With the 2013 Vuelta a Espana being the notable exception, every grand tour since the 2012 Vuelta has been won by either Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali or Nairo Quintana. However, the fabulous four have never been gathered for a big battle in a three-week race but now it is finally time to find out who’s the best. The four giants spearhead an almost all-inclusive line-up of grand tour stars that will battle for the title in the world’s biggest race, the Tour de France. CyclingQuotes.com takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses.
The 2012 and 2013 editions of the Tour de France evolved into pretty one-sided affairs that were completely dominated by a seemingly invincible Sky team. In 2013 Chris Froome was in a class of his own and already from the very first mountain stage it was clear that only bad luck could prevent the Brit from winning a maiden Tour title.
Last year a reinvigorated Contador gave hope of a much closer battle and everybody was looking forward to a huge duel between Froome and the Spaniard. However, both had crashed out of the race even before they had done a major mountain and we missed out on the opportunity to find out who’s the best. Instead, it was Vincenzo Nibali who firmly established himself as one of the leading grand tour contenders with a dominant ride through France to become one of the select few that have won all three grand tours.
With Nairo Quintana confirming his huge potential by winning the 2014 Giro, the list of grand tour giants has suddenly been extended to four. While they have occasionally clashed, they have never been gathered at a grand tour before they all roll down the start ramp in Utrecht on July 4 to start a huge battle that will hopefully make up for last year’s disappointment and crown the leading grand tour rider.
However, the four stars won’t have it their own way. The start list includes almost every big grand tour rider in the world and it is not a foregone conclusion that the race will be dominated by the four favourites. Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet have both stepped up their level a further notch after last year’s splendid showings and Tejay van Garderen has clearly matured into a serious podium contender. Andrew Talansky is still knocking on the door for his big grand tour breakthrough and alongside Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal, he is part of a formidable Cannondale-Garmin trio. Veterans Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde have both had great seasons and seem ready to challenge the best and it would be unwise to rule out another super performance by last year’s runner-up Jean-Christophe Peraud. Finally, Richie Porte looms as a strong joker who is ready to strike if Froome falters.
CyclingQuotes.com has taken an in-depth look at the race's favourites, assigning 5 stars to the race's biggest favourite, 4 to his two biggest rivals, 3 to three other potential winners, 2 to four of the podium contenders and 1 to 5 of the race's minor outsiders. In this article, we take a look at the 1-star riders that may finish on the podium if everything goes their way.
Romain Bardet (*)
Like Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having been announced as the next potential French Tour de France winner. However, while his compatriot seems to have difficulties handling the pressure, Bardet seems to be pretty unfazed by the attention and the hype his great talent has created. That is made even more remarkable by the fact that the talented Frenchman is just 24 years old and remains the youngest rider who can realistically aim for a top 5 result just one year after a stupid punctured denied a spot among the best five riders in the race.
Having excelled in the biggest U23 stage races, Bardet was already known as a big talent when he signed a contract with Ag2r for the 2012 season and he immediately proved that he has the skills to become of the sport’s greats. He captured the attention of a broader audience when he nearly finished off a long-distance breakaway in his first ever classic, the Amstel Gold Race, in the most grandiose fashion. Later that year he finished 4th in the Tour of Turkey and 12th in the Tour de Pologne before he again did a fantastic long-distance attack in Il Lombardia at the end of the season. In general, his first season may not have been littered with great results but his many attacks made him a well-known figure and made him a lot stronger for the next year.
Already from the start of the 2013 season he proved that he had stepped up his level when he finished 7th in the Etoile de Besseges and in general he took a lot of top 20s in the spring. However, at that point, he had mostly shined in the hilly terrain but in the Route du Sud he proved that he can also handle climbing in the high mountains by taking fourth overall. That set him up for his very impressive Tour de France debut where he finished 15th overall and was the best Frenchman – a feat that always gives quite a bit of attention in the home country. As it has been the case for so many others, his first grand tour served him well. Just weeks after the end of the race, he won the Tour de l’Ain overall and ended his season on a high by taking fifth in the Tour of Beijing.
