Friday, 3 July 2015

2015 Tour de France Preview

Note: I am going to write sporadically this year, as I don't want to block off the entire three weeks from any kind of social event in the evening, nor do I want to spend too much time on the writing and research. So if you came to check out the blog, transfer your attention to Politics and Cycling in the South of France. It is there that I will write whatever I write, whenever I write it.

Tour de France 2015 – Introduction

This year, nearly every commentator is excited about the Tour. The main reason is not the route, which is good enough, although there is NO individual time trial of any length. Admittedly the first stage is an extra long prologue, but only 13.8k. The Team Time Trial exists, but it is so strangely late in the race that the organisers had to get special permission from the UCI to break the rules. The first weeks have three uphill finishes plus the flat stages. We have the usual proper climbs in the Pyrenees and Alps. There is one stage early on with cobbles, a trip to Brittany, and jaunt across the Massif Central between the mountains, with another short steep climb on one stage. I think most people are pretty sure it will be a good route.

But what excites the French is that at last they have some sprinters and some climbers who might win a stage or two and who might actually finish in the top ten. Last year they had three in the top ten, and two of the top three. There is no chance they will repeat the latter feat! But what excites nearly everyone, including the French, is that all the BIG GUYS are riding. Froome, Nibali, Quintana and Contador are all in pretty good shape and seriously wanting the yellow jersey. Three of them have already won it, and Quintana is keen to do it one day. Being the youngest he has no big pressure. In addition, with the exception of Kittel, and the partial exception of Bouhanni (recent crash), all the sprinters will be fit and present too. So whatever happens, it is meant to be a great race. There are several stages, not so easy, that will invite a breakaway and unexpected glory for someone.

Yellow jersey favourites have already been covered. Although everyone has a favourite, Froome being the most popular overall, no one really knows who will last the race, who will do well on the climbs, who won't fall off on the cobbles or have a terrible day on one of the three short steep climbs, whose team will disappear or be astounding, and so forth. On the only forum where I had to pick a winner, I picked Quintana. No idea why, just thought he was the best bet. I could mention all the others, and there is a list of maybe ten, who could break into the top four, for one reason or another. To keep this blog short, I will wait on that. It is an exceedingly high quality field this year.

Green jersey. They have changed how the points awarded to guarantee that the winner will be a sprinter. It used to be “the most consistent finisher”, which meant it was nearly always a sprinter, but not necessarily. Now it is a certainty. The top pick of every single commentator I have read is Peter Sagan. Since he is in good shape, and he has won the last three in a row, it is pretty much a no-brainer. Anything else will be a surprise. In my own opinion it will be Alexander Kristoff (Norwegian) who beats him, but it could just as easily be Cavendish. Secretly I am hoping Cav will get back to his glory days, as a crash in 2014, and a not very good 2013, could mean he is nearing the end of his winning ways. Or not! There is an outside chance that Bouhanni or Degenkolb might also make the green jersey a competition, and not a walkover for Sagan.

As for the young rider's white jersey, unless he falls off or something, Nairo Quintana is the choice of every single writer. Well, maybe there are those who might bet on Pinot or Bardet or Kelderman, but the honest truth is that unless something bad happens, Quintana will win the jersey. This won't be such an interesting sub-race, although I have picked Pinot, since the odds are better.

