Finally, it is late June, and that means the day is nearly upon us! The Grand Depart is only 5 days away and, for the first time in several years, there is no clear favorite. Sure, Bradley Wiggins looks great, and Cadel is consistent as always, but unlike the last few years there isn't an Alberto Contador (doper) or Andy Schleck that everybody knows is the man to beat. We've also got a brace of promising young talent that may finally get a chance to shine, with riders like Pierre Rolland, Robert Gesink, and Vincenzo Nibali all having the teams, the talent, and the maturity to finally take a place of leadership. Considering the caliber of their wins so far this season, we're in for a hell of a challenge to the older guys. Speaking of old guys, there is also a contingent of veterans seeking to secure their place in history before time runs out on their careers. Levi Leipheimer is in the sort of form that saw him dominate the one-week races last year, but this year he comes into that form in July, and with sole leadership of his team he wants to go two better than his third in 2007. Denis Menchov returnss as well, hoping to complete his Grand Tour set with that elusive Tour win. The route this year suits him; the climbs aren't so steep and the time trial miles are long. Remember that he outclassed Fabian Cancellara in the long TT at the 2010 Vuelta, it is a fact that will be bandied about quite a bit if he does a good ride in a couple weeks.
Besides the overall classification we've got another battle royale for the sprinters, and I predict we'll see Mark Cavendish's stranglehold on stage wins broken. Andre Greipel says he and his new team, Lotto-Belisol, have perfected their lead out, and with 13 wins to his name so far this year, I believe him. Peter Sagan, the second most prolific winner of the season thus far, is also looking dangerous. The Slovakian youngster won 4 stages of 8 in California and was just as dominating in Switzerland. His obstacle is that those victories were against the second and third tier sprinters, so he will be up against a different breed when they set off in Liege. But, for my money, none of these men will do. The man to dominate the flat days is German, and he is huge. And his name is Marcel Kittel. Kittel won 17 races last year, the most of any sprinter, and he is on track to equal that feat this year. He is the biggest man in the peloton, weighing a touch over 190 lbs and standing, at 6' 4", head and shoulders above many of his competitors (literally!), but if he can haul himself over the mountains I think we'll see a lot of him on the podium.
The key moments of this year's Grand Boucle are not quite the same as years past. There is no Galibier this year, no Alpe d'Huez, no Plateau du Beille or Tourmalet. In their place are a series of lesser mountains, one giant, vile, blood-curdling mountain, and two despicable time trials. The big mountains are stacked toward the end, with the first week featuring just one major climb, coming at the very end of stage 7. This will be the first moment, as the peloton hurtles into La Planche des Belles Filles, that we get an indication of who is feeling good. The climb isn't long, only 6km, but it is steep, and pure climbers like Frank Schleck and Pierre Rolland will be itching to gain any time they can before the first time trial.
The time trials are being talked up to decide much of this year's edition, and considering they total 100km in two installments, it is easy to see why. The first, the shorter of the two at 43km, takes place the second Monday of the race, and, though a bit lumpy, contains no major climbs. Expect Frankie and his ilk to bleed time here.
After that, we get a string of sprints and medium mountain days leading up to Stage 10 to Bellegarde-sur-Valserine. While the stage does not feature a summit finish, the maiden climbing of the Col du Grand Colombier could well see a GC rider who lost time in the previous stage strike out on the steep ramps in an "Andy Schleck on the Izoard" kind of attack. Those seem to be popular these days.
The next day is exciting as well. Stage 11 to La Toussuire. It is a short stage but a prototypical day in the mountains for the Tour; four major climbs, up, down, up, down, up, down, up. This is where the true battle begins, and if you are only going to watch one stage of the first two weeks, I would make it this one.
After that, the peloton gets a rest for a few easier stages, then hits hard after the second rest day with stages 16, 17, and 19 all being critical to overall success. The last weekend, as usual, is stacked, and the final time trial, at 52km and pan-flat, is sure to give us amazing rides of consolidation, advancement, and desperation.