In 2014, he went from talent to WorldTour contender. After he took his first one-day win in La Drome Classic and helped Carlos Betancur win Paris-Nice, he was in the spotlight at the very highest level in Volta a Catalunya which probably had the strongest line-up of all the early WorldTour races. In the queen stage, he made use of a tactical battle between Chris Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana to escape with Tejay van Garderen and even though he was beaten in the sprint for the stage win, it set him up for an overall fourth place finish.
Later in the season he finished 10th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege to prove that he can now also handle the very long distances and after having finished 4th in the Bayern Rundfahrt queen stage, he proved that he is fully ready for the Tour by finishing fifth in the Dauphiné. Nonetheless, many were still surprised to see the 23-year-old youngster riding with the very best on the climbs throughout the entire three weeks and remain in contention for the podium and the white jersey for a long time. In the end, he lost out on the coveted tunic to Pinot and a very unfortunate puncture in the final time trial saw him drop to sixth overall but it was still a remarkable performance by a rider who is younger than both Pinot and Nairo Quintana.
Bardet’s progression has been fast but gradual and this year he has taken another step up. His spring season was a disappointment and mainly his performance in Paris-Nice left him frustrated. He decided to skip a few races after he crashed in the Volta a Catalunya as he aimed for a strong ride in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He made the unusual choice of preparing for that race in the Giro del Trentino where he delivered a fantastic performance in the final mountain stage. He was on the attack throughout most of the stage before setting his teammate Domenico Pozzovivo up for the stage win and crossing the line in fourth. Two days after the end of the race he was one of the strongest in Liege where only his lack of sprinting skills prevented him from doing better than sixth. Finally, he rode a very strong Tour de Romandie where he finished third in the queen stage – beating riders like Froome, Quintana and Nibali – and doing the time trial of his life. Only a poor team time trial prevented him from doing better than 9th overall.
However, it was his performance in the Dauphiné that really proved how far he has come. Like many other talented climbers, Bardet is always among the best but he has rarely been first across the line. However, he made a gutsy attack over the top of the Col d’Allos in the first mountain stage that is identical to this year’s stage 17 in the Tour, built an advantage of more than a minute with an excellent descent and held off the favourites on the final climb to win the stage. He seemed poised for a podium finish but a crash in stage 6 cost him the edge and he had to settle for sixth in the end. He finalized his preparations in the French road race championships where he rode a very aggressive race, animating the race in the finale. In the end, his group was caught and he had to settle for 11th.
There seems to be no limit to Bardet’s climbing potential and there is no reason to suggest that he won’t be even stronger than he was 12 months ago. Furthermore, the minimal amount of time trialling is a big advantage as he is still one of the worst time triallists among the GC contenders. With a 15th and a 6th place in his first two grand tours, he has proved that he can ride consistently throughout a three-week and that he recovers extremely well at such a young age.
The first week will be a challenge. Ag2r don’t have the strongest teams for the fight for position over the cobbles and in the wind. However, Bardet did really well on the pave in 2014 and his classics performances prove that he can handle the kind of racing that is on offer in the Ardennes and in Bretagne. Unfortunately, the team time trial will be a challenge and there is no doubt that he will lose a considerable amount of time in stage 9. However, Bardet is not a potential winner of the race and in the battle for a potential spot in the top 5, the time gaps are expected to be bigger and the mountains set to make the decision.
Last year Bardet had the advantage of sharing the captaincy role with Jean-Christophe Peraud who was the strongest of the pair. However, Peraud has openly admitted that he is not at his best and it will take a remarkable turnaround for the veteran to be a contender. Hence, Bardet is likely to fly the flag for Ag2r and he will have to carry the main responsibility. That will give him fewer tactical opportunities but he seems to be able to handle the pressure. Furthermore, he will be backed by a team that is traditionally among the strongest in the mountains and with Peraud and Alexis Vuillermoz at his side, he has two excellent climbers to support him.
