The 2012 Tour de France got underway over the weekend and will culminate four weeks from now, on July 22, when the world’s greatest endurance athletes take one final ride through the streets of Paris.
This year, with a number of big-name cyclists sitting this one out thanks to injuries— no Alberto Contador, no Andy Schleck, no Thor Hushovd—and with a course that is more favorable to sprinters than climbers, the competition is more wide open than ever. Though experts and oddsmakers always select a few favorites to win cycling’s most prestigious race, in reality there are a number of guys who could be wearing the famed le maillot jaune (the yellow jersey) at the end of the month.
Thus, today we present you with the cyclists to watch at the Tour de France. Some of them have better shots at winning than others, but they all bring something interesting to the table.
It's hard to know what, exactly, to expect from Spaniard Alejandro Valverde. The 32-year-old is coming off a two-year suspension for doping, so he could either be rusty and out of shape, or really rested and ready to redeem himself. He's never won the Tour or even had a podium finish, but he has won a few stages, and he won the Vuelta a España. So while he doesn't have a reasonable chance to win, he could a few stages and maybe even crack the top 10.
12. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team)
If you're a betting man and are looking for a dark horse to place a little wager on, 34-year-old Samuel Sanchez of Spain is your man. The guy is perennially underestimated, even though he finished 3rd in 2010 and 5th in 2011. Last year he also won the spotted jersey, which is given to the "King of the Mountains"–the guy who is the best climber. But Sanchez is also a solid sprinter and respected for his tactical abilities. So keep an eye on him, because if the other "top contenders" should falter, he'll be in the mix.
11. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
Normally, 27-year-old Tony Martin of Germany would be much higher than #11. After all, he is the reigning world time trial champ—which means he is the best sprinter in the world—and this year the Tour de France features 62 miles of time trials. This means that, if Martin could just manage to have respectable showings in the mountain stages (which he could not do last year), he might have a shot not just at the "points classification" (points are awarded like in NASCAR, and the sprints are worth more than the climbs) but the "general classification" as well (i.e., the overall title, based on total time). Unfortunately, Martin apparently broke his wrist on Sunday. For now he's still in the race, but only time will tell if Martin can remain competitive while riding with a cast.
10. Tony Martin (OmegaPharma-Quick Step)
Dutchman Robert Gesink was a big up-and-comer from 2007 to 2009, but he failed to progress much through 2010 and 2011. However, in 2012, the 26-year-old finally had his first big breakthrough, winning the Tour of California thanks to one particularly impressive mountain stage. The Tour of California isn't exactly the Giro d'Italia, but it's a tough test and the victory still bodes well for the guy at the Tour de France.
9. Robert Gesink (Rabobank)
Russia's Denis Menchov is still going for the career "Grand Tour" hat trick in 2012. The 34-year-old won the Vuelta a España in 2005 and 2007, then the Giro d'Italia in 2009 (both the general classification and the points classification). He came close to winning the Tour de France in 2010, finishing second behind Andy Schleck. However, this could very well be Menchov's best chance to become just the 6th man ever to win all three of road cycling's biggest tours. As mentioned in #10, this year's course features a lot of time trials, and Menchov is an excellent sprinter. So history may very well be made.
8. Denis Menchov (Team Katusha)
Did you know that Luxembourg is a cycling powerhouse? Well, it is, relatively speaking. For a tiny nation of only 500,000, Luxembourg's 5 Tour de France wins is an awful lot. Sure, only one of them came in the last 50 years, but that's still more wins that the Netherlands, Australia, Germany, or Switzerland (which has a comparably huge population of 7 million).
I mention Luxembourg's cycling prowess, of course, because Frank Schleck, 32, is Luxembourgish. In fact, his brother Andy is the last Luxembourger to win the Tour de France—that was in 2010. This year Andy is injured and not competing, but Frank is in top form and a definite contender. He almost won the Tour of Switzerland recently, and he's got a great team behind him that features American Chris Horner in a supporting role.
7. Frank Schleck (Radioshack-Nissan)
Tony Martin's OmegaPharma-Quick Step teammate, 38-year-old Levi Leipheimer, is the United States' best hope at this year's Tour de France. And like Martin, his chances are better this year because he excels in time trials. He was the time trial winner of the 2007 Tour and had a podium finish in the overall, and he finished 2nd overall in the 2008 Vuelta. Last year, Leipheimer finished 31st in the Tour, but that because he was riding in support* of Radioshack teammate and defending champ Andy Schleck. This year he gets to contend for the general classification, and should fare considerably better.
*At this point, it would probably be good to explain one of the quirks of pro cycling to those of you who don't follow it closely. Basically, each team determines which of its cyclists will contend for the title, and which of its cyclists will ride "in support" of the contenders. The guys chosen to ride in support have to try to help their teammates win rather than try to win themselves. Weird, right?
6. Levi Leipheimer (OmegaPharma-Quick Step)
Back in May, 31-year-old Ryder Hesjedal became the first Canadian to win one of the three Grand Tours by finishing first at the Giro d'Italia. In doing so, he not only became the pride of Canada (for a few minutes, in between NHL playoff games), but Hesjedal, who rides for a team known for its tough stance against PEDs, also became the anti-doping golden boy. Now the former mountain biker-turned-road cyclist is looking to become the first rider to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year since Italy's Marco Pantini did it back in 1998. It won't be easy, given that Hesjedal isn't exactly fresh after a grueling battle in Italy, but this route plays to his strengths.
5. Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Barracuda)
Jurgen Van den Broeck finished 5th at the 2010 Tour de France, which got Belgian cycling fans pretty excited for the 2011 race. However, the guy crashed during the first week and had to withdraw. But Van den Broeck, 29, is looking strong again 2012, having recently finished 5th at the Criterium du Dauphine, which is considered a kind of Tour de France barometer. So he's got a real shot at giving the Belgians something to be proud of...well, other than their amazing waffles and strong ales.
4. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol)
Vinc isenzo Nibali another guy going for the career Grand Tour hat trick. The 27-year-old Italian won the Vuelta in 2010 and the Giro in 2011. He hasn't ridden in the Tour since 2009 because he was focusing on the other Grand Tours, so experience could play a factor. But this year Nibali sat out the Giro to stay fresh, and he's got a solid team behind him, so Nibali could very well pull off a victory should one of the next two guys run into any trouble.
3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale)
This 35-year-old Aussie is the reigning Tour de France champion and, though he isn't quite the favorite this year, he's not far behind. This spring Evans was hampered a bit by injuries and illness, so he didn't fare too well in the classics. But, like Germany's Tony Martin, the 2012 Tour de France course—with it's 62 miles of time trials—plays to one of Evans's strengths. (At the Criterium du Dauphine, which was one by the next guy on this list, Evans took home the sprinting title.) So don't be surprised if we have a repeat champion this year.
2. Cadel Evans (BMC Racing)
Cadel Evans may be the defending champ, but this year all eyes are on 32-year-old Bradley Wiggians. The guy is on fire coming into the 2012 Tour, having won 3 major stage races this season alone—Paris-Nice, Tour of Romandie, and the Criterium du Dauphine. If Wiggins does happen to be wearing the yellow jersey as the pack peddles down the Champs Elysee at the end of the month, he'll be the first Briton to win the Tour de France. And, luckily, he'll have help as he tries to achieve this feat. His teammates on Team Sky include reigning world champion Mark Cavendish and two-time stage winner Edvard Boasson Hagen.
1. Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)
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