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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: Sirotti














29.06.2016 @ 18:47 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 1-star riders that may finish on the podium if everything goes their way.


Joaquim Rodriguez (*)

Time is running out for Joaquim Rodriguez who has desperately been chasing that elusive first grand tour victory since he emerged as a three-week contender while riding as a domestique for Alejandro Valverde in the 2008 Vuelta. Since then he has been in the top 10 no less than 11 times and been on podium at least once in each of the grand tours. However, the win is still missing in his palmares and at 37 years of age, it is evident that he is running out of opportunities.


It is testament to Rodriguez’ bad luck in the grand tours that he has taken a frustrating fourth place no less than four times. He must still be ruing what happened in the 2012 Vuelta when Alberto Contador surprised him on a seemingly innocuous stage to Fuente De and denied him what looked like a guaranteed maiden victory in his home race. Just a few months earlier, he was left frustrated in the final stage of the 2012 Giro when he lost the maglia rosa to Ryder Hesjedal and ended the race in second just 16 seconds behind the surprise winner.


There is no doubt that the 2012 and 2013 seasons were the highlight of Rodriguez’ career as a stage racer. However, recent years have indicated that age is taking its toll on the Spaniard who failed to finish on the podium in a grand tour from July 2013 until last year’s Vuelta. His downward trend kicked off when he suffered a bad crash in the 2014 Amstel Gold Race at a point when he seemed to be riding extremely well. With an overall victory in the Volta a Catalunya, he had firmly marked himself out as a serious rival for Nairo Quintana at the Giro but the Dutch crash left with broken ribs and when he went down again in stage 6 of the Italian grand tour, more broken ribs forced him to leave the race.


Rodriguez turned his attention to the Vuelta and did the Tour to build his condition for the Spanish race. For the first time since he joined Katusha, he lined up in a grand tour without any GC ambitions and instead he rode an aggressive race with a focus on stage wins and the mountains jersey. In the Vuelta, he rode to a solid fourth place but was clearly not at the level he had shown in the Tour just 13 months earlier.


Last year gave further indications that time has passed for Rodriguez. He failed to reach his best condition in March and after he had finally showed signs of life in Tirreno-Adriatico, he fell ill. That forced him to change his schedule and he made a late decision to line up in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. The expectations were modest but surprisingly Rodriguez won the race for the first time of his career after having done one of his best time trials on the final day.


That performance gave hope that Rodriguez would be back at his best level in the Ardennes classics. A fourth place in Fleche Wallonne and third place in Liege-Bastogne-Liege would have been an excellent outcome for almost any other rider but for the Katusha leader it was a disappointment. The biggest surprise was the fact that he missed his usual kick on the Mur de Huy.


Nonetheless, he was still optimistic for the Tour de France after a solid Dauphiné and things were looking good when he won the stage to the Mur de Huy. However, as soon as the race hit the mountains, he was off the pace and for the first time since the 2011 Vuelta, he failed to finish in the top 10 in a grand tour that he had targeted for GC. He managed to win a big mountain stage but it was still evident that he was not climbing at his usual level. His campaign in the Alps was a complete failure as he was unable to finish off his breakaways or win the mountains jersey. He showed signs of life in the final mountain stage to Alpe d’Huez where he tried to climb with the favourites but he was not able to follow the likes of Froome, Quintana and Valverde.


The poor performances prompted many to write him off as a potential winner of last year’s Vuelta, ourselves included. However, Rodriguez proved his critics wrong and for a brief moment it even seemed like he could get that elusive grand tour win at the age of 36. Unfortunately, it was again a poor time trial that dashed his hopes and a slight drop in form in the final week put the final nail in the coffin. However, he still finished the race in second overall and so showed that there is still life in the old legs.


It is last year’s Vuelta that prompts us to add Rodriguez to the list of contenders for this year’s Tour. The first part of the 2016 season has done very little to prove that he will be competitive with the best. A frustrating start to the year saw him fall ill at the Volta ao Algave. That made him chase his form for most of the spring and he was nowhere near his best at his home race in Catalonia. He was much better in Pais Vasco but a fifth place was still a far cry from last year’s victory.


However, the big disappointment was his classics campaign. For the second year in a row, Rodriguez lacked his usual kick and he was not even close to the best. As usual, he crashed in the Amstel Gold Race and when he made his usual attack on the Mur de Huy in Fleche Wallonne, he only drifted backwards to end the race in 28th. An 8th place in Liege was much better but he was never a potential winner as he had been one year earlier when he finished the race on the podium.