It’s still an open question whether Pinot or Bardet will become the best French grand tour contender in the future. At the moment, Pinot seems to be a few steps ahead but Bardet is the youngest of the pair. With a strong head, excellent climbing skills and a formidable ability to recover, the sky is the limit for the Ag2r rider who has every chance to confirm his potential with another great ride on a course that is tailor-made for him.
His main assets are of course his climbing skills and this year he has proved that he can be up there with the very best when he is at 100% of his capabilities. What really marks him out as a great prospect for grand tours, however, is his consistency and endurance. He rarely has a bad day and already at 22 years of age he proved that he can handle a three-week race. Furthermore, he has excelled in the longest races right from the beginning of his career and those are exactly the attributes that characterize a grand tour rider.
Bardet’s main weakness is his time trialling skills and he knows that he will lose a lot of time on the penultimate day. Furthermore, he could easily end up as one of the losers at the end of the cobbled stage 5. On the other hand, Bardet has the aggressive mindset that has so often served the riders just below the big favourites so well. Very often top or top 10 spots have been earned by going on the attack in the mountains and Bardet is definitely not afraid of taking some risks. 2014 could be the year when Romain Bardet becomes a household name all over the world.
Daniel Martin (*)
Daniel Martin enters this year's Tour de France as one of the great dark horses. Over the last year, the Cannondale rider has stepped up his level massively and his performance in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Fleche Wallonne and Il Lombardia have proved that he is now one the world's leading contenders for the hilly classics.
However, as a grand tour contender, he is much less tested. He has already done eight three-week races but so far he has rarely had a focus on the overall standings. Instead, he has always underlined his approach of treating the races as 21 consecutive one-day classics and with stage wins in both the Vuelta and the Tour, he has proved that this way of handling the races has suited him well.
He has been in GC contention in a grand tour thrice: in the 2011 Vuelta where he finished 13th overall despite his day-to-day approach, and at the 2013 Tour de France where illness in the final week probably denied him a spot in the top 10. Finally, he put together a consistent ride in last year’s Vuelta to finish the race in 7th after he had finally managed to get through a grand tour without suffering a massive amount of bad luck.
Martin has done nothing to hide that the classics are what he loves. He doesn’t regard himself as a stage race rider but he still aims at doing well in three-week races. In 2013, he aimed at a strong Vuelta ride but crashed out in the first week of the race. However, it was the 2014 Giro that was his first big goal as a grand tour rider. Unfortunately, his race again came to abrupt end as he crashed in the opening team time trial and we were again robbed the opportunity to see how he would perform in a three-week race. The Irish start had made the Giro his big goal for the season but he managed to refocus on the Vuelta where he took that fine seventh place.
This year he will be back in the Tour de France and he is hungry for redemption after having gone through an extremely unfortunate spring season. He was on track for another great classics season after a solid Volta a Catalunya where he would have finished in the top 5 if he hadn’t been caught out in the crosswinds in a rather innocuous stage. However, bad luck stroke when he crashed out of Fleche Wallonne and again hit the deck in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, seeing his meticulous preparation come to nothing like it had happened in 2014 when he famously crashed in the finale turn of La Doyenne.
Unaware of the extent of his injuries, he lined up at the Tour de Romandie but was unable to understand why he was far off the face. It was later revealed that he had fractured a rib in Liege and so it was time for him to recover to get ready for the Tour. He returned to racing in the Dauphiné but didn’t have great expectations as his injuries had prevented him from training optimally for the race. Hence, he was pleasantly surprised by his performance that saw him finish seventh overall and if it hadn’t been for a late puncture in one of the key mountain stages he would probably have done even better.
