Stephen Roche believes Alberto Contador will be close to his best at the Tour de France and has warned Chris Froome not to underestimate the two-time champion in his bid to win the Tour de France.
Froome will start the Tour de France as favourite having enjoyed an imperious year to date, winning the Tour of Oman, Criterium International and Criterium du Dauphine, as well as registering a second-place finish at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Contador, meanwhile, has failed to register a victory in 2013 and goes into the Tour on the back of a tenth place finish at the Criterium du Dauphine, the traditional warm-up race for La Grande Boucle.
But 1987 champion Roche believes Contador, who previously won the Tour de France in 2007 and 2009, has the experience and tactical nous to claim a third title.
“Alberto Contador has had a few weeks to recover from the Dauphine and bring himself on form,” HotChillee ambassador Roche told RoadCyclingUK.
“Even if Contador isn’t 100 per cent, he’s still very clever and when he sees an opportunity he seizes it. He’s very clever tactically and the Dauphine and Tour are two very different races.”
The 100th edition of the Tour will start in Corsica on Saturday, taking in a 3,403km route which includes some of the most fabled climbs in the race’s history, including Mont Ventoux on stage 15 and a unique double ascent of Alpe d’Huez on stage 18.
Bradley Wiggins laid the the foundations for his victory in 2012 by winning both individual time trials, before defending that lead in the mountains – but, with the total length of individual tests against the clock reduced from 95km to 65km for this year’s edition, Roche believes the 2013 parcours is a “well-balanced” route which should provide the platform for a more open and attacking race.
It’s going to be a very interesting race and I think there will be a surprise or two
“I don’t think the route is as hard as people were thinking it was going to be,” said Roche.
“The Pyrenees only has one mountaintop finish in Ax 3 Domaines, and a not very difficult one at that, then there’s one mountaintop finish in the Massif Central with Mont Ventoux, and then Alpe d’Huez is the big stage in the Alps.
“Alpe d’Huez will be special but normally when you know the finish is at the top of the climb, you throw everything into the basket and go.
“However, knowing you’ve got to go round again could mean they’re not as enthusiastic the first time over and the crowds on Alpe d’Huez may see big bunches going up for the first time, rather than riders one-by-one.
Roche added: “It’s a well-balanced route: the time trials aren’t going to frighten people away. A 30km time trial and a 50km time trial are totally different things, and riders who lose a minute-and-a-half in the time trials this year might be encouraged to go on the attack. If they can get in a little group and gain time in the mountain then perhaps they will start to think they can win the Tour.
“I think the race will be fought out between Contador, Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez and Nairo Quintana, but there a few outsiders like Thibaut Pinot and Pierre Rolland, who can both climb and time trial relatively well, and who won’t be as watched as Contador and Froome.
“It’s going to be very interesting and there may be a surprise or two.”
While Roche believes Contador has the tools in his armoury to defeat Froome, when asked by RoadCyclingUK to name his favourite rider in the current peloton, Roche named the Kenyan-born Brit, citing his attacking style but also his demeanour off the bike.
“Chris Froome is what cycling needs today,” said Roche. “He’s a very good all-rounder and a very intelligent rider tactically, but he’s also got great manners on and off the bike. Froome is a bowl of oxygen for cycling, as they say in French, because he’s very humble and he speaks very well, whether it’s with journalists or the public.
“He’s a brilliant rider and he has very few enemies, which is important. In the peloton it’s not good to be liked by everybody but it’s more important not to be disliked by everybody. While Team Sky can be looked upon as arrogant sometimes, it’s more important that the individual is well-liked.”
Froome will go into the Tour as Team Sky’s outright leader having finished second behind Wiggins in 2012. Wiggins, meanwhile, will miss the race after being ruled out with the knee injury which also contributed to his withdrawal from the Giro d’Italia.
It’s unfortunate Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins aired their washing in public
Prior to the Giro, Wiggins said his aim was to win both the Italian Grand Tour and the Tour de France, prompting Froome to release a statement reinforcing his position as leader and forcing David Brailsford to underline Froome’s position as the team’s protected rider for the Tour.
And Roche praised the Team Sky chief Brailsford’s diplomatic approach in defusing a potentially explosive situation.
“It’s unfortunate they [Wiggins and Froome] aired their washing in public,” said Roche. “They or their partners were very happy to talk about it in public so it’s understandable that the press picked up on it and everybody laughed at it, which is unfortunate for cycling.
“David Brailsford did a good job at calming it down, and initially choosing Froome because the route looked better suited to him, and then when Wiggins decided he wanted to do the Tour and he wanted the number one place, Brailsford came back on board again and said ‘no, the Tour is for Froome’.
“Wiggins is now out of the Tour but nevertheless I think it was very brave on Brailsford’s part to make that stand.
“I understand that Bradley wants to come back and try and win as the defending champion but I think he was better off saying nothing in public and having an internal conversation and saying, ‘listen, I want to be part of the team and to help Chris and Sky to win the Tour, but if I get my chance will you let me have it?’
“I think that would have been a more intelligent way to do it, rather than going public.”
Wiggins will return to racing at the Tour of Poland before targeting the Tour of Britain and the World Championship time trial, where the Olympic champion will bid to better the silver medal won in 2011.
And while Wiggins has suggested he may never again ride the Tour de France with the aim of winning the race, Roche believes the 33-year-old still has some of the best years of his career ahead of him.
Bradley Wiggins is a champion and champion’s don’t die
“The World Championships time trial is a good target for Bradley but the worlds is not the Tour de France,” said Roche.
“Guys like Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara, who is missing the Tour to concentrate on the worlds, are real specialists in one-day time trials, whereas Bradley’s strength is in producing an effort like that during a three-week Grand Tour. If he can pull that off it’ll be amazing.
“Bradley Wiggins is a champion and champions don’t die,” he added. “He’s got a lot of drive and wants to win, and that’s one of Bradley’s strong points, so he’ll do what it takes to come back and win.
“Bradley is still young in professional cycling terms as he came over from the track and started late. Champions don’t die, he’s too young to say it’s over.”
Stephen Roche is an ambassador for HotChillee and this year rode his sixth London-Paris.