All year, Rodriguez has been focused on the Tour de France which is a bit of a surprise. What is still missing on his palmares is a grand tour win and he is never going to win the most competitive three-week race. First of all, the level is simply a lot higher here than it is at the Giro and the Vuelta. Furthermore, the long, regular climbs in France suit him a lot less than the steep, explosive finishes in the two smaller grand tours. Rodriguez would probably have been better off by focusing one or both of the other two grand tours but he has probably been inspired by the unusually hard course which is better suited to his skills than it has been for years.


As usual, Rodriguez prepared himself at the Dauphiné where he was nowhere near his best and finally had to abandon due to illness. That result is no real concern as he has never been good in his preparation races. The real reason to be worried about his chances in France is his poor showing throughout the spring. He was below his usual level in 2015 and this year he has been even worse. For a 37-year-old rider, that’s always going to cause some concerns.


What is most remarkable is that Rodriguez seems to lack his usual kick. He last showed when he won stages at last year’s Tour and Vuelta but this year he has been unable to make a difference. He tried his usual move on the Mur de Huy in the spring but he only drifted backwards. He was on the defensive on the climbs in Pais Vasco which is a race that usually suits him down to the ground.


Nonetheless, it is still too early to make it a complete write-off. After all, he was very close to winning a grand tour less than 12 months ago and apart from his small illness at the Dauphiné, he has had a solid build-up. The course suits him pretty well as there is no flat time trial and the hilly courses for the two TTs should allow him to limit his losses. Furthermore, the climbs in this year’s Tour are generally shorter and steeper than they have been in the past and this should play into the hands of Rodriguez who is a puncheur more than a real climber. Finally, he has proved his ability to maintain his level for three weeks on so many occasions and he should benefit from the fact that most of the hard stages are gathered in the end.


As usual, Rodriguez can rely on a solid team and climbers like Ilnur Zakarin, Jurgen Van den Broeck and Alberto Losada but he is not the undisputed leader. Half of the team is Alexander Kristoff’s lea-out train so he won’t have the same kind of support as most of his podium rivals. On the other hand, Katusha won’t be expected to make the race and everything will be decided by Rodriguez’ own legs. Unfortunately, we are not totally convinced that they will be up for another GC campaign and he could very well be forced to turn his attention to another stage and a bid for the mountains jersey. That may not be a bad idea as it seems that time has run out when it comes to winning a grand tour.


Daniel Martin (*)

Daniel Martin enters this year's Tour de France as one of the great dark horses. Since he joined Etixx-QuickStep he has improved an already high level massively. His performance in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Fleche Wallonne and Il Lombardia have made him is one the world's leading contenders for the hilly classics for a number of years but now he seems to have broadened his perspective.


As a grand tour contender, he is much less tested. He has already done ten 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 races 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 four times: 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. He put together a consistent ride in the 2014 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. One year later he was again on track for a great ride in Spain but as it happened two years earlier, an early crash forced him to abandon.


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.


Last year he had big plans at the Tour de France but after a fine start in the classics stages in the north, he faded in the mountains. He turned his attention to stage wins and got close in the Tourmalet stage where he finished second behind Rafal Majka. Unfortunately, he fell ill later in the race and so he never made an impact on the second half.


Martin was back in great condition for the Vuelta where he got close to a win in the first uphill finish. Unfortunately, his series of bad luck continued when he crashed out of the race but the performance at least proved that he could still be competitive with the best in the mountains.


However, the real reason to believe in Martin stems from his performances in 2016. Since joining Etixx-QuickStep he has been climbing better than ever. He already won his first race at his debut in Valencia where he used his trademark kick to win a relatively easy uphill finish. Later he went on to win a stage in Catalonia in similar fashion before taking third overall. Unfortunately, his classics campaign was slightly disappointing. He rode well at Fleche Wallonne by hitting out from afar on the Mur de Huy. It was a big gamble and a bid for victory but ultimately he had to settle for third. In Liege, he suffered in the cold and was never in contention.


Since then Martin has been focused on the Tour and he used the Dauphiné to finalize his preparations. He went into the race with no real expectations as he had done no high-intensity work in the mountains and so he was hugely surprised when he finished fourth behind Contador, Porte and Froome in the mountain prologue. Later in the race he excelled in the high mountains, most notably in the queen stage where his trademark kick even revealed a small chink in Froome’s armour. In the final stage, he went all out for a stage win but as his team failed to catch Stephen Cummings, his great uphill sprint was only enough to take second and move into third overall.