For the first time, Martin goes into the Tour with a clear focus on the GC and if he is ever going to be in podium contention, this is probably his biggest chance. Among the GC contenders, he is one of the worst time triallists and so he benefits massively from the minimal amount of lone riding against the clock. Much of it has been replaced by the TTT where Cannondale-Garmin should be able to limit their losses much better than Martin would have done if he had been all on his own.
Instead, the race is set to be decided in the mountains and that should suit Martin well. He is more of a punchy classics rider than a pure climber but he has proved that he can handle the longer climbs well. He is less suited to the longer, gradual ascents in France than the short, steep, irregular climbs in Spain and Italy but his performances in the Dauphiné and the 2013 Tour have shown that he can do well in this race too.
The first week will be a challenge for Martin. Being an outstanding classics rider, he should find stages 3, 6 and 8 to his liking and he has a solid chance of picking up a few bonus seconds in those stages. In fact, the Mur de Huy stage is his biggest goal of the entire race after he finished second in last year’s Fleche Wallonne and he would love to enjoy some success on the roads where he crashed a few months ago.
However, it is no coincidence that Martin has often been caught out in crosswinds. He is famously known for his lazy positioning and that could be costly in a first week where it is all about staying near the front. Furthermore, he doesn’t have any experience on the cobbles and it is hard to point to another rider that is less suited to that kind of challenge than the Irishman. Even if he should do well in the punchy uphill finishes, it is hard to imagine that the Irishman won’t lose some time in the first week.
Still, the biggest issue for Martin is probably to avoid crashes. The Cannondale rider has hit the deck with an impressive consistency in both the grand tours and the classics and that simply can’t be a coincidence. He’s a great bike handler and a formidable descender but for some reason he goes down far more often than anybody else. His many crashes are a huge shame as his outstanding climbing skills would have given him a far more impressive palmares than he already has.
However, if he can avoid his usual bad luck, Martin will be a formidable contender. There’s a great chance that he will win a stage at some point as very few riders have the ability to be on top and do everything right on the days that he targets. Furthermore, he has proved that he can recover sufficiently well and the course suits him down to the ground. With Andrew Talansky and Ryder Hesjedal as co-captains, Cannondale-Garmin have three great cards to play. With their usual aggressive display, they may end the race with more than one rider in the top 10 and it would be no surprise if Martin turns his season around by producing a breakthrough grand tour ride in France.
Pierre Rolland (*)
In 2011, Pierre Rolland was the centre of attention in France. Riding in the shadow teammate Thomas Voeckler who nearly upset the favourites by finishing on the podium, the lanky Frenchman enjoyed a breakthrough performance in his home race. He did not only bring home the white jersey as best young rider, he even won the queen stage to Alpe d’Huez to crown an aggressive ride through France two days before the end of the race.
While Voeckler did better than his Europcar teammate, Rolland got most of the hype in the months after the race. At just 24 years of age, he gave the home country a slight glimmer of hope that they had finally found a rider that could potentially win their big race again. Even though he hadn’t really been close to following the best on the climbs, the hungry French public put huge pressure on Rolland’s shoulders.
Rolland confirmed his potential in 2012 when he again won a stage in the Alps and finished 8th overall. That performance was made even more remarkable by the fact that the course for that year’s race was far from suited to his skills. With very few mountain stages and two long time trials, it was a race for complete riders and not for climbers like the Europcar captain. Nonetheless, he put on a brave attitude, rode strongly on the climbs and improved on his 2011 performance.
Expectations were even bigger in 2013 when an unusually strong spring season made the Frenchmen believe in a possible top 5 for Rolland. While he has often been very strong in the summer, he has always been a slow starter and has rarely shown much in other races than La Grande Boucle. However, that year he had won the Circuit de la Sarthe and done well in the Giro del Trentino and so there was hope for another improvement. In the end, it all came to nothing as Rolland failed to hit his best form and was stuck between his GC ambitions and dreams about a win in the mountains competition. He quickly skipped the former plans but his many attacks in the mountains were all fruitless.
