Debates over team selection at Sky and BMC have ensured anticipation about this year’s Tour de France has rarely dropped below fever pitch.
But for me it’s been as exciting to just consider the list of rivals assembling to knock Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome off their sky-high perch.
Yes, the boys in black and blue are a formidable obstacle but looking at the contenders, the battle for podium honours was shaping up to be one of the most memorable ever.
That’s not the situation now though.
In the space of a couple of weeks, the cycling gods look to have spoken and entire complexion of the race has changed.
Chris Froome still has to ride the lap of France but he must be thinking that “all” he has to do is have a trouble-free race and the title is his.
Especially so when you consider the name that now won’t be on the start line in Corsica.
Twelve months ago, the top ten for the Tour de France looked like this: Wiggins, Froome (Sky), Nibali (AST), Van den Broek(LOT), van Garderen (BMC), Zubeldia (RSH), Evans (BMC), Rolland (EUR), Brajkovic (AST) and Pinot (FDJ).
In the Young Riders classification, Kruijswijk (RAB) and Taaramae (COF) placed behind the dominant duo of van Garderen and Pinot.
What a shame it is then that a number of them won’t be there and others have question marks over their form.
Wiggins’s cursed Giro campaign cruelled his Tour ambitions with a knee injury the final blow to the debilitating chest infection.
Vincenzo Nibali made it quite clear some time ago that the Giro would be his preference over the Tour.
Jurgen Van den Broek will be there but based on his form in the Cirterium de Dauphine (29th on GC), and the Tour de Romandie (7th) he is not in earth-shattering form. You can add to that the illness that’s hit Jelle Vanendert.
The emerging Belgian climber is suffering from a parasitic infection in his intestine and won’t race the Tour. Given Lotto isn’t blessed with climbers, this will weaken van den Broeck’s ambitions.
Tejay van Garderen will be absolutely ready again, assuming he emerges unscathed from the Tour de Suisse which like so many races this season is presenting riders with some truly awful weather conditions.
Of course, van Garderen does have to sort out who between him and Cadel assumes team leader status at BMC. Given his Giro podium finish, Cadel will deservedly begin the Tour as BMC’s big cheese, but doubts persist whether ultimately he’ll be able to recover from such a brutal Giro.
Andy Schleck’s agonisingly slow return to fitness, confidence and form and the absence of Fabian Cancellara must mean that Haimar Zubeldia will be the protected rider for Radioshack Leopard Trek. He finished 14th at the Dauphine but prior to that was only 17th at the Tour of California.
Schleck looked quite good (at times) in that race (he finished 25th), but hasn’t continued to improve at the Tour de Suisse. Surely can’t be ready to complete a three-week Grand Tour. With Chris Horner also out through injury the Trekkies don’t look likely to pose any kind of threat to Sky.
Twelve months ago, French hopes of a home Tour podium were starting to look very promising with a number of emerging riders taking the spotlight away from evergreen Thomas Voeckler.
Voeckler’s Europcar teammate Pierre Rolland was one of those riders but now his immediate future is in question, let alone his participation in the Tour. Low cortisol levels, which would prevent the body fighting inflammation, were detected ahead of stage 7.
It meant that barely 24 hours later, Rolland had to abandon the final stage after only 20km. Sadly though, it seems Rolland defied team orders to start the stage in the first place and may have now caused a lot more drama for himself.
Compatriot Thibaut Pinot finished 10th at last year’s Tour de France and after a solid Tour de Romandie (12th) he’s now looking good in the Tour de Suisse, but again he’s not a name to strike fear into a Sky heart.
The biggest rival to Froome should be Alberto Contador, and while he’ll have a formidable team around him for the big lap, Contador’s mediocre performance in the Time Trial was more than a surprise.
To blame an allergy may seem plausible, but it seemed a little too convenient. I reckon Contador will be glad there isn’t as much time trailing in this year’s race, but still, Froome is in such great form he won’t need much in the way of gifts to take maximum advantage.
And the list goes on of those who could be threats but the jury remains out.
Joaquim Purito Rodriguez managed a modest 16th at the Dauphine but surely must be primed for a serious shot at the podium.
Failing that, then his teammate Daniel Moreno Fernandez who finished third in the same race might be a good dark horse.
Euskaltel’s Sammy Sanchez may have also been a challenger too but after surviving the Giro and scoring a stage win in the Dauphine has decided to focus on the Vuelta and the World’s.
Daniel Navarro Garcia’s fifth at the Dauphine was an excellent result but whether his Cofidis team is strong enough to push him to a similar finish in Paris remains to be seen.
And while there’s little doubt that the Movistar team will be competitive, (they won four Giro stages), Alejandro Valverde’s ability to go high in the GC will be seriously tested.
Ryder Hesjedal may have also been a contender, but a nasty crash in the Tour de Suisse looks to have scuppered his ambitions.
Of course the Tour will throw up a surprise contender or two and we’re yet to see what role “luck” plays in proceedings, but right now, what was a start list befitting the Centenary edition of the Tour is lacking a little.
Not great news for cycling fans but Chris Froome won’t be complaining.