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Every day we bring you more pro-cycling news takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses

Photo: Movistar Team








28.06.2016 @ 18:26 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, Nairo Quintana or Fabio Aru. For the first time ever, those five riders will be gathered at the start of a grand tour when the riders roll out from Mont-Saint-Michel on July 2. If one adds an in-form Richie Porte and a much improved Thibaut Pinot to the list, no one could have asked for a stronger field for what is set to be a great 2016 edition of the Tour de France takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses.


Since he got his first chance to ride for himself in 2013, Chris Froome has been the dominant Tour de France king. Only a crash in 2014 briefly interrupted his string of victories in the world’s biggest race, and the Brit has done nothing to hide that his goal is to keep winning the world’s biggest race as long as he can.


However, the Sky leader probably faces his toughest challenge yet when he rolls out on the opening flat stage later this week. Last year Nairo Quintana gave him a run for his money in the final week and this year the Colombian has had a better spring than ever before. The Movistar captain is at a new level both in the mountains and the time trials and this year he goes into the race with much better chances to end Froome’s reign than ever before.


At the same time, Alberto Contador has done everything possible to prepare himself optimally for the race that is dearest to his hard and he claims to feel like he did in 2014, the year when he claims to have been at his best level ever. At the same time, Fabio Aru hopes to continue the progress that allowed him to win last year’s Vuelta and if he can take another step, an amazing Tour debut may be in store. He will be the Astana leader but the Kazakh team has a dangerous joker in Vincenzo Nibali who goes into the race on the back of a second Giro win. Officially, he may be using the race to prepare for the Olympics but everybody knows that the 2014 winner relishes and outsider role and can take opportunities when no one expects it.


The former grand tour winners face a new big rival in Richie Porte who has long proved to be able to match the very best in the mountains. For the first time ever, he goes into the Tour with a leadership role and his performance at the Dauphiné suggests that he is on track for a breakthrough as a grand tour rider. If one adds his teammate Tejay van Garderen who was so close to the podium in 2016, Thibaut Pinot who has improved massively, progressing Frenchmen Romain Bardet and Warren Barguil, veteran Joaquim Rodriguez, an improved Daniel Martin, strong GC riders like Pierre Rolland, Wilco Kelderman, Bauke Mollema, Mathias Frank and luxury domestiques and back-up plans like Mikel Landa, Geraint Thomas, Roman Kreuziger and Alejandro Valverde, the scene is evidently set for a fantastic edition of La Grande Boucle. 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 4-star riders that may be seen as the main challengers to the race's biggest favourite.


Nairo Quintana (****)

It takes an exceptional talent to win a grand tour at just 24 years of age and no one has won a three-week race at such a young age since Damiano Cunego became a surprise winner of the 2004 Giro d’Italia. However, Nairo Quintana confirmed his exceptional potential in 2014 when he coped with the pressure of being the major favourite and took a very dominant victory in his maiden Giro d’Italia.


Ever since his victory in the 2010 Tour de l'Avenir, it has been evident that Quintana is a very rare talent but it has come as a surprise for many - even his own Movistar team - that he matured into a winner candidate already at 24 years of age. However, his excellent performance at the 2013 Tour de France convinced manager Eusebio Unzue and the rest of the cycling world that he was ready to target the top step of the podium and the wily Spaniard selected a Giro team that was fully devoted to their young Colombian. Quintana paid back the confidence in the most impressive fashion as he overcame illness that could have sent him out of the race or taken him out of GC contention before stamping his authority on the race with a dominant performance in the final week.


It has been a rapid rise through the ranks for Quintana who joined the WorldTour just two years ago when he signed with his current team. After Movistar had been hugely surprised by the tests he did for them after his Avenir win – he had numbers like a professional despite his young age – he joined the WorldTour in 2012. In his first year, he proved his talents when he won the Vuelta a Murcia in the early part of the season but he first made a name for himself at the highest level when he won the queen stage of the Criterium du Dauphiné. While the Sky machine was powering along at a brutal pace that prevented the likes of defending Tour champion Cadel Evans from attacking, Quintana took off on the Cold du Joux-Plane, and by using both his great climbing and descending skills, he held on to take a breakthrough solo victory.


