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CyclingQuotes.com takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses

Photo: Muscat Municipality/Paumer/B.Bade

ALEJANDRO VALVERDE

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NEWS

ANDREW TALANSKY

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NEWS

PREVIEWS

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TEJAY VAN GARDEREN

RIDER PROFILE
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NEWS

THIBAUT PINOT

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NEWS

TOUR DE FRANCE

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NEWS
01.07.2015 @ 12:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

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 2-star riders that should all be solid podium candidates.

 

Thibaut Pinot (**)

Thibaut Pinot is definitely not in an admirable position. As the host nation is in desperate search for their first winner of the race since 1985, every rider that has shown just the slightest bit of grand tour potential has been put under a lot of pressure and many of them have had a hard time coping with it. For years, Sylvain Chavanel carried the weight on his shoulders until both he and his home country realized that he was more of a classics rider than a stage race contender and nowadays Pinot is the one who finds himself under the greatest pressure.

 

Luckily the fantastic development in France that has seen the country produce lots of exciting talents over the last few years, means that more riders now carry the responsibility. Pierre Rolland, Romain Bardet and Warren Barguil are all up there with Pinot as future grand tour stars and Jean-Christophe Peraud has proved that age is no hindrance for the former mountain bike star. As they are all at the start in Leeds, Pinot is not the only focus of the home nation in this year’s race.

 

However, there is no doubt that Pinot features at the top of the list for the Frenchmen. Peraud may have beaten him in last year’s race but while the veteran has not shown any sign of form and can’t be expected to maintain his high level for more than a couple of years, 25-year-old Pinot is still work in progress. In fact, he is in contention for a second consecutive white jersey and still has room for lots of improvement in almost every area.

 

For several year, Pinot had been announced as the next big French climber but it was his performance in his debut Tour de France in 2012 that fully confirmed his talents. In his first ever grand tour, he not only finished 10th overall, he even took an impressive solo win on a medium mountain stage in the Swiss mountains. In fact, he could have finished even higher if he hadn’t lost time in the crash-marred stage to Metz and even more impressively, the result was taken on a TT heavy course that didn’t suit his characteristics at all.

 

In the 2013 Volta a Catalunya, Tour de Romandie and Tour de Suisse, he proved that he had taken a further step up and so he was under an extreme pressure to perform in the Tour. All was set for a beautiful showing by the young Frenchman. He made it safely through the feared first week without losing any time and was riding comfortably near the front on the first major mountain, Port de Pailheres, when Sky had exploded the peloton to pieces.

 

It all came to nothing on the subsequent descent. Due to a crash during his junior career, Pinot fears high speed and that was exactly what he had to deal with as the peloton was in full pursuit of Nairo Quintana down the mountain. He lost contact with the main favourites and lost all hopes of a top result. Pinot was left depressed and never recovered mentally from seeing months of preparation fall apart. He abandoned a week later, citing a sore throat.

 

However, Pinot bounced back with an excellent showing in the Vuelta a Espana where he rode consistently with the best climbers and finished the race in 7th. The result was the much needed confirmation that he is not only a great climber but also has the stamina to handle three weeks of hard racing.

 

However, it was his performance in last year’s Tour that changed his status from promising youngster to winning candidate. Having survived the dangerous first week without losing too much time, he was ready to strike in the mountains. There were small deviations in his performances but in general he did a consistent race without having any really bad days and it was evident that he and Peraud were the best of the rest behind the unstoppable Vincenzo Nibali in the mountains. In fact, Pinot was the only rider to briefly put the Italian into difficulty when he distanced him over the top of the Port de Bales before being brought back on the descent. Finally, he completed the race by doing an excellent time trial to prevent Alejandro Valverde from passing him in the overall standings and he stood alongside Nibali and Peraud on the podium in Paris.

 

This year the Frenchmen have been eagerly looking at Pinot’s performances to see whether he has made further progress and they have every reason to be pleased. After a solid ride in Tour of Oman queen stage where he even did well in the hot conditions that have usually been his Achilles heel, he rode to a strong fourth in Tirreno-Adriatico on a course whose amount of time trialling made it less suited to his skills. That made him the big favourite for the Criterium International but that race ended as a huge disappointment. Unable to stay calm in the queen stage, he saw his own attacks being countered by Peraud who rode away with both the stage win and the overall victory.