However, his ride in France must have boosted his confidence massively. After all, Martin is a puncheur, not a real climber. He has always come up short on the longest climbs and it is no coincidence that his best grand tour results have come in Spain where the climbs are shorter, steeper and more explosive. In the Dauphiné, he was still unable to match the very best on the big climbs but he was much closer than he has ever been. Furthermore, he dropped riders that would usually have been stronger than him.


Many have questioned Martin’s ability to maintain his level for three weeks but there is no real reason to do so. In fact, he has been riding strongly throughout all three weeks whenever he has escaped his many crashes or a bout of illness. In fact, it is bad luck that has taken him out of contention on almost every occasion and it was only at the 2015 Tour that he really faded out of GC contention without having suffered any kind of bad luck.


Of course crashes are a big part of Martin’s history and to be a real Tour contender, he has to get safely through all three weeks. However, he is in a much better place than he was at Garmin. Etixx-QuickStep is one of the best teams in the world when it comes to protecting their leaders on the flats and keeping their captains in a good position. The team is mostly built around Marcel Kittel and of course the lead-out guys won’t be able to support Martin in the mountains. However, Etixx-QuickStep will never be expected to take on the race in the tougher stages and in fact the Irishman needs the much more in the flat stages where he has always been vulnerable.


Martin is climbing better than ever and has a great team to support him but he has more assets. This year’s course is probably the best he has ever seen. As said, he is not a pure climber and he prefers shorter, more irregular climbs. This year’s mountains are generally steeper and not as long as they have been in the past and this should suit Martin well. Furthermore, there aren’t any flat time trials and this is a massive advantage. Among the GC riders, Martin is one of the worst time triallists and he can lose huge amounts of time in a flat TT. He will still suffer significant losses in the TTs but it should be less than usual.


Not being a real climber, Martin is probably never going to win a grand tour but the podium is definitely within his reach. This year he is better than ever and his confidence must be on an all-time high after his great ride at the Dauphiné. He has proved that he can maintain his level for three weeks and he seems to thrive in his new surroundings. It may be too early for him to podium in this year’s race but the 2016 Tour could be the race that really reveals him as a true grand tour contender.


Geraint Thomas (*)

If anyone had mentioned Geraint Thomas as a grand tour contender in 2014, he would have lost all credibility as a cycling expert. The Welshman was one of the best riders in the cobbled classics and that year he finished in the top 10 in both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. He had never shown any ambitions in the three-week races where he had been a loyal support rider for Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins, mainly in the flat stages. His stage race ambitions were limited to TT heavy races like the Bayern Rundfahrt and the Eneco Tour and races for punchy riders like the Tour Down Under.


However, things started to chance in 2015. At the 2014 Tour, Thomas had realized that he could hang on for a long time in the mountains and he was curious to see what he could do in the harder stage races. He made the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice real goals and he got the confirmation he was looking for. He won the Portuguese race after having won the first hard stage but the real breakthrough came when he finished second behind teammate Porte in the Paris-Nice queen stage. Unfortunately, he did a poor Col d’Eze time trial and so slipped to fifth overall but he still left the race with the confidence that he can match the best on the longer climbs.


Thomas took the next big step in the summer. Buoyed by his great performance in the spring, he prepared much better for the Tour than he had done in the past. He lost weight and worked on his climbing. The results were evident right from the start as he finished second in the Tour de Suisse which even had a summit finish on the Rettenbachferner Glacier, one of the hardest climbs in Europe. That kind of result would have been unthinkable just 12 months earlier.


However, there’s a vast difference between a one-week race and a grand tour. Thomas went into the Tour with the goal of supporting Froome but as he worked to keep his leader protected in the flat stages, he didn’t lose any time. Hence, he was sitting in 8th overall by the time the race got to the mountains and this is where Thomas really surprised himself. Despite working for Froome he still managed to follow the best and with three days to go, he was still sitting in fourth overall.


Sky started to play with the thought of having two riders on the podium but unfortunately the race was three days too long for Thomas. He cracked completely in the penultimate mountain stage, slipped out of the top 10 and lost even more time on the final day in the mountains. Ultimately, he finished 15th overall which was far from the result he had been dreaming off just a few days earlier.


However, when he had had time to put things into perspective, Thomas realized what he had been close to achieving and this has made him change his focus. Now he is trying to emulate Wiggins and for the next few years he will turn his back to the classics to see if he can become a grand tour contender. This year he has had all his focus on the stage races and the Tour of Flanders was his only race on the cobbles. He has been a full part of the Sky stage race group and has spent weeks in Tenerife training with the real climbers in the team.