He went on to win the Route du Sud a few weeks later and those performances raised the expectations for his debut at the Vuelta a Espana. Already that year he introduced his habit of preparing his three-week races with limited racing and intense training in Colombia but his first attempt was a clear miss. Entering the race, he wasn't firing on all cylinders but bounced back with an excellent domestique performance in the mountain stages in the final week where he emerged as the fourth best climber behind the superior trio of Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and his captain Alejandro Valverde. He made use of his post-Vuelta condition to take his first big classics victory at the Giro dell'Emilia which created lofty expectations for his 2013 season.


A crash prevented him from excelling at Paris-Nice but he got his deserved place in the spotlight when he beat riders like Rodriguez, Valverde and Bradley Wiggins in the first big mountain stage of the Volta a Catalunya. A time loss on a descent on the first day meant that he could only manage fourth in that race but his excellent condition prompted the Movistar management to change his schedule and line up their upcoming star at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.


That race proved to be the major breakthrough for the tiny Colombian as he ended up taking the overall victory. Not only did he climb at his usual high level in that race, he secured the win by doing an excellent time trial on the final day. That performance made him a dark horse for the Tour de France and the excitement was made even bigger by the fact that he arrived at the race straight from Colombia, with no one knowing anything about his condition.


Even though he was widely tipped as an outsider, few would have expected him to perform as he did during those three weeks in France. Entering the race as a luxury domestique for Valverde, he was used in a role as an animator and to test Chris Froome in the Pyrenees but when Valverde had his horrible day on the windy roads to Saint-Armand-Montrond, he took over the captaincy role at just 23 years of age.


Quintana coped with the pressure and ended the race in second overall after winning the final big mountain stage, even taking the mountains jersey in the process. In the final week, he was even stronger than Froome and if he had been racing more conservatively in the Pyrenees, he would have been a lot closer to the win. However, even if he had started the race as team captain and had raced as such, he would never have been able to beat the superior Brit who was far stronger than the Colombian until the final week and had a clear advantage in the time trials.


With Quintana having lots of room for improvement, cycling fans were looking forward to his return to La Grande Boucle and a much closer battle between the two grand tour stars. However, his team made the - probably wise - decision to allow him to mature under less pressure at the Giro than going straight after the win in the sport's pinnacle event. The decision was clearly against Quintana's own desire to return but a couple of factors contributed to the decision. First and foremost, Unzue was convinced that it would be easier for his young star to handle the pressure of being a race leader for the first time in a race with less media attention. Secondly, he wanted to give Alejandro Valverde one final chance to reach his life-long dream of stepping onto the Tour de France podium. Quintana proved his class by winning the race.


Many teams would hold back a rising grand tour star and not put him under the physical and mental pressure of targeting the GC in another grand tour in the year of his maiden three-week victory. However, with the Vuelta a Espana being of great importance for the team, Movistar decided to bring their rising star to the Vuelta as well, taking aim at what would be an impressive second grand tour victory in the year he opened his account.


Many were looking forward to that race as a chance to see how Quintana would fare against Contador and Froome and things were looking good for the Colombian who used a team time trial win for Movistar and solid showings in the first two mountain stages to ride himself into the race lead. He was about to lose considerable ground in the time trial before he crashed out of contention, losing a significant amount of time. As he crashed again in the next stage, he was forced to abandon, ending the race as just another favourite to leave a grand tour prematurely in a crash-marred season.


2014 was a season to get experience and then everything was set for his first real shot at yellow in last year’s Tour. However, he was dealt a massive blow already on the second stage when inattentiveness in the Dutch wind cost him more than a minute. When Froome demolished the opposition in the first mountain stage, Quintana seemed to be out of contention for the win but the Colombian refused to give up. As he has done in every grand tour, he got stronger and stronger throughout the race and as Froome suffered from illness in the final week, a big attack on Alpe d’Huez got Quintana very close to taking his first Tour win.


