While much of the talk ahead of the hundredth edition of the Tour de France has focused on the maillot jaune, the battle for this year’s white jersey – the best young rider – could be as closely contested.
Last year’s winner, the 24-year-old American, Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing), is among the bookmakers’ favourites to top the young riders classification but he faces hot competition for the jersey with a number of top young riders set for the Tour.
We’ll be previewing the contenders for the maillots jaune and vert and the King of the Mountains competition in the days ahead, with the former both competitions in which British riders could triumph.
Here we’ll focus on the reward offered to the highest-placed rider aged under 26. This year’s contenders have already shown their considerable ability in the most prestigious of the pre-Tour races and look set to light up the biggest race of all.
Tejay Van Garderen (BMC Racing) – age 24
Rising star Van Garderen was a key support rider for Cadel Evans at last year’s Tour, displaying the essential mix of climbing and time trialling talent needed to compete for the white and yellow jerseys.
His performances, which included finishing fourth in the prologue and the stage nine individual time trial, were such that, alongside becoming the third American to win the white jersey, he finished fifth overall – almost five minutes ahead of Evans.
This year the Washington-born rider has continued in the same vein of form, winning the Tour of California last month to record his first major stage-race victory having earlier finished second in the Tour de San Luis, fourth at Paris-Nice and third at the Criterium International.
The reward for his best ever year was the privilege of leading BMC at the Tour de Suisse this month. While an average performance in the early stages meant he was never in contention for the win, he bagged a podium finish on stage seven to finish seventh overall.
He heads to the Tour in great shape to retain his white jersey, despite his insistence that he is focused only on supporting Evans.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) – age 23
The Colombian climber rode his way into Movistar’s Tour de France squad with a string of highly impressive performances since joining the team last year.
Having announced his presence on the world statge at the 2012 Criterium du Dauphine by storming to a notable victory in stage six – the Queen stage – in a solo counter-attack, Quintana was part of Movistar’s team time trial stage winners at last year’s Vuelta a Espana.
This year, he claimed a stage victory at the Volta a Catalunya in March on his way to fourth overall and runners-up spot in the mountains classification.
He followed it by storming to the overall and points classification jerseys at the Tour of the Basque Country and he is now in line to be a key domestique for Movistar’s team leader and yellow jersey contender, Alejandro Valverde.
A former Tour L’Avenir winner, Quintana is untested in the Tour de France but Movistar team manager Eusebio Unzue believes he has a great chance to learn the race alongside Valverde.
And should he lead the Spaniard to within contention of a podium finish, Quintana could well find himself handily-placed to challenge van Garderen for his white jersey.
Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEDGE) – age 25
Another Tour debutant, 25-year-old Australian Cameron Meyer – a world champion on the track and former winner of the Tour Down Under – has ridden himself into the Orica-GreenEDGE Tour squad after three consecutive top-ten stage race finishes.
After coming in sixth overall at the Tour of Turkey in April, he went one better in May’s Tour of California to finish fifth.
An excellent time trialist and fast-improving climber, he produced another strong performance this month, winning the opening stage time trial at the Tour de Suisse, and holding the yellow jersey for two days.
After eventually coming tenth overall, he will perform a key role for Orica-GreenEDGE as they bid to win their first ever Tour de France stage in their second appearance.
Whether Meyer will be among the leading challengers for the maillot blanc, however, depends on how he copes with the very mountainous parcours, particularly as there will be just two individual time trials for him to take time out of his opponents.
Rohan Dennis – age 23; Andrew Talansky – age 24 (Garmin-Sharp)
Young stars Rohan Dennis and Andrew Talansky may represent Garmin Sharp’s strongest prospects for the Tour, such is their talent
The white jersey is certainly not beyond either, with both having put in a number of impressive rides in the last 12 months – including 24-year-old American Talansky finishing seventh at last year’s Vuelta a Espana.
He already has one white jersey to his name this year too, having taken a stage victory on his way to second overall and first in the young rider classification at the Paris-Nice.
Likewise, Australian starlet Dennis – runner-up at his national time trial championships – collected the white jersey at this month’s Criterium du Dauphine, where he finished eighth overall – giving a good indication of his ability in the French mountains.
Although neither has rideen a Tour before, both are adept climbers and time trialists and should team manager Jonathan Vaughters plump for youth over experience they will both fancy their white jersey chances.
Peter Kennaugh (Team Sky) – age 24
World and Olympic team pursuit gold-medallist Kennaugh, a protégé of Team Sky chief Sir David Brailsford, was perhaps not the most obvious pick for a Tour place.
But having plumped for the 24-year-old Manxman over the likes of Christian Knees and super domestique Dario Cataldo, Brailsford clearly sees something in the 4000m team pursuit world record holder.
And Kennaugh is certainly building a reputation as a fast and courageous rider on the roads, underlined by recent performances on home soil (winner of the Lincoln Grand Prix in May, fourth at last week’s national road race championships), as well as in the races of cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour.
Kennaugh further cemented his reputation at the Criterium du Dauphine, performing a key role as a mountain domestique for his team as Chris Froome and Richie Porte sealed a one-two finish.
While Froome’s yellow jersey ambitions will undoubtedly come first, Kennaugh has already admitted that wearing the white jersey, even for a solitary stage, would be a huge bonus at his debut Tour.
If he is up there at the finish with Froome and Porte in the key stages though, a dream debut will not seem far-fetched.