Spaniard Alberto Contador – and not Britain’s Chris Froome – is the stand-out favourite for the 100th edition of the Tour de France, according to cycling legend Sean Kelly.
Speaking to The Roar at a Tour de France preview lunch hosted by Eurosport in central London, four-time green jersey winner Kelly said he believed Saxo Bank-Tinkoff’s Contador would hit peak form for the all-important final week of the Tour.
He said Contador has both the experience and savoir faire to ride into Paris on the evening of 21st July wearing the coveted yellow jersey.
When, over a double espresso at the back-end of the cheese course, I asked whether Froome’s consistently high finishes this year – including the Sky rider’s recent victory in the Criterium du Dauphine, in which he beat Contador by more than four minutes – had made him the outright favourite for Tour glory, Eurosport analyst Kelly replied: “No, no, no.”
“Froome may have the results to back him up but sometimes it’s hard to maintain such a level throughout the season,” said Kelly. “Being the in-form rider can act against you because the expectation is high. With Contador, he’s slowly riding back to his best. What’s more, he knows how to win the Tour.”
Kelly, who will notch up 87 hours of live commentary for Eurosport during the course of the three-week race, believes that Contador showed enough quality during the Dauphine to ensure he starts the Tour as favourite.
“We saw with his attacks in the mountains that he has the acceleration but just not the form yet to sustain it to the end. But in last year’s Vuelta, Contador was very strong and I expect him to be the man to beat in the Tour.”
Thirty-year-old Contador has not won a race since beating compatriots Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez to the Vuelta crown last September.
Froome, on the other hand, has hardly lost a race since finishing fourth in Madrid.
The 28-year-old beat runner-up Contador in the Tour of Oman in February ahead of wins in the Criterium International, Tour de Romandie and Dauphine, as well as a second-place finish – behind Giro d’Italia victor Vincenzo Nibali but ahead of Contador – in Tirreno-Adriatico.
Ominously for the other Tour GC contenders, Froome’s season is shaping up distinctively similar to that of fellow Briton Bradley Wiggins, who last year also won the Dauphine and Romandie, not to mention Paris-Nice, ahead of an historic first British victory in the Grande Boucle.
Where Wiggins had Froome to lean on for support – sometimes more than figuratively – Froome this year has the much-improved Australian Richie Porte, winner at Paris-Nice and twice runner-up to the Kenyan-born Froome in the Criterium and the Dauphine.
But unlike Wiggins, Froome will have to face the obstacle of seasoned Grand Tour competitor Contador, who missed last year’s Tour owing to a back-dated ban for the banned substance Clenbuterol.
Contador’s sanction overturned his victories in the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro.
Even with two years’ worth of his results scrapped, however, Contador’s record in Grand Tours remains incomparable to any other current rider in the peloton: he is unbeaten since 2007 having notched two Tours, two Giros and one Vuelta in the process.
Kelly believes that such a record will be the difference for the Spaniard when it comes to the business end of this year’s Tour.
Public opinion may be with comparatively inexperienced Froome, but the smart money is on the man many have already written off.
“You just can’t look beyond Contador. Despite Froome’s form, I’m don’t think he’ll have what it takes to beat Contador,” Kelly confirmed.
The battle for the yellow jersey aside, Kelly is excited about the prospect of Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan going head-to-head in the green jersey points classification.
And despite Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Cavendish showing both strength and class to win the red points jersey in last month’s Giro, Kelly believes Sagan is the favourite to take what will be a second successive green jersey in Paris.
Asked by yours truly if Cannondale’s Sagan was a modern day incarnation of himself given the Slovak sensation’s ability to win on all terrain, Kelly said: “Yes, I believe so. Sagan is a huge talent. We saw in last year’s Tour that he can win stages from sprints and from breakaways – and that he can take intermediate points in the mountains.”
But could Sagan one day make the step up – as Kelly did with his overall victory in the 1988 Vuelta – and top the GC of one of the Grand Tours?
“Yes, I believe he could,” Kelly told me before qualifying his bold statement. “The problem is that to win a Grand Tour nowadays you have to dedicate your entire season towards one goal. If Sagan was to do this, he would not be so successful in other stage races or classics – and it may not be something he’s prepared to do.”
Having finished up our coffees, we agreed that Sagan would perhaps be best suited to concentrating on winning that elusive Monument or major classic before targeting the GC of any Grand Tours. Besides, stage wins and pipping Cavendish to the green jersey should keep him quite busy in the meantime.