The small winning margin made Quintana lament his losses in the Netherlands and it has only whetted his appetite for the 2016 edition of the race. Since he stepped down from the podium in Paris, he has been fully focused on one goal: to claim the yellow jersey in this year’s race.


Quintana goes into the event as a much stronger rider than he was twelve months ago. Our description of his previous grand tour exploits clearly shows the steady and natural progress he has made but in 2016 he has clearly reached new heights. Quintana has always been a good rider for one-week stage races but his main strength has been his recovery and so his best results have come in grand tour. Nonetheless, he has been the dominant stage racer of the 2016 season and recent history shows that those riders usually go on to win the Tour.


Quintana ended his 2015 season with a slightly disappointing Vuelta where he bounced back from illness to take another top 10 result. With the 2016 season being loaded with big goals at the Tour, the Olympics and the Vuelta, he followed the same script as most of the grand tour riders and opted for a calmer winter. That meant that he was far from his best level at the Tour de San Luis in January and as he opted to ride in support of his brother Dayer who claimed a breakthrough win in the race, he settled for third overall.


He returned to his native Colombia to prepare for his European campaign and history shows that this formula works very well for Quintana. Unlike many of his rivals, he doesn’t need any racing to be competitive and that was evident when he made his first European appearance at the Volta a Catalunya. With a stinging attack on the queen stage, he dropped Alberto Contador and rode to victory and into the race lead which he defended in the final three stages. The result made him the big favourite for the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but a bout of illness in the week before the race prevented him from reaching his best form and he had to settle for third.


Quintana quickly recovered from his health issues and was back at his best level when he lined up for the Tour de Romandie. Unfortunately, a puncture took Chris Froome out of GC contention in the first mountain stage and so we never got the chance to see the two Tour favourites in a head-to-head battle. Nonetheless, Quintana again showed his impressive class. In the first mountain stage, he rode away with Ilnur Zakarin and then got the stage win when his Russian rival was relegated due to irregular sprinting. One day later he did the time trial of his life, finishing in the same time as Froome, and then he in a controlling manner in the queen stage to help his teammate Ion Izagirre finish on the podium.


Since Romandie, Quintana has followed his usual formula of preparing for the grand tours in Colombia and unlike the other Tour favourites, he doesn’t have the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse in his legs. Like last year, he has only done the Route du Sud to find his racing legs and that event proved that he is on track. He surprised the entire cycling world by spending the flat first stage in a suicidal breakaway but it was the time trial that really proved his form. In the discipline that has generally been regarded as his weakness, he beat specialist Sylvain Chavanel to ride himself into yellow. Team tactics prevented him from making his planned attack in the queen stage where he opted to give teammate Marc Soler the chance to get the win but he looked comfortable on the climbs and easily took the much expected overall victory.


The spring season has clearly given two indications. First of all, Quintana seems to be climbing better than ever. He has never been so strong in the first part of the year. His attack in the Catalunya queen stage was impressive and it was only an in-form Zakarin who could follow him in Romandie. The harder climbs at the Tour suits him even better and there is no reason to suggest that he won’t be much better than he was when he dropped Froome on Alpe d’Huez 12 months ago.


However, the biggest change is his improved TT skills. Quintana has never been a bad time triallist but he has always lost time to many of his GC rivals. The first big indication of his improvement came when he did a surprisingly good TT on a completely flat course at last year’s Vuelta and this year he has taken another step. In Romandie, he lost less than a second to Froome and he did a fantastic time trial in Pais Vasco where he was only beaten by 5 seconds by Contador who is one of the best riders in the world for hilly time trials. If one adds his victory at the Route du Sud, it is evident that he is a much different rider than he was at the 2013 Tour where he lost massive amounts of time to Froome.


In the past, one would have regarded the extended amount of time trialling in this year’s Tour as a major disadvantage but that no longer needs to be the case. Both time trials are far from being flat and the second one is even very close to being a real mountain time trial – a discipline where Quintana has always been one of the best. If the TTs had been flat, he would definitely have lost time to riders like Froome, Contador and Porte but on hilly courses he is now one of the best. That is evident by his performances in Pais Vasco and Romandie whose time trials both had a mix of flats, climbs and descending like the crucial 37.5km time trial on stage 13. As Froome has not been at his former level in the TTs, it may even be possible for Quintana to end the two time trials without any loss to his main rival at all!


