2012 Tour de France preview

I’ve been watching the Tour de France since Channel 4 started showing coverage of it in the mid-1980s – and so for me, no matter how good ITV4’s coverage is, it’ll never seem right without the theme music being the electronica version of Frere Jacques – and I thought that this year I’d try blogging about the race as it happens. Obviously, part of the reason for that is that this could be Britain’s best ever year at the tour, but it’s also because the Tour is such a massive event I think it could make for an interesting writing project. One thing I’ve noticed amongst friends is that there’s a large overlap between followers of professional cycling and fans of Test cricket, possibly because both have that same atmosphere of lots of smaller stories being played out amidst the grand narrative.

As all the previews will note, this year’s Tour seems set up to be a battle between defending champion Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins. However, we’re in a very unpredictable time in professional cycling, where Grand Tours have become races of attrition between the leading contenders, and the last men standing when the dust settles have been surprising. I don’t recall anyone predicting this year’s Giro D’Italia would end up being contested between Ryder Hesjedal and Joaquin Rodriguez, and anyone who predicted the top two in last year’s Vuelta de Espana would be Juan Jose Cobo and Chris Froome should be asked to pick some lottery numbers quickly. Indeed, Cadel Evans returning from the disappointment of 2010 to win the Tour last year wasn’t widely expected at the time.

Wiggins, though, enters the race as the favourite and the rider in imperious form in stage races this year. He’s the first rider in history to have won the big one week races of Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and the Dauphiné in a single year, with his victory margins getting bigger as the year has gone on. He also benefits from having the strongest team in this year’s race supporting him. Team Sky have shown the ability to destroy the opposition with a concerted effort and Wiggins’ chief lieutenants Richie Porte, Chris Froome and Mick Rogers could all walk into almost any other professional team as a lead rider. Their status as the leading team going into the race could be a curse, in that it gives the other teams a target to aim at and an expectation that they’ll do the work chasing down breakaways while the others sit in the bunch.

Evans surprised a lot of people with his victory last year, countering the belief that he was a very good rider who missed that last vital punch needed to win a Tour. While he’s not had the same run of good results he had in the lead-up to last year’s Tour, he’s still showing confidence and critically, was one of the few riders capable of sticking with the power of the Sky train during the Dauphiné. However, with more than 100km of time-trialling included in this year’s race, he’ll be conscious of just how far behind Wiggins he was in the time-trial stage there, which may prompt him into some interesting attacks on the mountain stages to try and gain time.

Behind these two, there’s a group of other riders who could challenge. Vincenzo Nibali has been aiming towards the Tour all season – even missing the Giro to focus his attention on it – and had an impressive win in Tirreno-Adriatico in March. However, his form has dropped off since then, and there’s a question mark over how much support he might get from his Liquigas team given that he’s reported to have already agreed a move to Astana next year.

Ryder Hesjedal was very impressive in winning the Giro, and comes to the race as Garmin’s announced team leader. His potential depends on how much the Giro has taken out of him – no one’s won both races in the same year since Pantani in 1998, and Alberto Contador looked tired in last year’s Tour after his exertions in winning the Giro. Garmin have a track record of putting unheralded riders high in the overall classification – Christian Vande Velde in 2008, Wiggins in 2009, Hesjedal in 2010, Tom Danielson in 2011 – and they can’t be ruled out.

There’s only one Schleck brother in this year’s race after Andy cracked a vertebrae crashing at the Dauphiné, and Frank will be hoping to achieve something to rehabilitate what’s been a very poor season for the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek team so far. Whether that’s a tilt at the overall classification or an attempt for some big stage wins and the King of the Mountains jersey remains to be seen. RSNT’s manager, Johann Bruyneel, won’t be at the Tour because of his involvement in the Armstrong doping conspiracy case, but his relationship with the Schlecks is strained at the best of times, so his absence may be a bonus for Frank.

Also worth keeping an eye on are Robert Gesink, Jurgen van den Broeck, perennial contender Denis Menchov, Lieuwe Westra and Alejandro Valverde, all of whom could launch a challenge, particularly if they can pull off one big stage to draw themselves out from the attritional warfare of Evans and Wiggins. French hopes were raised last year by the marvellous performance of Thomas Voeckler, but he remains a doubt for this year’s race because of an injury. There are some good young French riders just breaking into contention, particularly Pierre Rolland and Arnold Jeannesson, but they’re unlikely to be contenders for overall victory this year. That won’t stop the French media acting as if they are should they run well, of course.

Finally, the sprinters’ contest on flat stages could be interesting this year. Now he’s moved to Sky, Mark Cavendish doesn’t have the big train to chase down breaks and set him up for the final approach to the line. Chasing will be left to other teams, and it’ll be interesting to see if they can lay down the same amount of power as HTC-Highroad were able to. Look out for Orica-GreenEdge leading the chase for Matthew Goss, and also expect fireworks from Liquigas’s Peter Sagan. He’s been dominant in the sprints he’s competed in so far this year, but has yet to go head-to-head with Cavendish, and that will be a battle to savour.

My prediction is for a Wiggins victory, but not without a few shocks and surprises on the way. As Andy Schleck attempted last year, the only way to beat the time-trial power advantage of Wiggins and Evans is to try an audacious break in the mountains to gain substantial time, which could lead to some spectacular racing on the way to Paris.