 

Pinot had a disappointing Vuelta al Pais Vasco whose short climbs are not suited to his skills as a pure climber before he headed to Switzerland for the Tour de Romandie. That race turned out to be a turnaround for him. Despite his excellent climbing skills, Pinot had not raised his arms for almost three years when he took to the start of the Swiss race. However, he broke the drought by taking a solo win in the queen stage of an event that had Froome, Quintana and Nibali on the start list. He started the final time trial in second overall but dropped to fourth after a slightly disappointing ride.

 

As always, Pinot escaped the French pressure in the build-up for the Tour by riding the Tour de Suisse instead of the Criterium du Dauphiné. He proved that he is ready for the biggest event as he took his second big victory in a Swiss race as he rode solo to the finish on the brutally steep Rettenbachferner – one of the hardest climbs in Europe – to win the queen stage. That performance showed how much he has matured as he gauged his effort perfectly, not following the early attacks before rejoining the main group and making a lethal attack in the end. He started the final time trial as the race leader but had no chance against specialists Tom Dumoulin, Geraint Thomas and eventual winner Simon Spilak. Again he ended the race in fourth.

 

His two wins in big mountain stages suggest that Pinot has improved his climbing skills even further. More importantly, he has matured a lot and now gauges his effort much better. He has proved that he can beat even the best riders and won’t be afraid of going head to head with them in the highest mountains where he has to make the difference.

 

When the course was announced, the lack of time trialling was widely regarded as an attempt to improve Pinot’s chances. In the past, the FDJ star has always struggled in the individual tests but his TT skills are generally underestimated. He has made massive improvements and last year he finished in the top 10 in almost all the hilly TTs he did and crowned the Tour with a great ride against the clock. After his great TTs in Tirreno and Criterium International, he even went as far as suggesting that the discipline was now an asset for him.

 

Unfortunately, his progress seemed to have stalled a bit and he did surprisingly poor rides in Pais Vasco, Romandie and Switzerland. That won’t be much of an issue on this course though and instead there are other dangers that are far bigger for the French star. Pinot is famously known for his poor skills in the fight for position and he has often been caught out in splits in the crosswinds. He has improved a lot but in a brutal first week he is one of the most likely victims among the overall contenders.

 

Furthermore, his descending skills remain an important issue. He has improved a lot and in fact he has not been dropped on a descent since that famous ride in the Pyrenees in the 2013 Tour de France. He knows about his weakness and usually attacks near the summit of a major climb to start the descent with a small advantage. However, on a rainy day in the high mountains, he will come under pressure if Vincenzo Nibali applies the pressure and this could be costly for the local hero.

 

The heat will be another factor for Pinot who has often suffered when it is very hot. Last year there were only a few hot days in the Alps and on those days he was not at his best. Pinot likes cold and rainy conditions but he won’t be able to control the weather. The first week is expected to be very hot and this could be another hindrance for Pinot.

 

Finally, there is plenty of reason to question his team. The loss of Arnold Jeannesson is huge. Steve Morabito is riding very well at the moment and Pinot hopes that Alexandre Geniez can rediscover his Giro legs and stay fresh for another three-week race. However, he will soon find himself isolated in the mountains at times when the big favourites will still have several riders at their side. Furthermore, the team time trial is a clear disadvantage for him. FDJ did surprisingly good TTTs in both the Giro and the Tour de Romandie but compared to the best teams, they will lose a lot of time in stage 9. Finally, he will have to share leadership responsibilities with Arnaud Demare and even though the team has made it clear that Pinot is the main priority, a big part of the roster is made up of lead-out riders for the sprinter.

 

Pinot’s race will depend a lot on the first week. If he can get through the tricky stages in the north relatively unscathed, he has proved that he has no reason to be afraid of the best climbers in the race. He is still not at their level though and so an overall victory is unlikely. With Quintana on the start list, another white jersey will also be hard to obtain but he could turn out to be much closer to the best than most will expect. With a bit of luck and misfortune for some of the fabulous four, Pinot may make it two in a row on the podium in Paris to confirm that France have finally found another grand tour star.

 

Pinot is a pure climber who shines on the long, hard days in the mountains and on the biggest ascents. If it came down to pure climbing ability, his performances indicate that he would be a serious podium candidate. However, Pinot has a number of weaknesses that could see him lose time. First of all, he has that poor descending skill. During the winter, he did a lot to improve and even raced an F1 car on a motor circuit to get used to the high speeds. The efforts seem to have had an effect as he has looked a lot more comfortable on the descents recently.

