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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: A.S.O.

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RICHIE PORTE

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THIBAUT PINOT

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TOUR DE FRANCE

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28.06.2016 @ 21:38 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  CyclingQuotes.com 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.

 

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 3-star riders who may be seen as outside bets for the overall win.

 

Richie Porte (***)

It’s been said before: It’s now or never for Richie Porte. However, despite his previous failures, the Australian still has so much potential that there is every reason to believe that he can carry his impressive success from one-week stage races into the grand tours and so there are still opportunities for him to get a leadership role in the three-week races. After his previous attempts at the Giro, he will get his first big chance to lead a team at the Tour de France in this year’s edition of the race and everything seems to be on track for him to finally show that he can stay consistent during one of the longest races on the calendar.

 

It may be a bit of a surprise that Porte was one of the hottest grand tour prospects on the transfer market at the end of the 2015 season. After all, he has not finished in the top 10 of a three-week race since he made his debut at the 2010 Giro d’Italia. However, a combination of circumstances have prevented him from getting a real shot a grand tour glory and after the best spring season of his career, there was plenty of interest in the versatile Australian. Despite already having Tejay van Garderen in their ranks, BMC entered the battle and earned the confidence from Porte who was in search of a chance to step out of Chris Froome’s shadow.

 

Ever since his promising debut in the 2010 Giro, Porte has been destined for greatness in the grand tours but in the early years of his career he preferred to learn the trade by riding in support of the greatest champions. He spent two years with Alberto Contador and then joined Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome at Sky. He first showed signs of his winning potential when he rode to victory at the 2012 Volta ao Algarve but it was his win at the 2013 Paris-Nice that revealed him as a real contender on the WorldTour. In general, the 2013 spring was a big breakthrough for Porte as he went on to finish second behind Froome at the Criterium Internation and he took another runner-up spot at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. In the summer, he and Froome demolished the opposition in the first mountain stage of the Tour de France, making it a 1-2 in Ax-3-Domaines, and even though Porte paid the price the next day, he later played a key role in earning Froome his first Tour win.

 

That race was a bit of an eye-opener for Porte who realized that he had what it takes to compete with the best in the mountains at the grand tours. Hence, everything was set for a big breakthrough for Richie Porte at the 2014 Giro d’Italia where he was set to lead Sky in a grand tour for the first time. With his versatile skills, he was even widely regarded as the biggest threat for pre-race favourite Nairo Quintana.

 

However, nothing went according to plan for Porte who had a real annus horribilis. Everything had seemed to be on track when he cruised to a solo win in the Tour Down Under queen stage. At this point his biggest concern was the fact that the course for Paris-Nice didn’t leave him many chances to defend his title and so he was pleased when he got the call from the team management and was asked to replace an injured Chris Froome as the team leader in Tirreno-Adriatico.

 

From there, everything unraveled for Porte. After a solid showing in the first mountain stage, he fell ill on the eve of the decisive stage and was forced to leave the race. He tried to bounce back in the Volta a Catalunya but after having been distanced already on the first stage, he abandoned. A few weeks later, the team announced that the initial plans of a leadership at the Giro had to be skipped and instead the Australian would line up at the Tour.

 

After very poor performances in the classics and Romandie and a terrible start to the Criterium du Dauphiné, he seemed to be getting closer to his usual level towards the end of the French preparation race. At the start of the Tour de France, he had ridden himself into a great condition and suddenly it seemed like his fortunes had changed when Chris Froome left the race and he got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to lead Sky in the biggest race. Heading into the Alps, he found himself in perfect position to finish on the podium when disaster again struck. Porte fell ill and even though he managed to finish the race, he was never a factor in the final part of the race. Two DNFs in one-day races ended a lacklustre season for the Sky rider.

 

Determined to turn things around, Porte decided to change his approach. In the off-season, he strictly followed his training schedule instead of doing some of his famous ridiculously long rides, and he kept a firm focus on his diet. The effort paid off immediately as he was already 5kg lighter than usual in November and by the time we got to the start of the Australian season in early January, he was absolutely flying. He made use of his improved climbing to crush the opposition in the Australian TT championships on a very hilly course and went on to repeat the previous year’s performance of winning the queen stage at the Tour Down Under.

