Monday, 1 July 2013

Why this year's Tour de France will be the best Tour in two years.

Ok, not much of a title, but this Tour is already shaping up to be the best Tour since Cadel won in 2011.

Fine, my point is that last year's Tour sucked, and this one is going to rock.

First of all, this year it is apparent that there are more than one team who are in the running to put a rider up in the GC classification. BMC has Cadel, who is looking to be the oldest winner ever, Radioshack with Andy Schleck, Jens Voigt, Andrea Kloden, and the surprising Jan Bakelants. Orica Greenedge, sporting the indomitable Stuart O'Grady with his record 17 starts. Movistar with Alejandro Valverde. The big names keep running. Alberto Contador, Thibaut Pinot, Ryder Hesjedal, and my favorite rider, Thomas Voeckler. There are also a number of younger riders who are going to be challenging for the top spots. Tejay Van Garderen, Thibaut Pinot (again), Van Poppel. At the moment, they are all equal on time, but that will change in the next few days.

Team Sky Procycling look intimidating, and Christopher Froome is always going to be a hot favorite, but unlike last year, it doesn't look like they will be able to win by being defensive.

Last year's Tour was boring. Bradley Wiggins knew that he could beat all comers on the individual time trials, and there were a three different individual time trial stages. He knew that he could keep up with just about anyone in the mountains, and his whole team was built to support him there. All he needed to do was stay with any breakaways containing GC contenders, such as Evans, Nibali, Van Den Broek and Van Garderen, and forget about the rest. Any breakaway that didn't contain one of these was allowed to escape, and the peloton kept to a sedate, safe speed. The only excitement came near the sprints, which the leaders simply raced in to stay safe, and not to make any time.

Notably, Team Sky did not make a single attempt at a serious breakaway. Even in the hills, when Wiggins should have been able to leave most of the peloton behind, the only time he was ever in a breakaway was when the ill Cadel Evans tried to start something. Wiggins and Team Sky would calmly chase down the lead, and drag the race back into the boring malaise of covering 200km on a bike. Kate Smart from 'Roar' called it a race that 'lacked excitement and Bradley Wiggins' win was a lesson in cycling boredom.'

The highlights of the 2012 tour were few and far between. On the positive side, Tommy Voeckler's heroic efforts over the mountains, complete with signature un-zipped jersey secured him the polkadot jersey, and no one could say he didn't earn it. On the negative side, Peter Sagan's histrionics when out-maneuvered by Matty Goss at least allowed me to feel better about red lights.

So why is this year's better? Well, for a start, we are having stages won by no-names, whose wins come from pure grit, not an infallible plan. We are seeing breakaways who actually achieve something, rather than just keeping the GC contenders leashed. And, after two days of racing, there is no one with a clear advantage. Also, the biggest names are a little better spread amongst the teams. Last year, Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish were all riding for Sky, and that meant that all the attention was on one team. Now, Cavendish has crossed to Omega Pharma-Quick Step, and leaving Froome the biggest name left in Sky.

In the sprint category, it looks like Sagan will be the real danger, but Cavendish, Kristof, Boom, Goss and Boassen Hagen could all challenge under the right conditions. The climbers are yet to be tested, and it is too early to tell with the teams.

I might be speaking too soon, but who knows, this could shape up to be the best tour in years. If Evans gets a look in, it could be the best Tour ever. Or Sky could drag it back into the boredom of last year, and I will have to find a new hobby.