 

Furthermore, he hates the battle for position and if the wind creates havoc on the peloton or a crash splits the field, there is a big risk that Pinot will be left behind. The stage over the Paris-Roubaix cobbles is a clear danger for Pinot and it would be no surprise if he emerges as one of the big losers when the dust has settled in front of the Arenberg forest. His team is aware of his weakness and often they go to the front on the climbs to whittle down the peloton and so reduce the fight for position.

 

Finally, Pinot is no great time triallist but this year he has improved massively. Usually one of the big losers in TTs, the FDJ leader has finished in the top 10 in races against the clock at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, the Tour de Romandie and the Tour de Suisse and this proves that he has taken almost unimaginable steps forward. Those stages, however, all took place on pretty hilly courses and even though the Tour time trial is pretty lumpy, the amount of climbing may not be enough to reduce Pinot’s time loss massively.

 

Until now, Pinot has not had a great season. Illness took him out of the Tour of Oman and a knee problem hampered him for most of the spring. He crashed in the queen stage of the Tour de Romandie and most recently he was again hampered by illness in the Tour de Suisse. With a vulnerable mentality, there is a risk that Pinot will go into the race with a lack of confidence and apart from his great time trialling, he hasn’t shown any progress in 2014. On the other hand, nothing suggests that he won’t continue his rapid rise through the ranks and if he can find back the climbing legs he has had in his previous grand tours and avoid the many pitfalls, France definitely has a podium contender on a course that suits their hero really well.

 

Alejandro Valverde (**)

Last year it was now or never for Alejandro Valverde. Ever since he emerged as a grand tour contender by finishing a surprise third in the 2003 Vuelta, the gifted Spaniard has had one big dream: to finish on the Tour de France podium. A few years ago the victory was still his goal but the 34-year-old Movistar captain has now realized that he is probably never going to win the biggest race in the world. However, he still desperately chases that elusive podium spot that has so far escaped him.

 

Time is running out for Valverde though. Since his breakthrough, Valverde has mostly been the undisputed leader of the different teams led by manager Eusebio Unzue. In his first years, he shared the captaincy role with Francisco Mancebo but since the start of the 2006 season everything on the team has revolved around Valverde. Only during his suspension for his involvement in the Operacion Puerto did the team have a different setup but in those 18 months it always seemed like it missed an overall direction and only waited for its leader to return.

 

Valverde’s dominance has been enormous and great riders like Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno have all been forced to jump the ship to get their own chances. With Valverde getting closer to retirement, however, things are about to change and the emergence of Nairo Quintana as a potential Tour de France winner has naturally elevated him to a leadership role. Unzue knows that he has a very rare talent in his ranks and that he can build his future team around the tiny Colombian. Quintana has done nothing to hide that the race he wants to target is the Tour de France. Valverde’s time as the undisputed Movistar leader has come to an end.

 

However, it is testament to the close relation between Valverde and Unzue that the latter almost went through fire and water to ensure that his protégé got one final chance to chase that elusive spot on the Tour podium. The public saga about the Movistar leadership for the grand tours dragged on for months and only in late January, Unzue managed to convince sponsor Telefonica that Quintana should line up in the 2014 Giro while Valverde would be the leader in the Tour. The decision was clearly against Quintana’s own wishes. The official explanation was that the smaller scale of the Giro would be good for the Colombian’s development but it was always evident that it was just as much about ensuring Valverde one final chance to lead the team in the Tour.

 

However, things didn’t work out for Valverde. With Nibali, Froome and Contador all at the start, it was always going to be hard for the Spaniard to make it into the top 3 but when the latter two had suddenly crashed out of the race, the door was open for him to reach his big goal. When Richie Porte also faded away, Valverde found himself in an excellent position when the race entered the Pyrenees close to his home country where he was expected to finally confirm his position as one of the three best riders in the world.

 

Surprisingly, Valverde suffered a massive drop in form in those crucial stages. Clearly fatigued, he was on the defensive in all the Pyrenean stages and when the race left the mountains, he had suddenly dropped to fourth. With a time trial coming up, many still expected him to pass Thibaut Pinot in the standings but his body was simply on the limit and a poor 28th in the ride against the clock saw him end the race in 4th far from the elusive third place.