Finally, my predictions: It is tough this year, there are just so many riders with a realistic chance, and so many factors that we could never see coming. With the opening stages on the Classics courses of Flanders, the time trials, the coastal winds, the unknown passes... so much to consider. However, even with all that I've got to give it up for my man Bradley Wiggins. He's been very consistent, he's showed that he is without a doubt the best time trialist of the favorites, and he has climbed well enough. That last bit is iffy, though. He hasn't really been tested on a major climb, and neither Paris-Nice nor Romandie nor the Dauphine had the sort of mountains the Tour has this year.
Cadel Evans is looking good, and while he hasn't won the races he did last year, he has shown his strength with swashbuckling wins in the several races, most recently a stunning display of power in the Dauphine that saw him hold off peloton almost singlehandedly. He is also a great solo rider, and though he lost quite a bit of time to B-wig in the long TT of the Dauphine, there is a fact he will no doubt relish: Last year he lost an almost equal amount of time to Bwiggins in the Dauphine TT, but in the Tour he was but 7 seconds off stage winner - and subsequent World Time Trial Champion - Tony Martin. Third place was a full minute behind him.
Final spot on the podium is tough. I thought about Pierre Rolland, but I doubt there is enough uphill asphalt to give him the edge. Robert Gesink is a possibility, but his spotty form in Switzerland leaves me underwhelmed. Sammy Sanchez doesn't have it this year. Frank Schleck rode very strong in Switerzland, but I just think there's too much time trialing and not enough mountains. I have thought about it a lot, but I haven't been able to break the tie between several guys:
Levi Leipheimer - My perpetual favorite, but also an outright favorite for other, non fanboy, prognosticators. Very strong time trialist, climbing with the best just two weeks ago, seems to be peaking for the Tour.
Denis Menchov - The unassuming Russian is always mentioned but never favored. My question is: Why not? He's been third at the Tour, won three Grand Tours, finished top 10 in four others... Also, a specialist in long, flat time trials and the kind of long, medium-grade mountains they will face in the last weekend.
Janez Brakjovic - Young, but extremely talented. He defeated Alberto Contador on Alpe d'Huez two years ago at the Dauphine, a feat he has been trying to live down ever since. He looked very good last year before a severe crash took him out of the running. He is now sole GC leader of Astana, and has one of the most powerful teams at his back. He also recently took a very classy win in his home tour in Slovenia, winning ahead of the gravity-defying Domenico Pozzovivo and solidifying that lead in the time trial the next day. He just took the Slovenian national title in that discipline, so his chrono form is good.
Chris Froome - Possibly the best rider in the peloton that will never get a chance. With Bradley Wiggins as undisputed team leader for GC, Froome will never get the chance to ride for even a stage win, much less for yellow. It's truly a shame, since he is one of the best climbers in the world and, on his day, Wiggins' equal in the time trial. Hell, last year in the Vuelta he defeated his teammate and countrymen in the TT and went on to outride him on the Angliru, a mountain often called the most difficult climb in Europe. The only reason I include him on the dark horse list is as a safety, in case anything happens to Wiggins along the way. Should Wiggins crash, falter, or even just flat at an inopportune time, you can count on seeing Froome taking leadership. His performance in the Dauphine shows that he is on the same level as Wiggins, so seeing them switch places is plausible.
That was a lot of predicting, let me condense that. If I had to pick a podium right now, Cadel, Wiggins, and Menchov would be on it. I don't know the order, but it would be those three. If I had to pick top four, add Levi to that list.
So there, that is everything you could ever want to know about the 2012 Tour de France without it actually having started yet. Speaking of starting, it all kicks off this Saturday, June 30th, with a prologue in Liege. Watch it! Post about it! Get all caught up in it! It's fun, I promise!
So, your turn: Give me your predictions, your thoughts, whatever. Let's see if we can't get the party started a few days early.