The efforts paid off in the spring where Thomas defended his title in Algarve and then set his sights on Paris-Nice. A good ride in the prologue and a great second place in the queen stage saw him move into yellow with just one stage to go. He nearly lost it all when Contador attacked from afar in the final hilly ride around Nice but an outstanding Sergio Henao helped him at the crucial point in the race and he managed to limit his losses sufficiently to win the race overall.


The win boosted Thomas’ confidence significantly but since then nothing has really gone to plan. He was riding very poorly in Catalonia and Romandie which were both big goals for him. Then he turned his attention to the Tour. All year, it has been biggest goal and like last year he is expected to be plan B for Sky. The team has a bad history of losing their leader prematurely – they did so in the 2011 Tour, 2013 Giro, 2014 Giro, 2014 Tour, 2015 Giro, 2015 Vuelta and 2016 Giro – and so they always have a second option for the three-week races. Thomas has been given the nod and won’t have to work for his leader until it is absolutely necessary.


The Tour de Suisse was the final big test for Thomas and he went into the race as one of the big favourites. However, his downward trend continued. He was not nearly as strong as he was in 2015 and he kept losing time in the mountains. On the final day, he cracked completely and he ended the race in 17th.


The poor performances in Catalonia, Romandie and Switzerland must be worrying for Thomas. After all, he has not had a good stage race since Paris-Nice and this is a worrying sign for a rider that doesn’t have a long history in multi-day races. Furthermore, he almost lost everything in the final stage in Paris-Nice and that was just another confirmation of concerning tendency. Thomas seems to be very strong at the start of most races but even in one-week race he seems to fade towards the end. That also happened in the 2015 Paris-Nice and at the 2015 Tour de France. It must be a bit alarming for a rider that is aiming for grand tour glory.


This year’s Tour is crucial for Thomas’ further stage race plans. He recently extended his contract with Sky for one more year, preferring to learn from the best for another season before he potentially moves to a team where he can be the Tour leader. He hopes to be a leader at either the Giro or the Vuelta in 2017 but leadership roles at Sky aren’t easy to get. Froome will always be the undisputed Tour leader and it seems that he has his eyes on the Tour-Vuelta double in both 2016 and 2017. That leaves the Giro as an option but it’s hard to deny Mikel Landa another chance to go for glory there. Wout Poels is also looking for his chance in 2007 and Sergio Henao and Leopold König still have grand tour ambitions too.


Hence, the importance of the Tour can’t be overestimated. After all, Thomas has only been up there in one grand tour and even then he failed to hold on until the end. This year’s race will be a big test of both his climbing skills in the high mountains and his ability to recover.


Thomas will start the race as the plan B for Sky but in such a strong team he could very easily drop down in the hierarchy. The team is loaded with climbing talent and Mikel Landa has not ruled out a GC campaign. If he shows just the slightest sign of weakness, Thomas will lose his spot at the back of the train in the mountains and then he will be forced to work for his leader.


Thomas’ disappointing performances in recent stage races make us a bit worried about his prospects. This year’s course is unusually hard and the climbs are steeper and less regular. That suits Thomas less as he is not a real climber and much more comfortable on steady, gradual mountains. Furthermore, the time trials are both very hard and he would be much better off if the race had had a flat time trial in the north. With the worrying signs in the build-up, we don’t really believe that Thomas will be a real GC contender on this course.


However, we won’t write him off completely. Last year he turned out to be one of the best climbers for almost 20 days and he has proved that his top level is very high. Both he and Sky have a great history in timing their form to perfection so there is a chance that he will be on fire by the time the going gets tough in the Tour. Last year’s race proved that the potential is there. Now it is time to confirm for the versatile Welshman!


Warren Barguil (*)

A few years ago, every Frenchman that shows just the smallest sign of grand tour potential was put under a huge amount of pressure. The home country has been desperately looking for their first Tour winner since 1985 and even Sylvain Chavanel once found himself in the difficult position of carrying the GC hopes of the home nation.


However, things have been different for Warren Barguil. The talented Frenchman emerged at a time when riders like Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet and Pierre Rolland had already proved their huge potential and they got most of the attention from the French fans. That has allowed Barguil to stay away from most of the pressure. His decision to turn professional with a foreign team which is very rare for French rider, has also contributed to keeping him out of the spotlight and it has definitely been a wise decision for him to grow up in one of the teams with the best track records when it comes to developing neo-pros into world stars.