 

In that sense, things were pretty similar to 2013 when he arrived in Europe for the start of his European campaign but the results could not have been more different. In the Volta ao Algarve, he took a fantastic win in the queen stage despite having worked had for teammate Geraint Thomas. He proved to be in a class of his own in Paris-Nice where he both won the queen stage and the Col d’Eze time trial just as he had done it two years earlier.

 

However, the result that boosted his confidence the most, was probably his overall victory in the Volta a Catalunya. He went into the race as a domestique for Chris Froome but when the team leader turned out to be far from 100%, he took his chance. He took the overall lead with a great performance in the queen stage and went on to take his second WorldTour stage race victory of the year. That result was hugely important as he found himself up against Alberto Contador, Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Aru and Domenico Pozzovivo – the four riders that were expected to be his greatest rivals in the Giro. To have been able to drop Contador in the queen stage must have been hugely satisfying for the former Contador domestique.

 

After a stint at altitude, Porte was back in action in the Giro del Trentino and again he turned out to be in a class of his own in the race that usually indicates who is on form for the Giro. As everybody knows it all came to nothing when a puncture, a time penalty and finally a crash put an end to his campaign in the Italian grand tour. However, he had again shown his potential as he had matched Contador and Aru pedal stroke for pedal stroke with apparent ease in the first mountain tests of the race.

 

Porte had barely dropped out of GC contention before he first mentioned the possibility of leaving the race to focus on the Tour. Suffering from his injuries, he rode poorly in the time trial and first stage in the high mountains before his team decided to withdraw him from the race on the second rest day.

 

The Tour was a mixed experience for Porte. Unlike in the past, he had no GC ambitions and he lost lots of time in the early part of the race. However, he was really on fire when the race hit the mountains and Froome and Porte repeated their 1-2 from two years earlier in the first mountain stage. Unfortunately, he got ill again and failed to repeat deliver similar performances later in the race.

 

At that moment, it was already known that Porte would be leaving Sky and it didn’t take long for BMC to confirm their new signing. Since then, everything has been focused on the Tour where Porte will share the leadership with van Garderen. While the American has a proven grand tour record and ability to recover, Porte is more of a wildcard but he is the only one with a real chance to go for yellow in Paris.

 

Everything seems to be on track for Porte. In the past, he has been flying in the spring but this year he has had a different approach. He has always faded during the Tour and so he has deliberately held back to be fresh for the big objective. The spring was never a big goal for him and this makes his performances even more impressive. He already surprised himself in January when he went into the Tour Down Under claiming that he was not in race condition. Nonetheless, he repeated his win in the queen stage and again finished on the podium.

 

Unfortunately, his fragile health again gave him troubles and he fell ill after the Australian race and after a poor performance on the Tour of Oman. Hence, he didn’t have any big expectations for Paris-Nice or the Volta a Catalunya and so he was pleasantly surprised to finish third in France and fourth in Spain. In the former event, he was the only rider who could consistently match Contador in the mountains. That was hugely impressive as he repeatedly underlined that he was far from his best form.

 

With those results, the expectations were high for the Criterium du Dauphiné. For the first time, he went into the race in what he described as good form and he proved his class right from the start. He was second in the mountain prologue where he even beat his former leader Froome and later he did what is usually almost impossible: he followed Froome in the first mountain stage of the first race. He had a bad day one day later but bounced back with a  solid ride in the final stage where only a near-crash cost him his podium spot after a hectic sprint that was suited to puncheurs.

 

The first part of the season has again confirmed that Porte is probably the third best climber in the world. At the moment, it seems that only Froome and Quintana can match the Australian when he is at 100% of his form and this must provide him with lots of confidence for the Tour.

 

However, the spring also revealed his vulnerability. While his performances were impressive, 2016 has again shown how fragile his health is. After his two previous periods of sickness in February and March, he again fell ill during the Tour de Romandie which he was forced to abandon. No other rider has been set back by so much illness and that’s a scary prospect for Porte. During three weeks at the Tour, his body will be pushed to the limit and it’s almost hard to imagine that his health won’t surrender at one point.