 

One would have thought that the combination of a fatigued body and a broken dream would have left Valverde disillusioned. However, it is testament to his fantastic mental strength and huge consistency that he won the Clasica San Sebastian just one week after his poor time trial in the Tour. Later that year he went on to beat Froome, Contador and Quintana in the first summit finish at the Vuelta which he ended in third overall.

 

Last year Quintana was promised a leadership role in the 2015 Tour de France and so it has always been clear that Valverde will play second fiddle in the world’s biggest race. He played with the thought of doing the Giro that he has never done before but in the end he opted for the Tour-Vuelta.

 

He may go into the race as a lieutenant but that decision clearly reflects the fact that he still aims at the podium. Unzue has made it clear that Quintana is the leader but he has not ruled out the possibility that Valverde will find himself near the top too. Especially in a race with such a difficult and dangerous first week, it is no bad idea to have two leaders. At least Tinkoff-Saxo and Sky can confirm that.

 

Everybody is curious to find out how Valverde will handle his new role. In last year’s Vuelta, he was extremely loyal in the first mountain stage where he went straight to the front to work for Quintana. Surprisingly, he turned out to be stronger than his captain and ended up winning the stage ahead of Rodriguez, Froome, Contador and Quintana despite having done all the work for the final few kilometres.

 

That stage shows that Valverde is a true team player but he may find it a bit harder to sacrifice himself in the Tour. Hence, the first week may be a big advantage for the veteran Spaniard. Valverde is a better time triallist than Quintana, stronger in the fight for position in windy conditions, better suited to the cobbles – which he actually handles extremely well – and may even win three stages in the first week as stages 3, 6 and 8 are tailor-made for him. With bonus seconds on offer, he could find himself with a significant advantage over Quintana before the race even gets to the mountains and then it will be hard to ask him to sacrifice himself for his leader. Much will be revealed in stage 4. If Quintana is distanced in the cobbles, it will be interesting to see whether Valverde will be asked to wait for the Colombian.

 

However, even if Valverde is allowed to take his own chance, he is unlikely to win the race. He is one of the most consistent grand tour riders and even won the 2009 Vuelta a Espana. However, he is not made for the three-week races as his versatile skills mean that he is no pure climber. Before his suspension, he always had a bad day at some point in a grand tour but he has now overcome that chink in his armoury. Furthermore, no one is better at limiting his losses in the mountains and that is the key reason for his extreme consistency. In fact, he has only finished a single grand tour outside the top 8, the 2012 Tour de France where he had just come back from suspension and clearly missed some strength in such a long race. Nonetheless, that consistency will not be enough to win the race as history shows that he is simply not at the level of the fabulous four in the high mountains.

 

His new role may provide him with new opportunities though. He may now benefit from Quintana’s presence to take some risks in the mountains. He is known as a hugely aggressive rider who is never afraid of put it all on the line with a brave move. The Quintana-Valverde duo have tactical options throughout the entire race and that could open the door for a few surprises.

 

At 35 years of age, Valverde is showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, he has probably had his best spring season ever, winning both Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege with fantastic performances. In the early part of the season, he seemed to be on the decline but he turned it all around in the biggest races. If he hadn’t crashed in the stage 3, he would probably also have won the Volta a Catalunya.

 

He delivered a surprisingly poor performance in the Dauphiné but with a victory in the Spanish road race championships he proved that he is back on form. In fact, he has probably had a slower build-up to the Tour after he faded so dramatically in the final week twelve months ago. Everything seems to go according to plan for Valverde and if he wins the stage to Mur de Huy he could lay down a strong mark right from the beginning of the race.

 

Things have changed for Valverde and for the first time ever he may have to sacrifice himself for a leader in the Tour de France. Nonetheless, it would be very unwise to rule out one of the most consistent grand tour riders in the peloton. With a first week tailor-made for him, the internal Movistar hierarchy may not be set in stone and if Valverde can make the most of his opportunities in those first nine days, it might not be impossible for him to reach that elusive goal of a top 3 finish in Paris.

 

Tejay van Garderen (**)

There is no reason to envy Tejay van Garderen the position of having been announced as the rider to fill Lance Armstrong’s shoes as the leading American grand tour contender. However, the American has apparently been unfazed by the pressure and with a very gradual and steady progress, he has arrived at a stage where he can realistically aim for the Tour de France podium.