The Frenchmen have every reason to keep an eye on Barguil though. In these days, all the hype may be focused on Pinot but Barguil is also on track for a great Tour and has a similar long-term potential.  Already as a U23 rider, he showed that a new star was born and a marvelous 2012 season was crowned with a victory in the Tour de l’Avenir. In fact, he is only the second French rider to win the biggest U23 stage race in the last 10 years and unlike 2009 champion Romain Sicard he managed to continue his U23 performances at the highest level when he turned pro in 2013.


The start was a tough one for Barguil who showed little sign of his talents in the first months on the professional scene but it was all just a warm-up for what was to come. At the Vuelta, Barguil had one of the best grand tour debuts for a neo-pro in recent years as he came away from the race with two stage wins. When he rode away from a breakaway in the finale of stage 13, his rivals had clearly underestimated him but when he repeated the effort 3 days later by beating Rigoberto Uran in a tough uphill sprint, it was clear that there had been very little luck in the way he won his first stage.


The result made him dream about a Tour de France debut in 2014 and it briefly looked like he had a fallout with the team management when he publicly vented his frustration over his non-selection. The team preferred to build the roster around quadruple stage winner Marcel Kittel and there was no room for any GC ambitions. Instead, the management came up with a plan that would see Barguil go for the GC in the Vuelta before making a Tour debut in 2015.


Barguil accepted the plan, extended his contract and headed to Spain full of confidence. He fully proved what he had shown 12 months earlier as he rode consistently for three weeks to finish 8th overall. That created huge personal expectations for his Tour debut and he lined up in France full of confidence. With a 14th place, he had a decent debut but he still left the race with a feeling of disappointment. A crash had set him back in the final week but more importantly he felt like he had not made any progress.


Things only got worse when he was one of the riders involved in the training crash this winter but luckily he escaped the incident with a broken wrist. He was already back in action at the Volta a Catalunya in March where he surprised most by being much more competitive than expected. Just a few weeks later, he finished third in a hard stage on the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and he was in top 10 contention until he crashed out in the queen stage.


At the time of his crash, Barguil made it clear that his first goal was to be competitive in the Ardennes. Few believed it to be possible but in the classics he turned out to be stronger than ever. A fine ninth place in Fleche Wallonne set him up for a breakthrough sixth place in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, proving that he had finally taken that extra step he had been looking for in 2015.


Since then it has been all about the Tour de France for Barguil who has set his sights on the white jersey and a top 10 finish. The Tour de Suisse was his big pre-race test and that race proved that he has stepped up his level even more. For the first time ever, he was really competitive in a WorldTour one-week race and at one point, he even looked like a potential winner. He rode himself into yellow in the queen stage but it was always going to be tough to defend his position in the time trial. Despite doing one of the best TTs of his life, he slipped to fourth before a fighting display in the final stage saw him move back onto the podium after an unusually short ride that didn’t suit his diesel engine.


The performances in the Ardennes and Switzerland prove that there is every reason to have big expectations for Barguil. He is obviously a lot stronger than he was in 2015 but what makes his prospects really interesting is the fact that the grand tours are where his biggest potential lies. In the past, he has never had any big results in one-week or one-day races and it is no coincidence that his only real results in his first two pro seasons came in the three-week races. Barguil is a bit of a diesel engine with a great ability to recover and he has the potential to become a great grand tour rider.


However, there is still a lot of room for improvement. While he is a great climber with a decent punch, Barguil is a pretty poor time triallist. The Tour de Suisse showed that he has made progress but he is still far behind the best in the races against the clock. This year’s Tour de France time trials are very hilly and so he should do much better than he would have done in flat time trials. However, he will still lose a huge amount of time to the best GC riders and if he realistically wants to go for the podium in the Tour, he needs to improve a lot.


Luckily, Barguil is only 24 years old and there is lots of time to take those next steps. At Giant-Alpecin, he has the best support to get better and the team has a lot of focus on time trialling – just ask Tom Dumoulin. At the same time, the team is turning its attention away from the sprints and towards the grand tour where they aim to build a strong squad around Barguil and Dumoulin. This year they have signed Laurens Ten Dam and more reinforcements are likely to be added in the future.