 

Furthermore, his poor performance in the penultimate stage of the Dauphiné again underlined his big weakness: the inconsistency. Porte has never gone through a grand tour without having at least one bad day. What is even more worrying is that his collapses have been pretty spectacular and he has not been good at limiting his losses. If he has a complete off-day like he has had in the past, there is no way that he will finish on the podium and it will even be hard for him to finish in the top 10. Furthermore, his morale seems to be fragile and he seems to completely give up when he has those bad days.

 

That makes Porte the big wildcard of the race. His climbing skills make him a real threat to Quintana and Froome and one can even add excellent TT skills to his list of aces. Right from the start of his career, he has been an excellent time triallist and he even finished fourth behind Tony Martin, Froome and Thomas De Gendt in the flat TT in 2013. He is even better in hilly time trials and the two TTs in this year’s race are almost tailor-made for him. In fact, stage 18 is very similar to the Col d’Eze time trial which he has dominated twice in the past. With Froome being far from his former self, Porte could even turn out to be the big time trial winner of this year’s race.

 

Furthermore, he is still regarded as a bit of an underdog and it will be up to Sky, Movistar, Tinkoff and Astana to carry the weight of the race. The BMC team is not at the level of the big four teams but that will be less of a problem unless Porte rides himself into yellow at an early point in the race. Both he and van Garderen can play a bit of a waiting game and they have shown that they can complement each other well. Porte knows about his own weaknesses so he will probably have the same approach as he had at the 2015 Giro: trying to follow wheels and spend as little energy as possible in the first part of the race before showing his real class in the hard final week.

 

Despite his class, his lack of consistency, his fragile health and his vulnerable morale raise several questions. He is the only pre-race favourite who has never had a consistent run in a grand tour and no one knows whether he will ever develop into a grand tour contender. The bad day at the Dauphiné and his many health issues in the spring raise concerns but as he has had a perfect build-up, this is probably the ultimate test of Porte’s ability as a grand tour rider. He definitely has the level to be in contention for the win but it could also very well end as a big failure. It will probably be all or nothing for Porte in his first chance to lead a team at the Tour.

 

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 in recent years Jean-Christophe Peraud has proved that age is no hindrance for the former mountain bike star. As the three former will all be on the start list, Pinot is not the only focus of the home nation in this year’s race but after a fantastic spring season, there is no way around the fact that the FDJ leader is the leading figure in French cycling.

 

For several years, 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 the 2014 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 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.

 

Last year the Frenchmen were eagerly looking for a repeat and queen stage wins at both the Tours de Romandie and Suisse and a hugely improved level in the time trials gave lots of confidence. However, things went wrong right from the start. Pinot was dropped in stage 3 to the Mur de Huy and one day later he lost time on the cobbles. As soon as they hit the Pyrenees, he lost even more time and all his GC ambitions were shelved.

 

However, Pinot proved how much he has matured psychologically. Unlike two years earlier when he left the race, he fought on. With the arrival of colder conditions, he got better and better and after a frustrating near-miss in the stage to Mende, he won the queen stage to Alpe d’Huez on the penultimate day. The result proved that Pinot still had it and there was reason to believe in him for 2016 as well.

 

Nonetheless, few would have expected Pinot to raise his level as much as he has done during the last few months. A solid end to his season set him up for a good winter and as soon as he returned to racing in January, he was on fire. At a time when most GC riders are far from their best, Pinot went on the attack at the relatively easy GP de la Marseillaise and only later winner Dries Devenyns could match him. He went on to do well at the Volta ao Algarve before his first big goal at Tirreno-Adriatico. That race ended with a bit of frustration as the queen stage was cancelled but a fantastic team time trial from FDJ and a great time trial on a flat course that didn’t suit him allowed Pinot to finish fifth overall in a race that didn’t have a single mountain – something that would have been completely unheard of just one year earlier.

 

The Italian race was the first indication of how much he has improved his time trialling but the real confirmation came two weeks later at the Criterium International. On another relatively flat course, the FDJ captain took his first ever time trial win and after he rode to a dominant victory in the queen stage, he took the overall victory too. The race was another proof of his maturity as he had cracked under the pressure of being the favourite at the same race just 12 months earlier.