 

Already at a very young age, van Garderen showed that he had the versatile skills to become a great stage racer. Son of a Dutch immigrant, he followed the unusual path for an American bike rider of learning the trade at one of the finest cycling schools in the world when he rode for the Rabobank Development team. In 2009, he finished second in the big mountainous stage races Tour de l’Avenir and the Tour de Pays de Savoie but also showed his versatility by taking third in the Olympia’s Tour which is an almost completely flat race in the Netherlands.

 

The performances earned him a contract with the HTC-Columbia team where he impressed in his first year at the pro level. Most notably, he finished third in the Criterium du Dauphiné behind Janez Brajkovic and Alberto Contador. He got the chance to test himself as a GC rider in a grand tour at the Vuelta but after a solid start he faded in the final week.

 

One year later he made his Tour de France debut without any GC aspirations and worked hard on the front for Mark Cavendish while also taking his chances in a few breakaways. However, he final year at the HTC team was a disappointing one and his progress seemed to have stalled slightly.

 

With the demise of his team, it was no surprise that he was picked up by BMC who were looking for a long-term replacement for Tour de France champion Cadel Evans who was getting close to retirement. After strong rides in the spring, van Garderen was immediately given the important role of being lieutenant for the reigning champion at the 2012 Tour de France. As Evans suffered from illness, van Garderen ended up being the strongest BMC rider by claiming a surprise fifth place and winning the white jersey and even humiliated his captain when he passed him in the final time trial.

 

2013 seemed to be an excellent year for van Garderen who finished 4th in Paris-Nice, 3rd in the Criterium International, 7th in the Tour de Suisse and won his first major stage race at the Tour of California before he lined up for the Tour. This time he was on an equal footing with Evans but both of them delivered surprisingly poor performances. Van Garderen was at a loss to explain his mediocre showing but bounced back with a strong ride to win the USA Pro Challenge at the end of the year.

 

In 2014, BMC decided that it was time for a generational change. Evans was asked to lead the team in the Giro and for the first time ever, van Garderen was given the clear leadership role in the Tour. Things didn’t look good at the start of the race as he rode poorly in the Dauphiné after he had fractured his hip at the Tour de Romandie. That was a major setback at the end of a spring season during which he had clearly stepped up his level a further notch. In the Tour of Oman and the Volta a Catalunya he had been climbing better than ever before but his injury made him uncertain about what to expect.

 

However, van Garderen rode a splendid Tour to equal his career-best fifth place finish and if it hadn’t been for a hunger knock in the long stage to Bagneres-de-Luchon, the podium would have been a realistic target. However, the result was much more remarkable than the one he had achieved two years earlier. Back then he had hugely relied on his excellent time trialling skills on a course that was tailor-made for rouleurs and included very little serious climbing. In the mountains he had been far from the best but that had changed in 2014. Van Garderen was not quite at the level of Nibali, Peraud and Pinot in the mountains but he wasn’t far off the mark.

 

Remarkably, van Garderen has taken another step up in 2015. Again he rode strongly in Oman where he only missed out on the win because he underestimated a surprisingly strong Rafael Valls. His Paris-Nice was a disappointment and the Volta a Catalunya got off to a bad start as he crashed out of the GC contention. However, one day he later he put his improved climbing skills on show by launching an attack from the bottom of the final climb in the queen stage and holding off Richie Porte and Alberto Contador to win the stage.

 

Those results are all solid but it was the Dauphiné that really proved how far van Garderen has come. Unfazed by the hard competition, he went head to head with no less of a figure than Chris Froome and nearly upset the major favourite. He was favoured by an advantage gained in the team time trial but in the Pra Loup stage he delivered a remarkable feat when he clawed his way back to Froome at a point when everybody thought that he had ridden away from the rest. In the end, he even managed to distance the Sky captain. He was unable to follow Froome in the final two mountain stages but he was much closer to Froome than anyone had expected.

 

What is remarkable about van Garderen’s performances is his maturity. Honestly, we have never had too much belief in his climbing skills. Obviously, he has always been a talented climber but in the past he gauged his efforts very poorly and almost always blew up because he had tried to follow the best. That has clearly changed. The Dauphiné was a prime example of how to just riding up the climbs at your own speed and that approach has turned van Garderen into one of the best climbers in the world.