With the emergence of Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, the French public have turned their attention away from Rolland. He no longer carries the weight of expectation from the home fans and this has served him well. In fact, there is no reason not to believe in more great performances from the lanky climber as he still sees to become stronger and stronger.
Last year Rolland delivered the performance of his life in the Giro d’Italia where he finished fourth overall behind the outstanding trio of Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Fabio Aru and losing a significant amount of time in the long time trial. Furthermore, he did so without dampening his usual aggressive spirit and he made long-distance attacks in most of the mountain stages. Nonetheless, he still had the strength to fight with the best in the end and he would definitely have deserved the stage win that narrowly eluded him on a number of occasions.
Rolland tried to do the Tour de France on the back of his Giro ride but that turned out to be an impossible mission. Like so many others before him, he learned that it is an almost impossible mission to go for glory in both grand tours and he probably did his worst Tour of his career. Already before the end of the race, he made it clear that La Grande Boucle would be his main goal for 2015 and with a course tailor-made for climbers he has had no reason to change his mind.
Pinot and Bardet have gained most of the attention but it would be very unwise not to keep an eye on Rolland. If he has the legs he has in last year’s Giro, he should be among the very best on the climbs and the longer climbs in France even suits him better than the irregular mountains in Italy. Furthermore, the early part of the season suggests that he is on track for great things. He rode unusually strongly in April and took a rare stage race victory in Vuelta a Castilla y Leon. Furthermore, he rode a very solid first mountain stage in the Dauphiné where he has usually been far from his best. He may have faded in the final part of the race, primarily due to the cold in stage 6, but he is clearly riding stronger at this time of the year than he has done ever before.
However, it will require a fair bit of luck for Rolland to get to the mountains without having lost a big chunk of time. The first week looms as a big danger for the Europcar rider who doesn’t like fighting for position in windy conditions. He doesn’t have a strong team to support him either and the cobbles don’t suit him at all. Furthermore, he will lose time on the punchy climbs in the first week and Europcar could very well finish last in the team time trial.
However, a time loss could be a blessing of disguise for Rolland who is not comfortable in riding the race as your standard GC rider by following the best on the climbs. Instead, he prefers to go on the attack and there is a big chance that he will be allowed to go on his long-distance rides in the mountains. With the climbing legs he had in last year’s Giro, there is a big chance that he will win a stage and even set himself up for a good result in the mountains competition. Furthermore, he could take back much of the time that he is likely to have lost in the first week.
Rolland is not versatile enough to ever win a grand tour but as he proved in last year’s Giro, a podium spot is within his reach. It may never happen in the Tour where the level is likely to be a bit too high and the first week a bit too nervous. However, Rolland has the brave attitude to put everything on the line and that can change things even when he seems to be out of the battle. On numerous occasions, he has taken back time by attacking in the mountains and with a third week perfectly suited to his skills, he has the climbing legs to stay up there if he is allowed to get back into the game. Bardet and Pinot are clearly the best grand tour cards for French cycling but it is definitely not impossible that Rolland will end this year’s Tour as the best Frenchman.
Wilco Kelderman (*)
The LottoNL-Jumbo team and the Rabobank Development Team have had a fantastic ability to develop great Dutch stage racing talents. In the last few years, Robert Gesink, Bauke Mollema and Steven Kruijswijk have all followed the same path to develop into grand tour contenders and have all finished in the top 10 in three-week races.
The latest addition to the list is Wilco Kelderman and he is probably the biggest talent of them all. While it seems very unlikely that any of his three predecessors will ever be able to win a grand tour, the young Dutchman has shown the skills that makes it realistic for LottoNL-Jumbo to believe that they have a real diamond on their roster.
While Gesink, Mollema and Kruijswijk are mainly known for their climbing skills, Kelderman is a much more versatile rider. In fact, his main assets are his time trialing skills and he took his first major professional result when he finished a surprising 4th in the long, flat time trial at the 2012 Dauphiné. He ended the race by climbing solidly enough to secure a win in the youth classification and finish in the top 10 overall.