However, Quintana still has to win the race in the mountains which is where he really excels and he couldn’t have asked for a much better course. The 2016 edition is widely regarded as being harder than usual. The Pyrenean stages are tough compared to the traditional format of the opening block of mountain stages and the addition of the Mont Ventoux in between the Pyrenees and the Alps is great for a pure climber like Quintana.


Nonetheless, it will be in the Alps that he can really make his mark. Ever since his grand tour debut at the 2012 Vuelta, it has been evident that Quintana’s main strength is his excellent ability to recover. Unlike Froome who always fades throughout the three weeks, Quintana just gets stronger and stronger and it is definitely no coincidence that he has been stronger than Froome in the final week at both of his first two Tours.


That trend makes it great news for Quintana that the hardest block again comes at the back end of the race. The final week consists of three tough mountain stages and uphill time trial and if everything goes as it usually does, Quintana will be better than his key rival at this point in the race. If one adds the fact that he is clearly climbing better than ever, Froome has every reason to be worried about what Quintana can do in the Alps.


Furthermore, Quintana has the advantage of Froome’s new approach. This year the Brit tries to reach his peak later and that means that he may not be as strong at the start of the race as he has usually been. If that’s the case, Quintana’s better recovery may still come through in the third week and if Froome doesn’t have his usual advantage before the Alps, the Colombian will be in a great position to strike. His improved TT skills will certainly serve in his attempt to be on par with Froome when we get to the final week.


However, there are still threats for Quintana. History shows that no one can match Froome in the mountains when the Brit is at 100% of his capabilities, not even Quintana. He still has to prove that his improved level has closed the final bit of the relatively big gap. If Froome is at his usual level in the Pyrenees, it will be very hard for Quintana to follow and then he faces his usual uphill battle in the second part of the race. Furthermore, Froome is still the better time triallist of the pair and Quintana is likely to lose time even though it may not be to the same extent as it has been in the past.


Another big challenge will be the flat stages. Last year Quintana probably lost the Tour in the Netherlands and even though the first week is less stressful in this year’s edition of the race, the dangers are still evident. The first two stage are very exposed to the wind and the stage to Montpellier is always a risky one. Movistar simply don’t have the classics riders to keep Quintana protected in these conditions. Imanol Erviti will be the man to do the work but he can’t match the Sky trio of Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas. Froome and Contador will both be looking for opportunities in the flat terrain and Quintana is clearly vulnerable here.


Secondly, Quintana’s team is far from being at the level of Sky. The British team probably have the best grand tour team since the formidable Astana team in 2009 and even though they are strong, Movistar are definitely not at the same level. Alejandro Valverde will be a formidable domestique and as the Olympics is the veteran’s major goal, there is no reason to question his loyalty. However, we don’t expect Valverde to be at his best level, especially not at the start of the race, and that won’t be the case for the Sky domestiques. Furthermore, riders like Winner Anacona, Ion Izagirre – who doesn’t have the ability to recover in a three-week race – Daniel Moreno – who hasn't been at his best level for most of the past two years – Gorka Izagirre, Jesus Herrada and Nelson Oliveira are not at the level of riders like Mikel Landa, Wout Poels, Mikel Nieve, Sergio Henao and Geraint Thomas who could have all been grand tour leaders in their own rights. That could easily put Quintana on the defensive, especially if Sky employ their new strategy of sending their lieutenants off in attacks, and it will be almost impossible for the Colombian to put Froome under pressure by attacking from afar.


In the end, however, the captains’ legs will do the talking in the final week and this is what Quintana hopes for. History shows that he is the best rider at the end of a three-week race and with his clear signs of progress, there is every chance that he will be the dominant rider in the Alps. With Froome experimenting with a new approach, he has a better chance than ever to avoid the usual time loss in the first mountain stages and with less windy stages to wreak havoc on the peloton, there is a much better chance that he will arrive at the final week within shooting distance. Until 2014, the dominant stage race of the spring always seemed to go on to win the Tour de France and Quintana would love to keep that tradition alive. There is every chance that the third time will be a charm for the first Colombian grand tour winner.