 

From there, Pinot has been unstoppable. At the Vuelta al Pais Vasco whose short, steep climbs have never done him much good, he finished fourth overall after having taken sixth in the time trial. One month later, he finished second behind Quintana in Romandie. That was a great result but Pinot got most pleasure from the fact that he won the time trial. Unlike in the Criterium International, he beat the world elite, most notably Tom Dumoulin who was tailor-made for the hilly course in Sion. He also gained time on Tour de France rivals Quintana and Froome – the biggest proof that the time trials are now an asset for the FDJ leader.

 

The results created huge expectations for the Dauphiné but that race ended as a disappointment. Pinot was frustrated not to have had his best form but again he proved his mental strength by riding to a fantastic win in the queen stage. Most recently, he proved that he is back on track with a fantastic and dominant victory at the French TT Championships which was followed by a solid showing in the road race where he was in the elite group from which the winning move with his teammate Arthur Vichot escaped.

 

The races in Vesoul were important for Pinot’s confidence as the Dauphiné had raised questions about his form. There is no reason to be worried about his preparation as he goes into the biggest race of the year. In general, he has been hugely consistent for most of the past two seasons and this is an indication that he should be at his usual high level in France this summer.

 

If he can draw confidence from his spring, Pinot can be even more pleased with the course. If he had to design the route himself, he would probably have come up with something like this. First of all, the first week is less stressful than usual. The peloton gets to the first longer climbs already in stages 5 and 7 and after the first selection, the nervousness and stress usually declines. This is great news for Pinot who is no fan of the fight for position and has often lost time in windy conditions.

 

Secondly, the course is harder than usual and has lots of steep, long mountains. Pinot may have proved his TT skills but his natural assets are still his climbing skills. Last year he proved that he can climb with the best by taking two queen stage wins in high-level WorldTour races and this year he confirmed his class at the Criterium International. Pinot can also be confident in his team which has improved a lot and he can rely on Steve Morabito and especially Sebastien Reichenbach who is on the verge of a big breakthrough after a great spring, to provide the needed support in the mountains.

 

Finally, the time trials are tailor-made for Pinot. As his recent results show, he is now one of the best time triallists among the GC riders. He is still not competitive with the best on flat courses but in hilly terrain he is simply excellent. The long time trial in stage 13 is not too different from the one he won in Romandie and the final time trial is almost like a mountain TT which should make it perfect for a climber like Pinot. With the tricolor on his shoulders, Pinot will be going into the time trials with the hope of gaining time on all of his rivals.

 

However, it will not be all plain sailing for Pinot as there are several dangers. First of all, there’s the heat. Pinot has never liked hot conditions and that was what ultimately made him crack in 2015. In July, there’s always the risk of a heat wave and this could very well have a negative impact on Pinot’s performance.

 

Secondly, descending remains a weakness. He has improved a lot and the dedicated effort has clearly paid off. He knows how to accelerate over the top to start the descent from the front and this has served him well. Nonetheless, he is still not at the level of the best and the penultimate stage to Morzine looms as a dangerous one as the final descent is infamous, especially in wet conditions.

 

Furthermore, the flat stages are still dangerous. Pinot has riders like William Bonnet and Matthieu Ladagnous to guide him through the windy conditions but if Tinkoff and Sky drop the hammer in the wind, he is still a very likely loser. There may be fewer dangers in this year’s race but stages 1, 2 and 11 could be difficult for Pinot.

 

Finally, he still hasn’t proved that he can follow the very best climbers in the grand tours. He was good in 2014 but he couldn’t match Nibali. This year he has progressed in the time trials but there are no real signs of better climbing legs. If he wants to win a grand tour, Pinot still has to improve in the mountains and nobody knows whether he has already taken that extra step. At this level of competition, there is no forgiveness and Pinot is probably still not climbing well enough to realistically aim for yellow.

 

However, less may be enough for Pinot. Another podium spot, two great time trial performances and a much smaller time loss to the winner would be another great step in his steady progress towards Tour de France victory. In 2014 he took his big step in the mountains, 2015 proved his mental strength and this year he has improved massively in the time trials. The package is now almost complete and this year’s Tour de France could very well be the place for him to prove that a French Tour de France win is a realistic prospect.

 

Fabio Aru (***)

For years, Italy has been looking for the next great climber after the late Marco Pantani. Ivan Basso and Riccardo Ricco both showed the potential to emulate the national hero but after they both got embroiled in doping scandals, they never returned to their former level. Vincenzo Nibali may have emerged as their greatest GC rider for years but the Italian is a much more complete rider and definitely not the kind of climber that makes him comparable to Pantani.