However, while he excelled in the time trials, his climbing seemed to be too limited in the first part of his professional career but like so many other talents, he has benefited immensely from completing his first grand tour. In 2013 he lined up at the Giro to ride in support of Robert Gesink but still managed to finish the race in the top 20. While the result may have been mediocre, the effects of the three-week strains were massive. After his post-Giro break, he was flying in the second part of the season and kicked it all off by winning the overall and the time trial at the Tour of Denmark before taking a very solid 7th in the Eneco Tour.
However, nothing really suggested that he would go on to reach the heights that he did in 2014. He showed the first signs of his improved climbing skills in Paris-Nice where only bad luck prevented him from being in winning contention. He was hit by more bad luck in the Volta a Catalunya but it was his performances in the one-day races Volta a Limburg and Rund um den Finanzplatz that indicated that a big performance could be in store in the Giro.
Lining up as the team leader for the first time, Kelderman delivered a great performance. In the first part of the race, he seemed to be one of the very best climbers and was in contention for a spot on the podium. He faded a bit in the tough final week which saw him drop to seventh but the performance gave signs that he has the potential to be a contender in future grand tours.
However, his real breakthrough came one week later in the Dauphiné. While most of his fellow Giro contenders were recovering from their efforts, Kelderman lined up at the French race which is probably the hardest one-week race in the world. Being up against all the major Tour de France contenders in peak condition, he finished the race in fourth overall and could have finished on the podium if he had not missed the big break in the final stage.
That performance underlined that Kelderman has the recovery skills to excel in the hardest races. He may have faded a bit in the final week of the Giro but he avoided any bad days and seemed to be riding at a pretty consistent level. Furthermore, he performed very well in a race that was loaded with steep climbs which was a tough ask for a rider that is much more than a pure climber.
Despite his young age, Kelderman took on the daunting task of riding for GC in two grand tours in the same year. In August, he lined up at the Vuelta a Espana but it was always going to be a big question how he would handle a second three-week race. The racing burden turned out to be too much as he was far from his best level and ended the race in an anonymous 14th place.
Already last year it was clear that Kelderman would make his Tour debut in 2015 where the Dutch start made it even more obvious for him to target the race. His entire season has been built around a good performance in the French race and he is keen to roll down the start ramp in Utrecht later this week.
However, things haven’t gone according to plan for the talented Dutchman who has not been at his best since he ended last year’s Dauphiné. In fact, the spring season was a huge disappointment. He rode poorly in Paris-Nice and Volta Catalunya and things were only made worse when he will ill before the Ardennes classics which were his first big goals of the year. That prevented him from reaching his objectives and things weren’t made any easier by a crash in the Amstel Gold Race.
Since then, Kelderman has been preparing for the Tour at altitude before he returned to competition in the Dauphiné. Unfortunately, that race didn’t give just the slightest glimmer of hope that he is on track for better things as he was again far off the pace. An early crash in one of the flat stages definitely had an impact on his performance but as it came on the back of a string of disappointments, it’s hard not to have serious doubts about his Tour de France debut. However, Kelderman showed signs of improvement when he became a surprise Dutch time trial champion with a dominant performance that saw him beat big favouite Tom Dumoulin by almost a minute.
At just 24 years of age, Kelderman has plenty of room for improvement and based on his performance in 2014 he has a great future as a grand tour rider. He has clearly improved his climbing skills massively and with his great TT skills, he has the versatility that is needed in the grand tours. Unfortunately, it seems that he has lost a bit in the TTs, probably due to his increased focus on climbing. However, he is a naturally gifted time triallist and is definitely among the best GC riders in the individual discipline. Hence, this year’s course may not be the best for him but as he mainly based his best 2014 results on good climbing performances, there is no reason not to believe in his chances even in this race.