As for the mountains jersey, there is the usual utter uncertainty about it. True, it might happen that one of the Big Four accidentally win it. They are clearly the best climbers, and will get many points by winning or placing highly on all the mountain stages. But big points are also awarded for grand escapes over several climbs, even though at the end it will be one of the big four who take the points on the final climb. So the question is who might be a really good climber, but who knows they can't do much better than seventh or twelfth. Instead of toiling in the first group on the last climb, but losing, they might have the freedom to attack earlier in the stage, and might try to join or initiate a couple of long distance breaks, picking up loads of points for climbs that are hard, but actually don't matter in terms of the overall victory. This is the usual story. The candidates would have to be several minutes behind the top guys after a week or so, or they will not be allowed to escape and take points. If they are far behind on GC, no one will care. In fact, this is the “no one really cares jersey” in the Tour. The “climber's jersey” winner could finish outside the top ten very easily. So we have to wait and see on this one. After the second climbing day in the Pyrenees, we will begin to guess who cares. For the first ten days, it will be worn by chancers and non-climbers. I am secretly against all odds, hoping that Daniel Teklahaimanot will win. He is one of two Eritreans riding the Tour, for the first time in human history. Yes, there is an “African team”, although the leader is Norwegian. Others who are suggested as serious contenders for the mountain jersey might be Joaquin Rodriguez, Pierre Rolland (my pick), Alexandre de Marchi, Rafal Majka (who has to serve Contador normally), Dan Martin, Julian Arrodondo. The list is endless, we just have to see what happens on Stages 11 and 12. Then we will know something. Usually there is no real competition in this jersey contest. The best we can hope for is that there WILL be a contest.

What else? I suppose that might be enough. My teams in the various fantasy leagues I enter might be mentioned later in the blog. I don't know if you all know this, but in 2014 I finished third in a huge fantasy Tour with thousands of entries. Podium, mate! I won't be able to do that this year, it was largely luck, plus brilliant non-silly picks. But if I can beat the other guys in my bike forum or two friends from Lancashire with whom I have a new “league competition”, I will be quite happy. One thing non-players don't know is that if you have more than one team, you can be happy about at least 18 or 24 or 36 riders, in a kind of family way. There are no prizes or entry fees in my leagues. After a few years you have had many riders, and you really don't care who wins. You just want to score a few points and enjoy the race.

I really must stop now. Tomorrow or the next day, I shall write again.

Below is the little article I wrote for a website for British immigrants (500 word limit)

The Tour de France begins Today!

What might be particularly interesting to British sports fan? More specifically than the race itself as a sporting event of huge ampleur, the crowds (12,000,000, they say), the utterly gorgeous countryside (in HD), the gossipy stories, the heartbreak and the joy, the young and the older. Like life, the Tour contains everything.

But the two overwhelming Brit concerns are with Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish. Froomie, although born in Kenya and raised in South Africa, is the great English hope for the yellow jersey. He won it in 2013, but crashed out last year. He is probably the favourite to win the yellow jersey. “The Big Four” is the name for the riders who are head and shoulder above the others. One of them will win. Another is the 25 year old Colombian Nairo Quintana, who has already won the Giro and finished second in the Tour. I am vaguely hoping he will win. Vincenzo Nibali, winner of all three Grand Tours, only one of five or so riders in history to do this, and last year's winner, will also be a factor. He is a kind of modest, cool, attacking, thinking rider. Old school. The last is Alberto Contador, who is trying to be the first guy since Marco Pantani to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year. He just won the Giro. He has won the Tour twice already. So we have three former winners and the young guy of infinite potential battling it out. Nuff said.

I should add quickly that there are ten Brits riding, some of quite high standing. Guys like Alex Dowsett (British time trial ace), Geraint Thomas (Welsh and a superb rider in all terrain) are only two who might make a big impression, not to mention young Simon Yates in the mountains. In addition, one can imagine that young Peter Kennaugh, the British road champion might do well on one stage.

The other major British interest is Mark Cavendish, one of the finest sprinters in cycling history. Recently there has been talk of Cav reaching his less quick, more mature years. Slowing down. Not quite good enough. Last year he crashed on the first stage. The year before he was well beaten by a young German sprinter who is not in the race this year. This Tour will be an attempt at a big comeback. He has won a few races this year, but never with the level of opposition the Tour provides. Cav has six guys totally dedicated to protect and help him win flat stages. Quality riders, only one purpose. If he wins big this year, he will have won more Tour stages than anyone except Merckx.

Although the mountains are the best for drama of scenery and racing, I have a feeling the first few stages, on the “flat”, are going to be more uncertain and unpredictable than usual. So see what a fine way it is to spend half an hour inside a hot afternoon. The countryside alone is worth the look. Next time I will give you a couple of sites that provide true geek information.