For this year’s Tour, Barguil can expect great support. With Degenkolb still returning to form, it is evident that the team is more focused on the GC than the sprints. Degenkolb only has three riders for the lead-out while Barguil can count on support from Ten Dam, Dumoulin, Georg Preidler and Simon Geschke. There will be no internal leadership issues as Dumoulin is here to prepare for Rio – this time there is even every reason to believe in him – so Barguil will have the full backing from his team. A poor performance at the French Championships is the only small hiccup in what he been a perfect build-up for his second Tour campaign. Everything suggests that France will have another rider to cheer for in July and that they could very well end up with their second white jersey in three years!



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 taking a fourth place finish, 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, crowning 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 who 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 of 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.


In 2014, 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 had no reason to change his mind.


Already at the Dauphiné, it was evident that Rolland was riding strongly and he confirmed his great condition with very strong rides in the Pyrenees. Unfortunately, he had already lost a considerable amount of time at that point. It was always going to be a complicated task for him to survive a first week of cobbles, wind and team time trialling and when he got to the first mountain stage he had already lost nearly 12 minutes to overall leader Chris Froome. His strong rides in the mountains saw him gradually move back into contention and he would end the race in 10th overall. In fact, only Froome, Quintana and Valverde managed to gain time on Rolland in the final two weeks of the race – which is of course partly due to the fact that his poor GC position allowed him to go on the attack.


Rolland was unable to maintain his excellent level in the Alps but the race definitely confirmed that his climbing skills allow him to mix it up with the very best when he is at 100% of his capabilities. Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet may be the brightest stars on the French grand tour scene but Rolland definitely offers them an extra weapon.


Rolland has always been a typical French rider and few would have imagined him to leave his home country. However, in search of further progress, he decided to move sign for American team Cannondale which was looking for new leaders after a disastrous season and the loss of Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal.


Rolland was looking for new ways to improve and if Cannondale manager Jonathan Vaughters is right, there is huge room for progress. The American created some controversy in the French press when he claimed that Rolland had been training like it was 1975 while at Europcar. Vaugters claims that the room for improvement is huge, especially in the time trial which has always been one of the big weaknesses. The second chink in his armoury has been his huge time losses in the flat stages and Vaughters is convinced that his team of classics riders will allow Rolland to get to the mountains in a much better position than he has been in the past.


Until now, there has been very little sign of progress for Rolland. He has been nowhere to be seen in the spring but that’s no real reason for concern. Rolland has always been a slow starter and he has rarely shown anything before his first grand tour. Like he did in 2015, he showed signs of progress at the Dauphiné where he wasn’t too far behind the best climbers. Everything suggests that he is on track for another great Tour even though it is still hard to see any signs of Vaughters’ huge improvement.


However, they may not be needed at all. 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 the 2014 Giro, he should be among the very best on the climbs and the longer climbs in France even suit him better than the irregular mountains in Italy. Furthermore, Cannondale will at least be able to provide him with better support in the flat stages and riders like Sebastian Langeveld, Dylan van Baarle and Matti Breschel should make it possible for him to get to the mountains in a good position. Furthermore, the third week will be less stressful and this is a big advantage for Rolland.


Furthermore, his poor time trialling will be an issue. There have been no signs of progress yet and he has traditionally lost huge amount of time in the TTs. This year’s time trials are hillier than usual and especially the second one should suit Rolland quite well. Nonetheless, he is a diesel motor for the big mountains and he will always be one of the big losers in the TTs.


Finally, the course may not be tailor-made for Rolland. The climbs are a bit shorter and steeper than usual but Rolland prefers the long, gradual mountains that have traditionally characterized the Alps. On the other hand, the number of mountain stages and the fact that many have lots of climbs should suit him quite well. In any case, there will be lots of terrain for Rolland to show his usual aggressive spirit.


In fact, a time loss in the first TT 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 the 2014 Giro, he has a real shot at another stage win which could even set himself up for a good result in the mountains competition. Furthermore, he could take back much of the time that he has lost in the time trials.


Rolland is not versatile enough to ever win a grand tour but 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 tough third week, 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.



In addition to the 15 riders mentioned in our previews, it will be a good idea to keep an eye on Louis Meintjes, Adam Yates, Bauke Mollema and Mathias Frank whom we all have confidence in for a good GC ride (for Yates, the GC ambitions will depend on his time losses in the early part of the race at it is not a great focus from the start. Other potential top 10 finishers are Wilco Kelderman, Daniel Navarro, Rui Costa, Roman Kreuziger, Sebastien Reichenbach, Jarlinson Pantano, Domenico Pozzovivo, Diego Rosa, Julian Alaphilippe, Ilnur Zakarin and Serge Pauwels



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