Kelderman is not a pure climber and it would be natural to suggest that he is better suited to the longer, regular climbs in France than the irregular Italian ascents. However, the Giro showed that he suffered a bit on the longer mountains while he had the explosive skills to do well on shorter climbs. Hence, the Tour may suit him a little less than two other grand tours but he has shown that he has the maturity to limit his losses and gauge his efforts well even when he is not at his best.
Kelderman lines up at the race as part of a strong LottoNL-Jumbo team that has no less than four GC cards to play. However, he will be the one to wear dossard number one for the team which clearly indicates that he is the one that the management believes has the greatest chances. However, the presence of Robert Gesink, Steven Kruijswijk and Laurens Ten Dam will take some pressure off his shoulders and that should be an advantage, especially as the race starts in the Netherlands where he will get a lot of attention.
Compared to many of his rivals, Kelderman should get solidly through the first week. His team has lots of strong riders who are suited to the many classics in the first part and as a Dutchman he knows how to fight for position and ride in the wind. At a first glance, he should be able to do well on the cobbles and he is pretty explosive for the short uphill finishes. Finally, LottoNL-Jumbo is always strong in the team time trials and so he should have gained some time on riders like Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and Pierre Rolland before he gets to the mountains.
Kelderman’s poor spring puts his performance in France in serious doubt as the first part of the season is usually a strong indication of who’s on form for the Tour. However, his TT win at the Dutch championships shows that he might be back on track. Last year’s Giro showed that he has the skills to potentially become the first Dutch grand tour winner for several decades. It won’t happen in this year’s Tour but there is a solid chance that another great performance will further enhance his status as one of the future stage races stars.
Bauke Mollema (*)
It is impossible not to admire the Netherlands for its ability to consistently produce great grand tour contenders. The country may be almost completely flat but for some reason, it seems that a new GC rider comes out of the youth ranks every year. With riders like Robert Gesink, Bauke Mollema, Steven Kruijswijk and Wilco Kelderman, the LottoNL-Jumbo team has produced four of the biggest grand tour talents in just a few years.
While it seems that Gesink will never fulfill the lofty expectations that were once placed on his shoulders, Kruijswijk has been set back by health issues and Kelderman is a bit younger than the rest, Mollema has had a very natural and gradual progress and has now reached a point where he can go into the Tour de France with his sights set on the podium. Having had a slow start to his professional career, it was the completion of his first grand tour in the 2010 Giro that made him take a significant leap forward and turn him into a real contender for the biggest races.
The first half of his 2011 season was littered with top 10 results in stage races and the expectations for his first Tour de France were huge. Unfortunately, bad luck took him out of contention and he struggled through the race. However, later that year he confirmed his talent in the three-week races when he finished 4th overall in the Vuelta and things were set for a very big 2012 season.
Unfortunately, that year ended as a disaster for Mollema. Again bad luck struck in the Tour de France and he chose to abandon the race to focus on the Vuelta but the Spanish race turned out as a big disappointment as he could only manage 28th. On the other hand, he showed great improvement in the hilly classics and for a brief moment, it seemed that he was about to develop into more of a one-day rider than a grand tour contender.
The 2013 Tour de France turned things around and again proved that he has a great future in three-week racing. Together with Laurens Ten Dam, he created what was known as “Mollemania” in his home country when the Belkin pair were both in podium contention by the halfway point of the race. Unfortunately, Mollema was hit by illness in the final week and dropped to sixth but the performance clearly indicated that the 27-year-old has the skills to fight for the podium in France.
Last year things were set for Mollema to take another step up in the Tour after he had had a solid spring season crowned by a solid podium result in the Tour de Suisse. However, La Grande Boucle was a disappointing one for the Dutchman who never found the legs he had shown in 2013. He was never close to the best in the mountains and as he ended the race by doing a disastrous time trial, he dropped to 10th which was far from the lofty goals he had had at the start of the race.
Having been part of the same team for the first part of his career, Mollema had already taken the decision to head for pastures new and during the Tour it was rumoured that he had signed with the Trek team. That was later confirmed as the American team was looking for a grand tour leader to take over from the fading Schleck brothers and Mollema was given the nod to lead the team in the 2015 Tour de France.
