A collective sign of relief was heard from all British cycling fans this week as Sir Jim Ratcliffe was confirmed as the new owner, and main sponsor, of Team Sky racing.
The biggest event on cycling’s calendar, the Tour de France, rolls around this weekend and it is time to look at who will take home cycling’s most prestigious prize, the Maillot Jaune.
Last week we had a look at ‘the outsiders’ who will be looking to disrupt and hijack the race from the favourites.
Today we will examine the ‘Big Four’, the favourites to take home this year’s yellow jersey: Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
The defending champion who at last year’s Tour grabbed the race by the scruff of the neck with an escape win on Stage 2 and never let go.
He dominated the Stage 5 cobbles with one of the rides of the year. While Froome and Contador were floundering he outpaced classics specialists like Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan, taking third place on the stage and putting over two minutes into the closest GC contenders.
After the eventual withdrawal of Froome and Contador he was untouchable, ending the Tour with a seven-minute lead over his closest contender.
The aggressive game plan that worked for him last year will be his best road to success again this year. The ‘Shark of Messina’ is at his best when on the attack and with an early lead he may be able to put the other riders on the defensive as they try to match his unpredictable moves.
While he is no slouch when it comes to the climbs Nibali excels in the more all rounder aspects. He is the best descender of the favourites and, as he showed last year, when the route hits the pavé in Stage 4 he can handle the rough like few others.
He has kept his cards close to his chest this year so his current form is not well known. The danger for him will come if he cannot match the pace of the other favourites later in the Tour when the race hits the big mountains.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo)
The decorated veteran, ‘El Pistolero’, is hoping to make history and become the first rider to win the Giro d’Italia and Tour in the same year since Marco Pantani in 1998.
To put it simply, Contador knows how to win big races, he has more Grand Tour silverware than the rest of the entire peloton combined but has unfinished business, having not won cycling’s biggest race since 2009.
He is coming off an impressive but grueling win at the Giro d’Italia where he was let down by his own team at most key moments and was left to beat off a rampaging Astana almost single-handedly.
His chances will largely be decided by his ability to recover from the Giro campaign. A win at the Route du Sud has shown promising early signs but in 2011 – the last time he attempted the Giro/Tour double – Contador faded in the final week of racing.
He has the best tactical brain of the contenders but is coming up against the most mountainous Tour in recent memory so will need his team to help carry him more than ever. It will be a campaign of death or glory for Contador and if he can pull the double off he will cement his name as the greatest rider of his generation.
Chris Froome (Team Sky)
When it comes to the biggest race of the year you can always bet on one thing – the team Sky train will be lining up at the front of the peloton pulling for their star. This year it is Chris Froome.
Froome took out the Tour in dominant fashion in 2013, mixing attacks in the mountains with his great time trialling ability to ride the rest of the peloton off his wheel. But he never looked comfortable in last year’s disastrous campaign.
His approach to this Tour has been mixed. A win at the Critérium du Dauphiné shows he is approaching similar form levels this year as he did during the 2013 build up.
However, as the route was announced last year he publicly criticised the Tour’s organising body for the lack of time trial kilometres and inclusion of a cobbled stage for the second year running.
He has the backing of arguably the strongest and most innovative team in the peloton but will have some mental hurdles to climb throughout, none more immediate than when the race hits the pavé in Stage 4.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
Perhaps the most exciting rider to come onto the scene since Contador emerged back in 2007, the diminutive Colombian is regarded by many as the best pure climber in the peloton.
Quintana burst onto the scene in 2013 during his debut Tour, where he was the only one who could match Froome in the mountains. He ended the race an extremely impressive second, also taking a stage win, and became the youngest winner of the King of the Mountains since 1955.
Quintana backed up the hype in 2014, winning the Maglia Rosa at the Giro and wearing the leader’s jersey in the Vuelta a Espana up until he crashed out in Stage 10.
This year’s Tour looks like it was made for the Colombian, with seven high-mountain stages, numerous rolling, medium mountain routes and only 13 kilometres of solo time trialling.
The question for Quintana will be going down the other side of those mountains, at only 55 kilograms he doesn’t naturally carry a lot of momentum downhill.
On top of that his 2014 Vuelta crash was on the descent so it will be interesting to see how he responds to the inevitable downhill attacks from Nibali and Contador.
So there are the favourites, which one of the ‘Big Four’ do you think will take it out? Or will someone spoil their party? Let us know in the comments below and don’t forget to join in on The Roar‘s live coverage of every stage.