PARIS — The
Tour de France is like a good bouillabaisse, the traditional
Mediterranean seafood stew. Take out one ingredient, and it does
not taste the same.
The Tour starting
on Saturday has all the ingredients in place:
—A nervy first
week on treacherous roads.
mountains passes to climb.
of finales up 21 hairpin bends to the Alpe d'Huez ski station.
contenders, the most in years, all at the top of their game.
This is the
recipe for an appetizing three-week feast of cycling.
"The way the
Tour is structured this year, it is really going to be an epic
battle between the big rivals," 2013 champion Chris Froome
said. "Probably the biggest battle we've seen for years in
the Tour de France. It's really exciting."
The race between
Froome, defending champ Vincenzo Nibali, two-time winner Alberto
Contador, and 2014 Giro d'Italia champ Nairo Quintana promises to
draw eyeballs from the very first stage, a 14-kilometer (8
1/2-mile) individual time trial in the Dutch city of Utrecht, the
only solo stage against the clock.
anti-clockwise path, the route takes the peloton across Belgium
and through World War I battlefields before heading to the
cycling-mad Brittany region.
The second half
of the race features three days in the Pyrenees, and four in the
Alps, with a climax at the Alpe d'Huez before the ceremonial ride
leading to the final sprint on the Champs Elysees.
drastically reduced the distance of time trials to ensure the Tour
remains open until the final Alpine stage featuring the punishing
climb to the ski resort.
There's a short
team time trial in Brittany at the end of the first block of
racing, a nine-day window filled with traps. During that time,
Nibali and Co. will tackle cobblestones portions in northern
France, make sure they don't get caught by bordures on roads open
to crosswinds along the Dutch coast, and negotiate two short but
difficult climbs: The Mur de Huy, the traditional finish of the
Fleche Wallonne, and the Cote de Mur de Bretagne, which is
nicknamed the Alpe d'Huez of Brittany.
week really is going to be crucial, the first nine days actually
until we get up in the mountains on stage 10," Froome said.
"In my mind, it's almost as if each one of these nine stages
is like a classic race in its own right."
The Team Sky
leader has good reason to be worried about possible early
pitfalls. As the defending champ last year, he was forced out
during the fifth stage after two falls.
"There is a
lot less pressure on my shoulders, (I'm) a lot more relaxed not
coming as the defending champion," said Froome, who won the
Criterium du Dauphine, the traditional Tour dress rehearsal.
looking good personally, my condition feels good, and the whole
team is buzzing after winning the Dauphine. That's lifted
But his main
rivals are also in great shape, although there are question marks
Given the hilly
race profile — seven mountain stages including five summit
finishes —the diminutive climber is expected to cause damage in
the second half of the Tour in the Alps and the Pyrenees. But he
comes in having raced only four days over the last two months,
following a big block of training back home in Colombia.
made his breakthrough at the Tour in 2013 when he was runner-up to
Froome, said preparing at home for the race was his best option.
less difficult when you're with your family. I had a month feeling
comfortable, training well in a nice temperature, at altitude. It
was good for me," said Quintana, who is sharing the Movistar
lead with Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde.
allowed to keep its WorldTour licence despite multiple doping
offenses within the Kazakh-funded outfit, Nibali — a winner of
all three Grand Tours — will be backed by arguably the strongest
team in the field in his bid to defend his title. Like in 2014,
the Italian has been discreet, saving himself for the Tour.
opted for a completely different approach in a bid to become the
first rider since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve a Giro-Tour
double. After recovering from his success in Italy, and spending
days training in altitude, the Tinkoff-Saxo leader recently won
the Route du Sud, where he defeated Quintana.
du Sud ... doesn't change anything in view of the Tour de
France," Contador said. "It would be a mistake to change
the mindset right now, thinking that this win would give me more
waiting for its first winner in 30 years, the host nation will be
cheering for Thibault Pinot and Romain Bardet, who hope to follow
in the footsteps of five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault, the
last Frenchman to triumph.
third last year and earned the white jersey as the best young
rider, while Bardet distinguished himself with a win in the French
Alps at the Dauphine, on the same route the Tour peloton will ride
on stage 17.
won't be a four-way battle," Quintana warned. "Watch out
for Pinot, Bardet, and (American Tejay) Van Garderen. A single
attack from one of these guys, and the Tour could be over if we
don't respond quickly enough."
with extra ingredients.