Every four years, I watch the Olympics, and every four years, I watch sports such as diving, swimming, and gymnastics, and question my life decisions.
Sitting down for a Skype interview with Greg LeMond for Eurosport this week got me salivating about the impending arrival of Tour de France, which starts in the north of England this Saturday.
It’s not often the Tour ventures onto English soil – the last time was 2007 for a prologue in London and a road stage through the Kent countryside – and it’s testament to the growth of cycling in Great Britain that sees three stages take place across the Channel so soon after the last visit.
Of course, it helps that Chris Froome is odds-on favourite to secure Britain’s third Tour crown in as many years – although it’s strange that, as the Tour’s Grand Départ returns to a country described to me by LeMond as the current “hotbed of cycling”, only one English-born rider will feature in the peloton as it edges out of Leeds en route to an expected opening day bunch sprint finish in the North Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate.
Local lad Ben Swift has been overlooked by a yellow jersey-focused Team Sky, who have also (perhaps controversially) omitted both Bradley Wiggins (the 2012 Tour champion) and Peter Kennaugh (recently crowned British national champion) from their roster. There is a place for the energetic Geraint Thomas, but heralding from Wales, the 28-year-old won’t feel too much patriotism as he pedals over the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales and Peak District.
At least Mark Cavendish – born and raised in the Isle of Man and currently residing in Italy – will feel some attachment to Harrogate, the home town of his mother and uncle. Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Cavendish will eye a stage win and a maiden yellow jersey on the Tour’s curtain-raiser – but the lumpy route and a slight uphill finish may play into the hands of the likes of John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), Peter Sagan (Cannondale) or Arnaud Démare (FDJ).
And there’s always that man Marcel Kittel, who last year bookended his breakthrough Tour with stage 1 and 21 victories in Bastia and the Champs-Elysées while – with four wins to his name – appropriating Cavendish’s former moniker as the fastest man in the peloton.
LeMond predicts a “fun battle” between the pair – although feels the weight of expectation on Cavendish’s shoulders to deliver in both Harrogate and in the shadow of Buckingham Palace in London may be too much for the Manxman.
“These are high-pressure stages for Cavendish. Unfortunately he’s going to be under so much pressure that Kittel will probably nip him,” LeMond told me in my capacity as Eurosport’s cycling blogger Blazin’ Saddles.
Back to the subject of English riders, and there was another notable snub this week for Movistar’s Alex Dowsett. The former British national time trial champion had expected to make his Tour debut this July – indeed, he left Team Sky in 2012 in order to increase his chances of doing so. But the 25-year-old from Essex was a shock omission from a Movistar team built around Alejandro Valverde. Perhaps the fact that this year’s route contains just one time trial – and a lumpy one at that – swayed Movistar’s choice.
The biggest upset came for Scotland’s David Millar, who was hoping – nay, expecting – to ride his thirteenth Tour before hanging up his boots at the end of the season. Finding himself snubbed by his Garmin-Sharpteammates (apparently none of them would pick up their phones), Millar learned of his surprise non-selection before sounding off in a series of awkward tweets.
Once the dust settles, Millar may appreciate that his form was not up to scratch ahead of the most demanding race of the season in which there is no place for sentimentality (especially when you have a rider, in Andrew Talansky, eager to rock the general classification boat). Millar may also, in retrospect, regret what looked like a thinly veiled attack on all of histeammates (bar Ryder Hesjedal) in a recent popular cycling podcast formerly sponsored by the same Sharp that pays half his salary (discounting the top-up he’ll now get from UK broadcaster ITV for his eleventh hour punditry skills).
The upshot of all these British absentees is that the Tour’s Yorkshire Grand Départ will funnily enough feature one Englishman no one else thought would be there: Orica-GreenEdge’s Simon Yates.
This is not the Yates who recently won a stage on the Tour of Turkey before finishing fifth in the Tour of California and sixth in the Criterium du Dauphine. It’s his fellow 21-year-old twin brother, who recovered from a broken collarbone in the Tour of Turkey to take the third spot on the podium in the recent British national championships behind Kennaugh and Swift.
And yet… judging by the unfortunate news that broke on Wednesday, Yates perhaps owes his place in the Orica-GreenEDGE squad primarily due to the fact that one of the Australian team’s expected Tour riders finds himself embroiled in one of the frequent recent doping storms to have engulfed the peloton.
Daryl Impey, who wore the yellow jersey for a stint during last year’s Tour (the first rider from South Africa to do so), tested positive for the masking agent probenecid after the South African championships back in February. Impey’s adverse analytical finding means Orica-GreenEDGE will start this year’s Tour as they ended the last one: under a cloud.
