Tour de France 2012 PREVIEW
by Holly Blades
It's that time of year again. The 99th anniversary of the Tour de France starts this weekend in Liege in Belgium and I don't know about you, but I can't wait. The little race on the back of a political scandal in 1903 and has gone from strength to strength over the past century with riders achieving the unspeakable, or being disqualified from everything from sabotage, to drugs, to catching trains in the process; my preferred method of transportation, it has to be said.
For the first time in years, the race is without a true bookie's favourite. Not since 2006, following Armstrong's first retirement and Ullrich's suspension, has the winner of the Tour been quite so unpredictable.
Sure, there are those who are favourites out of the contenders, tip top shape Bradley Wiggins and 2011 winner Cadel Evans for example; maybe even Garmin-Sharp's Ryder Hesjedal following his performance at the Giro, but with the two favourites of the past few years Contador and Andy Schleck out of action come June 30th, the field is wide open and it's going to prove to be a very close fight. A Tour de France without Contador and Schleck is like a Wimbledon without Nadal and Federer. Granted, you've got the other seeds padding out the Top 5, but you can never know what might crop up. With 198 riders in the peloton, this is by no means a two horse race.
Playing into the hands of Wiggins and Evans this year is the amount of Individual Time Trial distance covered. The race opens with a relatively short prologue of 6.4km, but hot on its heels is Stage 9, a very twisty turny 38km. These are both tasters though, leg-testers in preparation for the penultimate stage of the Tour – a monster of a Time Trial covering 52km from Bonneval to Chartres, prior to the Tour's arrival in Paris.
This is not a Tour for the true sprinters, as there are only a few completely flat stages - most stages that will end with the bunch together are spattered with climbs and bends prior to the run in to the finish line. However, like the Yellow Jersey for the General Classification leader, the Green Jersey competition still remains wide open. With Mark Cavendish hoping to win Gold in the Olympic Road Race in July, it is still questioned whether he will suffer through the mountainous stages of this year's Tour to take the Green Jersey in Paris, or whether he will go for wins in the earlier, flatter stages, and then cut his losses and head home.
The Manx Missile has just won the Ster ZLM Toer in Holland, his first stage race, without winning an actual individual stage. He was beaten by riders such as Greipel and Kittel in the sprints, but Cav's loss of weight made him the most consistent finisher of the sprinters in the hillier stages. The only question is whether that four kilo loss means he's lost that punch that put him ahead of those rivals previously, and whether he can pull it off without the complete complement of his trusty sprint train.
Having said that this is not a Tour for the sprinters, it's not really a particularly mountainous race either with only four stages featuring HC climbs. It's lumpy and meandering, but there are only a few days that are going to really push riders out of their comfort zones.
The first few stages in Belgium are suited to local riders like Phillipe Gilbert, who know the roads like the back of their hands. Gilbert even over shadowed current champion Cadel Evans in the BMC introduction during Friday's Team Presentations in Liege, receiving a local hero's welcome. The prologue is very similar to the time trial won by Fabian Cancellara over the same roads in 2004, but Spartacus has been off form in recent months so is it a chance for Wiggins to take a few vital seconds?
Stages 3, 4 and 5 are likely to be sprint finishes if the bunch can reel back any breakaways, as the riders pass through Rouen, birthplace of five-time Tour winner Jacques Anquetil. The bumps start on Stage 7 with the climb up to the finish at La Planche des Belles Filles (The Plank of the Pretty Girls? Nope, I don't get it either...) but Stage 8 has a profile like a heart rate monitor with no respite from climbing or descending over six summits in 154km, although only one of them, the Col de la Croix around 15km before the finish, reaches Category 1 status.
Stage 10 sees the first HC climb in the Tour in the (very pointy) shape of the Col de Grand Colombier which reaches 1,501m but is set far enough from the end of the stage to allow the bunch to reassemble prior to the finish line. Stages 11, 16 and 17 include the remaining HC climbs with Stage 16's 197km from Pau to Bagneres de Luchon taking in Col d'Aubisque and the Tourmalet.
Stage 18 is the last real chance for the sprinters to hoover up points, but the real question is which of those sprinters will have made it through the mountain stages of this year's Tour.
Once again, I'll be in Paris for the final stage. Possibly decked out in red, white and blue, waving a Union Jack, playing The Who and drinking Tea, hopefully cheering the first ever British winner of the Tour de France on to victory. And then needing a sit down.
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