 

In 2014 the Italians went crazy. On May 25, a skinny Italian climber emulated Pantani by taking a huge solo win on the climb to Montecampione in a stage that had been dedicated to the late Italian. On that day, Fabio Aru rode away from the likes of Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran, Domenico Pozzovivo and Rafal Majka and went from hugely promising talent to established star.

 

Suddenly, Aru carried the weight of the entire home nation on his shoulder which is an arduous affair for a 23-year-old rider. However, he coped with the pressure and went on to nearly beat Quintana in a hugely exciting drama on the Monte Grappa where the crucial mountain time trial virtually decided the race. On that day, Aru moved himself firmly onto the podium and despite a less than stellar ride up the Monte Zoncolan in the penultimate stage, he ended his first grand tour as team leader on the podium.

 

On paper, that third place may be his best result but it was probably his performances later in the year at the Vuelta a Espana that really proved his potential. In that race he found himself up against much better riders as Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez were all part of a formidable line-up. However, Aru was unfazed by the prospect of riding against some of the best climbers in the race and he left the race with two big mountain stage victories and a great fifth place behind the four giants.

 

The result marked another step forward and he continued his progress in last year’s Giro. For the first time ever, he went into a three-week race as one of the pre-race favourites and he confirmed that he has the mental strength to cope with the pressure of bearing the weight of the home nation in the Giro. After a great start that briefly allowed him to take the race lead, he suffered a big drop in form in the second half of the race and looked like he could potentially fade out of podium contention. However, limiting his losses impressively, he showed a remarkable fighting attitude and by winning the final two mountain stages and moving into second overall he confirmed that he has both the mental and physical strength to win a grand tour.

 

Earlier in the year Aru briefly played with the idea of getting a first taste of the Tour de France where he would ride in service of Vincenzo Nibali. However, those plans were quickly abandoned and instead Aru turned his focus to the Vuelta where he would get a chance to ride for himself. With the sudden emergence of Mikel Landa, there was no guaranteed captaincy role but alongside his Basque teammate he was set to pose a formidable two-pronged attack.

 

Nibali was a late addition to the start list but after the 2014 Tour winner was expelled from the race and Landa suffered in the early stages, there was no doubt that Aru was the leader of the race. In the first week, he certainly didn’t look like a potential winner of the race but as usual, he kept fighting. He made his first lethal attack in the queen stage where finished best of the GC riders, taking second behind teammate Landa.

 

Despite never showing any sign of superiority, he rode consistently in the subsequent mountain stages and with a decent time trial, he was still in winning contention ahead of the final mountain stage. At this point, he was still trailing Tom Dumoulin who had shown little signs of weakness but his never-give-up attitude paid off. Assisted by a great Landa, he made a big attack on the hardest climb and made the race leader crack under the pressure. A fantastic ride by Astana culminated when Aru stepped onto the podium in Paris as the only rider apart from Chris Horner to have broken the grand tour dominant of the Fabulous Four – Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali – who have won every grand tour but one since the 2012 Vuelta.

 

Already from early in 2015, it was pretty clear that Aru was set for a Tour de France debut in 2016. Nibali had done nothing to hide that he would prefer to return to his home grand tour and despite the usual controversy – with Nibali suddenly sending new signals – the plans were confirmed in November: Nibali would be the Giro leader and Aru would have the full support at the Tour. Already at that point, it was clear that Nibali was a possible starter at La Grande Boucle as well but it would all serve the purpose of preparing for the Olympics.

 

However, things haven’t been going well for Aru until now. All year, he has been fully focused on the Tour but he still had certain ambitions in the spring. Nonetheless, he has shown very little sign of form. He looked solid in February as he had decent results in what looked like a good preparation for the bigger races in March and April. However, he was riding surprisingly poorly in Catalonia and Pais Vasco which were his big goals alongside the Ardennes classics. When he crashed in the Basque race, an injury even forced him out of the race and that also put an end to his classics campaign as his spring ended after a DNF at Amstel Gold Race.

