Joseph Harper loves nothing more than watching strangely shaped men pump their huge quadriceps in pursuit of cycling glory. You can start sharing some of his joy by boning up on this cheat sheet to the Tour de France.
Sport’s greatest spectacle begins this weekend. 3,519 kms over 21 stages, from the shores of La Manche, up into the French alps, and finally back to Paris for a victorious jaunt down the Champs-Elysees. Aside from the obvious battles for the Yellow, Green, and Spotty jerseys, the 103rd edition of Le Tour is ripe with subplots. Old hands taking one last crack, young pretenders pretending to be good at riding bikes. It should be a cracker.
This year, for the first time in ages, the race is starting in France, and ditching the time trial prologue. Instead they’re going with a 188km rolling route that should end in a mean sprint. This is great news, because as cool as a time trial is in theory, in reality they’re boring as shit to watch. The race designers this year has also chosen to put all the nightmarish alpine stages (where the real hard-outs who are going for the yellow jersey can do the damage) near the end. That means for the first wee while we’ll be treated to dudes with obscene quadriceps waiting till the last minute then going absolutely ham down the stretch. That’s all well and good in my opinion. We’re saving the best till last here. Not to say that the early goings won’t be interesting.
Here are some of the key storylines at play this year.
The Reign of the Skeleton King
The pre-race favourite is Chris Froome. Froome and his Team Sky squad dominated last years tour. They’re a disgustingly efficient beast unit who basically bulldoze the competition by comptrolling the peloton and driving The Skeleton King to glory.
Froome is an absolute freak of a cyclist. He’s basically a massive praying mantis–type guy who crouches atop his bike and drives himself forward with a seemingly perpetual store of drive. Froome’s not the kind of cyclist who’s going to freak out and charge away like the heroic druggers of yore. He’s just kind of unflappable and if him and his ‘Sky Boys’ get a lead they’re going to be really tough to reel in. He also won this year’s Criterium du Dauphine pretty comfortably, which is often a good yardstick of who will take the Tour.
Making matters worse for Froome’s enemies is the fact that this year’s batch of ‘Sky Men’ is pretty impressive. Froome and his perfectly round head will be dragged along by Spanish conquistador style riders, Mikels Landa and Nieve as well as fellow Brit-popper Geraint Thomas and lesser Colombian Sergio Henao. If Team Sky execute, and they usually do, Froome will in all likelihood “Brexit” France with another yellow jersey.
Nairo Quintana: The Boy Who Lived
Nairo Quintana is my favourite cyclist in this year’s Tour. The world tour circuit is currently awash with incredible Colombian cyclists who can climb the bejesus out of any mountain, and Nairo is the coolest. He came out of nowhere to pull off an ‘anything is possible’-style second place finish at the 2013 Tour and since then he’s been a constant threat. Quintana, with his Harry Potter-level impossible backstory and lovely smile is impossible not to like.
Watching him in the mountains is just awesome. The man just goes and goes and rips the guts out of the competition. The toughest part of the Tour for Quintana will be gaining the necessary support from his team. Movistar, with their hideous helmets, their terrible kit, and their hodgepodge roster of former champs and young guns. They have all the talent. They just need to put it together.
I Got Chills (They’re Multiplyin’ (via Peter Sagan))
Quintana owns my heart, but there’s no denying that Slovakian long-haired lout, Peter Sagan, owns the world of professional cycling. Peter Sagan is breathtaking. He supermans. He descends like a madman. He does lunatic mid-race maneuvers. He makes weird af shot-for-shot Grease re-enactments with his wife. He doesn’t shave his legs. He’s just the best. And beyond that, Peter is the reigning world champion so he gets to ride in the deluxe world champion jersey through the Tour. He’s the ultimate Euro-hunk who just happens to be the meanest biker on the planet.
This year he’s going for his fifth consecutive Green jersey. When he wins it, given Erik Zabel’s drugger confessions, there’s a legitimate argument that Sagan is the greatest points rider of all time.
Sagan’s competition for the Green comes in the form of chiselled Germans, Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel, as well as the aging Manx Missile Mark Cavendish, who are pedal to the metal type leadout train Sprinters. There are also Puncheur types like Irish hottie Dan Martin and Aussie earring wearer Michael Mathews. Honestly I got a tenner that says Sagan beats the snot out of em all and has enough time to brush his beautiful hair before taking the podium.
The Game of Thrones
Though most teams have their Yellow hopes pinned to a single rider, a couple have weirdly selected to adopt two riders of a similar talent level. I can’t imagine how that could end badly.
Team BMC, who gave us our first antipodean tour champion in 2011’s Cadel Evans, have decided to roll out Aussie battler Richie Porte and USA’s Tejay Van Garderen as co-leaders. It’s already hard enough to take down a unit like Sky, let alone if your team is split in which leader they’re riding for. Tejay is a talented rider, but his buildup to this year’s Tour has been spotty. He made 6th place overall and managed to win the Queen stage (the stage deemed the hardest).
But the competition at the Suisse wasn’t exactly world-beating, and experts reckon Van Garderen should have been eating them alive. Richie McPortesome has never had the chance to truly lead a grand tour team. He’s a former Sky rider who did most of the heavy pulling on Chris Froome’s 2015 win. He can definitely hang with his former teammate, and it will be interesting to see how the leadership situation at BMC affects his chances.
Famous historical drugger squad Astana also have two big names in Vincenzo Niballi and Fabio Aru. Nibali just won a pretty hard fought Giro D’Italia and seriously competing here would be a big ask for the aging Shark. Aru on the other hand has all the potential in the world but is famously hit or miss. There’s also a strong chance he’s an elaborate Sacha Baron Cohen character. Astana should never be counted out though.
Neither should the tiny Spaniard Alberto Contador. Like a well-aged steak, Contador has looked fire this season, and his ultra-aggressive, explosive style is the kind of the polar opposite of Sky’s well-oiled machine. Contador is capable of attacks, few can respond to. He’s been riding at a top level for over a decade now though and you gotta wonder how much he has left.
The Other Guys
Those are the big fellas, but there are a number of young riders who are set for breakout tours. Etixx-Quickstep’s Julian Alaphilippe has been all sorts of self-deprecating, but can really ride as he proved taking the Yellow at this year’s Tour of California and giving an impressive showing at the Dauphine. Giant-Alpecin’s Warren Barguil will be looking to improve on last year’s nice debut and apparetly has his eyes set on the White Jersey. My feelings toward Tom Dumoulin are well documented, and at the very least I could see him picking up where Fabian Cancellara is about to leave off.
Aside from the fancy jersey hopefuls, this year’s tour boasts a fair few notables. Last year Eritrean legend Daniel Teklehaimanot, made history as the first black African rider to wear a leader’s jersey when he donned the King of the Mountains polka-dots for a handful of stages. This year he’s joined by his compatriot and reigning Eritrean Road Race champ Natnael Berhane on team Dimension Data, and Ethiopean climbing sensation Tsgabu Grmay. They join a field that boasts a Japanese rider, and a handful of South Americans. Though the field is obviously still swamped with Europeans, if you’re feeling especially optimistic you could hope that Teklehaimanot’s success might signal a more diverse tour sometime in the future.
Sky shows most stages of the Tour as do various, nefarious websites, so hopefully you can get a gutsful of what promises to be an excellent edition.