 

The improved climbing seems to have come at a cost as he no longer seems to be time trialling as well as he did in the past. On this year’s course that won’t be a major disadvantage though and he is still one of the best time triallists among the GC contenders. His BMC team is one of the favourites for the team time trial and unlike many of his rivals, he should get safely through the first week. BMC have always put a huge emphasis on the flat stages in the first weeks and riders like Manuel Quinziato, Daniel Oss and Michael Schär have a fantastic track record when it comes to supporting a captain in windy conditions. Those riders made sure that Evans didn’t miss a single split or was caught up in a single crash during his time with the team and their presence is a massive advantage for van Garderen in the crucial opening part. The team may lack a bit of depth in the mountains but that’s no major disadvantage as BMC won’t have to carry the responsibility and Samuel Sanchez and Damiano Caruso should be able to stay with their captain for some time.

 

On a course with very little time trialling and with the strongest grand tour field that has been assembled for a while, van Garderen knows that he is not going to win the Tour de France. However, his 2015 season has proved that a future victory in the world’s biggest race is more than just a distinct dream and this year’s edition of La Grande Boucle may be the one that sets him up for that elusive win that could give his home country its first credible Tour de France winner for more than a 20 years.

 

Andrew Talansky (**)

Garmin-Sharp manager Jonathan Vaughters has never been the kind of leader that builds his team entirely around a single rider. Since 2003 when he founded the junior team that has since developed into the best teams in the world, he has always had a broadly-based approach to racing and has rarely gone into a race with a single focus and a clear leader. In the grand tours, he has usually had a focus both on the GC and stage wins and several riders have had their opportunities. The one exception is probably the 2013 Giro d’Italia where he lined up the defending champion Ryder Hesjedal who naturally deserved to have a team fully at his disposal.

 

Going into last year’s Tour de France, Vaugters deviated from his usual approach. For the first time ever, he lined up for La Grande Boucle with a team that was fully devoted to a single leader. This time the captain was not a proven grand tour contender or one of the world’s biggest stars. On the contrary, the rider that has convinced him to have a single-eyed approach to the race was a 25-year-old American who had only done the Tour de France once.

 

It speaks volumes about Andrew Talansky’s talent that he earned himself this position in the Garmin-Sharp team in just his fourth year as a professional. In his final year as a U23 rider, he made the world aware of his talents by finishing 10th in the Baby Giro, 3rd in the Ronde de l’Isard and 2nd in the Tour de l’Avenir and showed that he could mix it up with the professionals by taking 6th in the Tour of the Gila that was won by Levi Leipheimer ahead of Tom Danielson. The results earned him a contract with Garmin-Sharp but in his first year his results were mixed. While he failed to be up there with the best in the climbs, he first marked himself out as a great time triallist with several top 10 results in WorldTour TTs.

 

He took the step from talent to serious contender in the biggest races when he finished second in the 2012 Tour de Romandie. What made his performance even more impressive was the fact that he had finished less than a second behind Bradley Wiggins in the final uphill time trial at a time when the Brit seemed almost unbeatable. Later that year he won his first major stage race, the mountainous Tour de l’Ain, before taking 7th in the Vuelta, the first grand tour he did as a team leader.

 

In 2013 he stepped up his game another level when he finished 2nd in Paris-Nice behind an almost unbeatable Richie Porte and went on to make his Tour de France debut later that year. His first outing of the world’s biggest race was not too impressive as he finished a pretty anonymous 10th and rode an anonymous race.

 

When Talansky deserves the role as one of the youngsters that could challenge the established grand tour stars, it is not related to his Tour de France debut. Our admiration for this youngster is based on the flashes of climbing prowess he has shown on two occasions that prove that he has the level to seriously contend for a top result in the Tour.

 

Based on his performance in Paris-Nice, he went into the 2013 Criterium du Dauphiné with big expectations on his shoulders. However, Suffering from illness, he fell out of GC contention and devoted himself fully to teammate Rohan Dennis who did surprisingly well in that race. However, in the final mountain stage, Talansky was allowed to play his own cards at a time when Dennis’ white jersey was no longer in danger. At that point, Chris Froome and Richie Porte had left everyone else behind them and the Brit was trying to drag his teammate up to lone escapee Alessandro De Marchi in a quest to give the Australian a teammate. However, Talansky flew past several established grand tour stars and reached the Sky duo just before the line, forcing Froome to forget about Porte and sprint ahead of Talansky to take second behind De Marchi.

 

That performance was the first sign that Talansky is an extraordinary talent and last year he confirmed it in that same race. Having had a disappointing spring season where he failed to make too much of an impact in both Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya and had had bad luck in the Tour de Romandie which was his big goal for the first part of the season, Talansky came into the Dauphiné with all guns blazing. In the opening time trial, he finished fourth and then climbed solidly in the first mountain stage to take fifth.