 

The injury turned out to be worse than expected and it has slowed him down his preparation. Nonetheless, many were surprised to see him riding very poorly at the Dauphiné. He showed his great mental strength by riding to a solo win in a sprint stage but in the mountains where he really had to prove his worth, he was nowhere near the best. He ended the race in 45th, more than 40 minutes behind Froome.

 

On paper, that result may look concerning but there is no real reason to be too worried by his poor ride in the Alps. Unlike Froome and Contador who are always on fire in their preparation races, Aru has never shined in the final races before his grand tours. In recent years, he has had relatively anonymous showings at the Tour de Pologne and then had great rides at the Vuelta. Last year he had to skip Trentino due to illness but at the Giro he was flying right from the start. In that sense, he follows in Nibali’s footsteps. The 2014 Tour winner has changed his usual consistent approach and nowadays he is usually riding poorly unless the race is a big target for him.

 

While we are not too concerned by his Dauphiné showing, we are still worried and we fear that Aru could have a pretty disappointing Tour debut. However, our fears come from the fact that he has had such a poor spring. The Dauphiné performance was part of the plan but his lackluster showings in the first part of the year weren’t. Aru has always expressed optimism but the truth is that he has been a shadow of his usual self all year.

 

Nothing suggests that he is ready to turn things around but it is still way too early to write Aru off. After all, he has been one of the most consistent grand tour riders in recent years. In fact, he has only missed the top 5 once – when he worked for Nibali and battled through illness at his debut in 2013. Since then he has always been among the best in the mountains and it proves that he knows how to prepare for the grand tours.

 

Aru’s greatest assets are his huge consistency and mental strength. He has rarely been the best in the mountains and he has definitely had his bad days, most notably at the 2015 Giro. However, he is probably the greatest fighter in the peloton and no one can suffer like him. This means that he never cracks completely and he is a master in limiting his losses. Secondly, he never gives up and he is not afraid of taking great risks by attacking from afar.

 

The course for his Tour debut is great for Aru. Being a pure climber, he should relish the fact that the race is harder than usual and he has proved that he doesn’t need to fear anybody on the climbs. The fact that the final week is loaded with big mountain stages should suit his great recovery. Furthermore, Astana have a fantastic group of climbers and the likes of Nibali, Diego Rosa, Jakob Fuglsang and Tanel Kangert mean that only Froome will be better supported in the mountains.

 

However, Aru also has several chinks in his armour that make him an unlikely winner of the race. First of all he has never been able to match the very best on the climbs. He was not close to winning the 2015 Giro and at the 2015 Vuelta, Froome crashed out and Quintana was ill. Nothing suggests that Aru has taken that extra step to be competitive at the very highest level.

 

Secondly, there are the time trials. Aru has improved a lot and he is definitely not losing the same amount of time as he once did. The hilly courses for the TTs should suit him and he should do especially well in stage 18 which is almost like a mountain time trial. However, he is still one step below the likes of Froome, Contador, Porte, Pinot and Quintana and there is little doubt that he will lose time in the two races against the clock.

 

Furthermore, the windy stages could be a challenge. Aru has a great team for the mountains but they are less strong in classics terrain. If Sky and Tinkoff go on the attack on a brutal day in the flatlands, Aru could be one of the losers.

 

Finally, there’s the Nibali issue. Astana are adamant that Aru is the only leader and that Nibali is only here ti prepare for the Olympics. We believe in them as Rio is clearly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Nibali and he doesn’t seem to make any compromises in his quest for gold. Nonetheless, neither Nibali nor the managers have completely ruled out that the 2014 Tour winner will go for GC in France. If Aru is not at 100% at the start, the debate about leadership could very well cause tension and take away the focus from the race. Will Nibali be 100% loyal if he feels that he can finish on the podium? We are not totally convinced.

 

Nonetheless, Aru is Astana’s best shot at a podium. The Giro-Tour double has turned out to be almost impossible and unlike Nibali, Aru has had the perfect circumstances to prepare. His poor spring raises certain doubts but history speaks in favour of Aru. After all, he has never mistimed his form for a grand tour and unlike the likes of Porte and Pinot, he has proved that he can win a grand tour. Recent history has shown that a poor spring is no hindrance for Astana when it comes to winning the Tour – just ask Vincenzo Nibali!

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