Based on his performances in the early part of the season, the new surroundings have made him improve his level. In February he came out with all guns blazing, riding solidly right from the start of the year, and he crowned it all with an excellent second place behind Nairo Quintana in Tirreno-Adriatico. Unfortunately, he was later set back by health issues which forced him to abandon the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and prevented him from reaching his best condition for the Ardennes classics where he has been one of the most consistent riders for the last few years.
Since then it has been all about the Tour de France for Mollema but unfortunately poor health has prevented him from delivering on the lofty promises he showed at the start of the year. Unlike in previous years, he was far off the pace in the Tour of Norway but that was a deliberate choice as he wants to avoid another breakdown in the final week of the Tour. However, his performance in the Dauphiné was a much bigger concern. Hampered by back problems that stemmed from his crash in Pais Vasco, he was unable to put out his usual power and even though he was pleased with his form, he was far from his best level. Nonetheless, he showed signs of improvement in the final mountain stage where his back was less blocked than it had been in the first few stages.
Nonetheless, Mollema missed out on a final chance to go very deep in a race and so he hasn’t been at the pointy end of a bike race since he finished second in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco queen stage in the beginning of April. Naturally, that raises some questions about his ability to perform in France and he goes into the race with lots of uncertainty.
On the other hand, Mollema was reported to be flying during his training camps before the Dauphiné and as said, he claimed to be in very good condition in the French race. He has proved that he has the consistency to do well in a three-week race and this year he seems to have stepped up his level. If he has finally solved his back problems, he should be a very strong contender in July.
On paper the course suits him well. He has never been the best time triallist but while he has improved his climbing, his TT skills seem to be on the decline. Hence, he will benefit from the lack of time trialling in this year’s race. Furthermore, his Dutch background means that he is strong in windy conditions and his great results in the Ardennes classics and punchy sprinting skills mean that he should do well in the uphill finales in the first week. He is not afraid of the cobbles and with Fabian Cancellara to put him into position for the pave, he can feel comfortable going into stage 4. Finally, the Swiss powerhouse will be a big asset in the team time trial and even though they won’t win stage 9, Trek should do well there.
In 2013, Mollema was not far from the podium in the Tour and even though he will never win the French grand tour, he has the skills to make it into the top 3. A new environment, new teammates, lots of confidence, a good course and an improved level all suggest that an improvement of his best result is in store. The main issue is his back problems but if he can overcome them in time for the race start, another wave of Mollemania may got through the Netherlands this summer.
Some may be surprised that Jean-Christophe Peraud is missing from our list of contenders for this year’s race. However, the veteran Frenchman has admitted that he is far from his best condition and even considered skipping the race. Even though he is clearly one of the best grand tour riders in the field, nothing suggests that he has the form to repeat last year’s excellent performance.
In addition to the 15 riders mentioned in our previews, it will be a good idea to keep an eye on the following riders who are all capable of good GC performances
Rafal Majka, Rigoberto Uran, Mathias Frank, Robert Gesink, Rui Costa, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Roman Kreuziger, Jakob Fuglsang, Warren Barguil, Ryder Hesjedal, Laurens Ten Dam, Daniel Navarro, Steven Kruijswijk, Haimar Zubeldia, Rafael Valls, Eduardo Sepulveda, Dominik Nerz, Giampaolo Caruso, Alexis Vuillermoz, Samuel Sanchez, Tiago Machado, Michal Kwiatkowski, Steve Morabito, Damiano Caruso, Jose Mendes, Louis Meintjes, Leopold König, Nicolas Roche, Wout Poels, Geraint Thomas, Michele Scarponi, Tanel Kangert, Rein Taaramae, Ben Gastauer, Alexandre Geniez, Winner Anacona, Jose Herrada, Romain Sicard, Jarlinson Pantano, Jerome Coppel
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