 

However, it was his performances in the final weekend that really marked him out. In the queen stage, Alberto Contador had dropped Chris Froome who was suffering from injuries sustained in a crash but the Brit made a final desperate acceleration in a quest to rejoin his main rival. Initially, he dropped everyone but slowly Talansky and teammate Hesjedal clawed their way back to the world’s best climber. One day later he and Hesjedal blew the race apart on one of the earlier climbs and after the Canadian had sacrificed himself for his young teammate, Talansky – with just a bit of help from Jurgen Van Den Broeck – almost single-handedly held off no less of a figure than Contador to take the overall victory in one of the most prestigious race after having been on the attack all day.

 

More than anything else, those two Dauphiné performances elevated Talansky from top 10 candidate to podium contender in last year’s Tour. With a team fully built around the American, his confidence was at an all-time high and things were looking promising until he was involved in a crash when he somewhat strangely mixed it up in a sprint where he had no role to play. He hurt his back and a few days later his suffering made for some of the most unforgettable and dramatic scenes of the entire race. He made it to the finish within the time limit but decided to abandon the race after his heroic ride.

 

Talansky’s withdrawal put Garmin-Sharp on the back foot for the remainder of the race and it was only a remarkable solo effort by Ramunas Navardauskas in the penultimate road stage that saved the race for the team. With the first week set to be a crash fest that will rule out a number of contenders, it is no surprise that Vaughters has slightly changed his approach for 2015. Talansky is no longer the sole leader and goes into the race in a shared captaincy role with Ryder Hesjedal and Daniel Martin.

 

However, it is hard to regard Talansky as their strongest card. As his best grand tour performance is 7th in the 2012 Vuelta, there are a lot of question marks surrounding the young American and he still needs to prove that he can consistently perform at his highest level for three weeks. However, he is one of the select few that have shown that he is capable of challenge the best on the climbs. Until now, he has had a very steady and natural progression and he seems to have taken the next step.

 

What makes Talansky exciting is his versatility. While his Dauphiné victory was based on his climbing skills, he first made himself known as a time triallist. Unfortunately, he seems to have lost a bit of his TT prowess as he has improved his climbing but that won’t be much of an issue in this race which is set to be decided in the first week and in the mountains. On paper, he should do well on the cobbles and he has a strong team to support him. In the spring races, Cannondale-Garmin have clearly practiced they job of keeping their leader near the front and riding fully in support of a GC contender which is important as the team has often been caught out in splits in flat stages. Furthermore, they have a decent team for the team time trial even tough they will lose time to the best teams.

 

Unfortunately, there’s a reason to question Talansky’s form. His spring season was a disaster. He had aimed at strong rides in Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco but those races all ended as huge disappointments. He hopes to bounce back in the Tour of California but had another setback when he had to abandon on the first stage due to illness. However, he showed progress when he won the American time trial championships and rode a solid road race a few days later.

 

Talansky had hoped to defend his Dauphiné title but he had to settle for a disappointing 10th place. He was far from the level he had shown one year earlier and was never really a contender in the race. Still it was a clear progress compared to his spring season but he didn’t come out with all guns blazing like he did 12 months ago.

 

This leaves us with mixed feelings when it comes to assessing Talansky’s chances. On one hand, there is no doubt that he is one of the greatest stage race talents in the world. He still needs to confirm that he can consistently climb with the best for three weeks but there is no reason to suggest that he can maintain a high level for the duration of a grand tour. On the other hand, 2015 hasn’t been his year and very often the spring season is hugely indicative of who’s on form for July.

 

However, Talansky may benefit from less pressure. This year he won’t be the sole leader and this means this should take away some of the weight that has been on his shoulders. Furthermore, Cannondale-Garmin is one of the most aggressive teams in the peloton and with three potential top 5 contenders, they would be afraid of putting everything on the line with their riders. In a race where the four main favourites may be looking at each other, Cannondale-Garmin could be the team that makes the race explode. The 2014 Criterium du Dauphiné showed that Talansky knows how to turn everything around with an aggressive ride in the mountains and he has the climbing skills to finish it off. If he can turn his season around and show what he did in 2013 and 2014, the 2015 Tour de France could be the breakthrough race for Talansky.

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