Omega Pharma-QuickStep, he’ll have strong support, notably from Tony Martin, increasingly considered a time trial specialist but a strong enough climber to have won last year’s Paris-Nice, and Sylvain Chavanel, who has the ability to serve as loyal lieutenant on all but the steepest gradients.
Valverde’s return from a two-year suspension for his implied involvement in the Operacion Puerto affair has divided opinion. His performances, however, have not. He hit the ground running at the Tour Down Under in January, beating Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) by the narrowest of margins at the summit of Old Willunga Hill, and finishing second overall to the Australian at the conclusion of the race the following day. A stage victory and third overall at Paris-Nice was a further indication that he has returned in peak form, the most recent demonstration of which came at the Tour de Suisse where his performances in support of teammate, Rui Costa, helped secure the Portugese’s overall victory. He will call on Costa and a strong Movistar line-up to repay the favour at the Tour. Winner of the 2009 Vuelta, Valverde has the experience required, and in a year where, Wiggins and Evans excepted, genuine Tour contenders are thin on the ground, Valverde could be a good outside bet.