If Stuart O’Grady’s admission to have taken EPO earlier in his career following his sudden retirement from the sport last July was a shock to Orica-GreenEDGE, Impey’s case has far more serious implications, the rider actually being part of the team’s set-up when the alleged incident occurred.
In the absence of Impey, who claims he is “extremely distressed” by the findings and vows to prove his innocence, Orica-GreenEDGE will target stage wins in the 2014 race, with the likes of Simon Gerrans, Michael Matthews, Michael Albasini and Simon Clarke all featuring in the squad alongside the promising Yates.
Australian interest is strangely muted this year with perennial Tour contender Cadel Evans, the 2011 winner, absent from a BMC squad built around the American Tejay Van Garderen for the first time. Richie Porte will once again be right-hand man to the hot favourite Froome, but Sky’s season of illness and injury means the British-based squad is relatively lightweight this July.
Alberto Contador’s Saxo Bank team was also dealt a blow this week with the forced withdrawal of Czech all-rounder Roman Kreuziger. Contador’s key lieutenant is being investigated thanks to irregularities in his blood passport dating back to 2011 when he rode for Astana. In his absence, Rafal Majka has been drafted in to a tired-looking squad that also includes Nico Roche and Mick Rogers – both of whom, like Majka, rode the Giro d’Italia “full gas” in May.
Despite the potential weaknesses to their teams, LeMond feels the Tour will be very much a “two-horse race” between the defending champion and his Spanish rival.
“I’d say Froome was the favourite because he won the year before,” LeMond told me last week from his house in Minnesota when we chatted on his 53rd birthday. “I’d say that Chris is going to have an advantage in the time trial and so Contador, in order to win it, is going to have to put some time on him in the mountains before Perigueux.
“But if I were a betting man, I’d probably go with Contador,” LeMond added, clambering up to sit on the fence with the kind of adroitness expected of a triple Tour winner.
During our chat, LeMond talked of his dismay at the omissions of both Wiggins and Colombian Nairo Quintana: it’s the Giro d’Italia champion who should be leading Movistar, not Valverde, who LeMond sees as “not a serious contender”. After his winning turn in the Dauphine, Talansky could be the “surprise package”, while LeMond feels Van Garderen, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar) are ones to watch.
There was, surprisingly, no mention of Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali – the Italian Vuelta a España and Giro winner. Although his personal form was somewhat lower than Contador and Froome during the Dauphine, Nibali arguably has the strongest team to help him in his quest to add the remaining Grand Tour title to his swelling palmares.
Joining Nibali this July are experienced Italians Michele Scarponi and Alessandro Vanotti, climbing specialists Jakob Fuglsang, Lieuwe Westra and Tanel Kangert, and a solid Eastern bloc of Andriy Grivko, Dmitriy Gruzdev and Maxim Iglinskiy. If Nibali can negotiate his way past what has been dubbed the hardest start to any Tour since 1979 (which hit the Pyrenees as early as stage two) then he could be a serious contender.
Described by LeMond as “dynamic”, the opening week of the Tour features a breathtakingly hilly stage two – very much in the mould of Liège-Bastogne-Liège – and a cobble-infused stage five that runs over segments of pavé that recall the hell of the north that is Paris-Roubaix. With stage sixteen also resembling a more fiercer Milan-San Remo (with the Port de Bales climb a significant upgrade to the Poggio) then we’re clearly into a race that could prove to be a real classic.
LeMond predicts carnage on the road to Arenberg next Wednesday: “It’ll be a very nervous race that day, very fast, and I think we’ll see a lot of crashes from the first cobbled section onwards. This is where I think excluding Bradley Wiggins from the Sky team was a big risk because he’s very good on the cobbles.”
Elsewhere, LeMond feels the key mountain stage will come in stage 13 to Chamrousse – more so than the following stage to Risoul, which nevertheless features the Col d’Izoard. With many transitional stages featuring categorised climbs, the American feels the polka dot jersey could be won by “an opportunist rather than an out-and-out climber”. Meanwhile, his money is on the “consistent” and “rounded” Peter Sagan to net his third green jersey.
Cavendish – with a super strong classics team around him and as one of the few British riders involved in this historic race – will no doubt do his very best to prove LeMond wrong, starting with a win and the maillot jaune in Harrogate in the presence of his mother.
My predicted 2014 Tour de France top ten:
1. Froome, 2. Contador, 3. Nibali, 4. Valverde, 5.Mollema, 6. Van Garderen, 7. Talansky, 8. Van den Broeck, 9. Navarro, 10. Bardet