Alberto Contador (****)

When he won the Tour de France in 2007 and emerged as the world’s dominant stage race, many suggested that Alberto Contador would be able to challenge Lance Armstrong’s record of seven Tour de France victories. However, not much has gone as many expected for the Spaniard. Without any doubt, he has been the grand tour rider of his generation, becoming just the fifth rider in history to win all three grand tours, but in the Tour things haven’t gone as predicted. Officially, he has only won the race twice and nowadays his stars has waned so much that he goes into the 2016 edition of the race as a dangerous outsider in the expected two-rider battle between Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana.


Contador’s first setback came when his Astana team wasn’t invited to the 2008 edition of the race. Instead, he confirmed his status by winning the Giro and the Vuelta that year and one year later he returned to France to take his second title. In that race, he was probably at the best level he has ever been and he took what is probably the most dominant victory since the Armstrong era. One later year he won the race again – albeit with a much smaller margin – but that race would be the start of his most difficult time. A positive test for Clembuterol cost him the win and forced him to put his career on hold. Before he got his suspension, he delivered a show to win the 2011 Giro before he paid for the effort at the Tour where he could only manage fifth.


The circumstances meant that Contador was only out of competition for a little more than six months but the short break clearly took its toll. Since he returned to competition, he has never been at the level he had in 2009 and he has been much more inconsistent than he was in his heydays when he almost won every stage race he started.


Contador won his first grand tour after his return but his 2012 Vuelta victory was more based on braveness and ingenuity that pure physical strength. However, it was in 2013 that it became apparent that there was no return to his former level. Contador suffered massively at the Tour and could only manage fourth in what is probably one of his worst grand tour performances ever.


In 2014, Contador seemed to be back on track. He had a great spring season where he won both Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and for the first time, he was able to follow Froome in the mountains at the Dauphiné. In fact, he claims to have been just as strong as he was in 2009, maybe even better. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to see what he could really do in the Tour as he crashed out of the race in the first big mountain stage.


Less than two months after the crash, Contador proved that it is still way too early to write him off by claiming a third Vuelta title after an exciting battle with Froome. The Spaniard clearly felt that he was back to his best and so made the big gamble of going for the Giro-Tour double in 2015. The mission was only partly successful as he had to dig very deep to take the expected win in the Giro and that left him clearly fatigued for the Tour. For the first time ever, he spent the entire race on the defensive and he rolled into Paris with a rather anonymous fifth place.


The gamble was a bit of a surprise. Since his comeback, it has almost seemed like an obsession for Contador to prove that he can again win the Tour and the double clearly cost him a shot at victory. With lessons learned, he was adamant right after the final stage of the 2015 edition of the race that 2016 was all about the Tour and he even made it clear that it would be his final opportunity as he was set to retire at the end of the current season.


Contador has since backtracked on those plans and he is now planning to stay in the peloton for at least one more year. However, that hasn’t changed his focus. As he started the year with the expectation that this would be his final Tour de France, he did everything possible to get ready during the winter. He even had a hard time hiding his confidence and playing down expectations in his usual way when he made his debut in Algarve in February. In that race, he had a surprisingly bad day in the first mountain stage but with a resounding victory in the queen stage he proved that he was on track for great things.


Since then, things have been fairly mixed for Contador. On one hand, he won the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and would have won Paris-Nice if the hardest summit finish hadn’t been cancelled due to bad weather. On the other hand, he was unable to match Quintana in the Volta a Catalunya and he was not the dominant figure in Pais Vasco that many had expected. Nonetheless, he has continually expressed great optimism, claiming that he has had similar feelings to 2014 when he was at maybe his best level since 2009.


The final big Tour de France test for Contador was the Criterium du Dauphiné and he set an unusually optimistic tone at the start of the race. In the past, he has always played down expectations but again he underlined how well he was feeling. He seemed to be right when he beat Froome convincingly in the mountain prologue but as soon as the going got tough in the mountains he was nowhere near the best. In the end, he could not even finish on the podium and a fifth place was the disappointing outcome. The race was never going to be all about the result but it was definitely an unpleasant surprise that he was so far off the pace. In any case, it is now evident that there is no return to the 2014 level for Contador.


The mood in the Tinkoff camp also seems to have changed. Last year the entire team was built around Contador’s yellow campaign but this year things are different. Climber Jesper Hansen told Danish TV2 that his omission from the team is due to a late decision to give more domestiques to Peter Sagan and unlike last year, the team now goes into the race with two official leaders. That’s a massive change and clearly indicates that the Tinkoff management no longer has the same huge confidence in their leader.


Nonetheless, you can never rule Contador out. He is clearly in a much better place than he was 12 month ago and there will definitely be no repeat of the rather anonymous 2015 showing. This year he should be his usual aggressive self and history shows that Contador can find opportunities when no one expects it.


Unfortunately, it seems that he has to have this kind of innovative approach. The 2016 Tour is loaded with big mountains and so far we have had no indication that Contador will be able to match Quintana and Froome when the going gets really tough. To win the race, he probably has to search for opportunities elsewhere and he will have to be creative to find them.


One opportunity could be the time trials. Before his suspension, Contador was one of the best time triallists in the world and he even beat Cancellara on an almost completely flat course at the 2009 Tour de France when the Swiss was at his very best. Since his comeback, he has not been at the same level in the flat TTs but he has proved that he is one of the very best on hilly courses. Last year’s Giro victory was based on a dominant ride in the long time trial which he would have won convincingly if the late starters had had the same conditions as the non-GC riders. This year he has won the time trials in both the Dauphiné and Pais Vasco and even in 2013 when he was far from his best level, it was probably only the lack of a bike change that cost him victory in the hilly TT in the Alps.


With that kind of strength in hilly time trials, Contador will be very pleased with the design of the two time trials in this year’s race. Both of them have a significant amount of climbing and they seem to be tailor-made for Contador. With Froome showing clear signs of weakness in the discipline, Contador could actually be the big winner in these stages and that will allow him to ride more conservatively in the mountains.


Secondly, Contador is known for his great ability to recover and that makes the tough course which is loaded with big mountain stages in the end, suited to his characteristics. This year Froome has a different approach that could cost him his usual big advantage early in the race and there is every chance that Contador will be closer to the Brit in the third week. If he can gain some time in the TTs and get to the Alps without his usual big loss, he will be a position to strike at a point where he is always at his best.


Furthermore, Contador will be looking for opportunities in the flat stages. Daniele Bennati will be dearly missed but Matteo Tosatto, Maciej Bodnar and especially Peter Sagan mean that he is much better supported that Quintana on the potentially windy stages at the start and in Montpellier. Tinkoff have split the field twice in the last three years and they will definitely try to do so again.


Finally, Contador will ride innovatively in almost every stage and here Sagan can be a very useful ally. The Slovakian can do almost everything in most terrains and his excellent descending skills and power on the flats could be very useful if Contador plans to attack from afar. His group of climbers also seems to be in a much better place than they were one year ago and especially Rafal Majka should be strong as he always is in his second grand tour. Roman Kreuziger won the Czech Championships, riding Zdenek Stybar off his wheel, and if he can return to his 2013 level, Contador will be better supported than Quintana. Of course he won’t be able to match the formidable Sky team but the Tinkoff team is definitely a solid block even if it is only partly built around Contador.


Still it will all come down to the captain and that’s the most concerning point in the Tinkoff camp. It will require quite a bit of a turnaround for Contador to suddenly match Froome and Quintana in the mountains and the team selection indicates that even the team management has realized that. Contador is no longer expressing the same confidence as he did earlier in the year and for 2016 he is clearly an outsider, not a big favourite. That doesn’t mean that you can rule the best grand tour rider of his generation out – if you still have any doubts you should just ask Rodriguez what happened at the 2012 Vuelta or Froome how he was beaten by a resurgent Contador at the 2014 edition of the Spanish grand tour!



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