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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: ANSA - PERI / DI MEO / ZENNARO

MIKEL LANDA

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NEWS

PREVIEWS

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ROMAIN BARDET

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TEJAY VAN GARDEREN

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TOUR DE FRANCE

RACE PROFILE
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VINCENZO NIBALI

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NEWS
29.06.2016 @ 15:51 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 2-star riders that should all be solid podium candidates.

 

Vincenzo Nibali (**)

It may seem strange to have a former winner who has just taken his second Giro d’Italia title as a 2-star favourite for a race where he has won stages and finished in the top 4 two years in a row. However, Vincenzo Nibali finds himself in a completely different situation than he has done for his two latest participations in the world’s biggest race.

 

In both 2014 and 2015, the Tour de France was the only real goal of Nibali’s season. In both years, he hoped to do well in other races but the event that would ultimately determine the fate of his year was La Grande Boucle. On the back of his dominant Giro win in 2013, Astana manager Alexandre Vinokourov wanted to see if his star rider could win the Tour and last year he was almost obliged to defend his title.

 

However, already in the autumn of 2014, Nibali made it clear that he wanted to return to the Giro and he already played with the thought of doing the Giro-Tour double in 2015. Vinokourov ultimately turned down the suggestion as he both wanted to give room for Fabio Aru to lead the team and to have Nibali’s full dedication for his title defence. However, it was always apparent that Nibali would return to the Giro and that Aru would be given the chance to make a Tour debut in 2016. A bit of discussion in the autumn caused some confusion but in November, the plan was announced publicly: Nibali would focus on the Giro and the Olympics.

 

Already at that point, Nibali made it clear that the Tour could be a key part of his preparation for Rio but that a final decision on his participation would be based on the outcome of the Giro. However, as the year went on, the Italian star made it clear that he regarded the Tour as an indispensable part of any realistic gold medal campaign and from then it was only a matter of time before the official confirmation would come. Vinokourov made the announcement during the Giro: Nibali would go to the Tour for the third year in a row.

 

However, the Kazakh team has been very keen to stress that there are no questions about the leadership in the team. Aru is the undisputed captain and Nibali’s role is mainly to prepare for Rio while providing his young teammate with crucial support. Before the Giro, Nibali seemed to have similar plans but he has less clear since the end of the Italian grand tour. After all, he ended the race in splendid condition and it seems that he may now have a small hope that he will be able to carry that all the way through France too.

 

Since the Giro win, Nibali has almost disappeared from public attention and after his recovery, he has been training at altitude – albeit at a different camp than the one Aru is attending. He has not made any public statements about his Tour ambitions and he even chose not to defend his Italian national title. The only announcements from the Astana camp have been the usual reiterations of what they have always said: Nibali is in France to support Aru.

 

Nibali’s unwillingness has raised some discussion and no one dares to firmly rule the 2014 winner out of the GC battle. Apparently, Astana don’t do so either, claiming that the road and the legs will put everything into place. This has made many people doubt Nibali’s loyalty and wondered whether he will really go for another yellow jersey.

 

However, there should be good reason to believe that Nibali will stick to his original plan. Whenever he has been asked about Rio, it has been apparent that he is a huge fan of the Olympics which is the only cycling event that really transcends the sport. Nibali will be 35 by the time the Games in Tokyo will be held and the course in Japan won’t suit him as well as the one in Brazil. The mountainous route in Rio offers him a once-in-a-lifetime to become Olympic gold medalist and it seems that he will make no compromises in his quest to achieve his dream.

 

Riders like Froome, Quintana and Contador hope to target both the Tour and the Olympics but Nibali is in a different position. He has already done the Giro at 100% and if he goes for GC at the Tour, he will probably be on his knees by the time he rolls into Paris. The Giro-Tour double has been increasingly difficult in modern cycling and most remember how fatigued Contador was at the end of last year’s Tour. The Tinkoff leader probably has the best ability to recover in the world of cycling so when he was unable to maintain his level for both grand tours, Nibali has probably realized that he won’t be able to do so either. In any case, an attempt would probably compromise his Rio campaign and we doubt that he will take that risk.

 

That doesn’t mean that he will be anonymous during the three weeks in France and he could turn out to be a vital component in Aru’s plans. He has probably been winding down and taken a lot of rest and will use the first part of the race to rebuild his form. By the time we get to the Alps, he should be close to 100% and then he will be a key asset for Aru in the most important part of the race. At the same time, he will a formidable stage winner candidate, especially if Aru’s GC campaign has failed and will allow him the freedom to go on the attack.

 

If he sticks to that plan, he will never be a GC contender. However, the lack of a clear pre-race plan prompts us to mark him out as a podium candidate. On the back of the Giro, he is very unlikely to win the Tour – when Contador can’t make the double, Nibali can’t either, especially when the field contains riders like Froome and Quintana – but he could potentially finish on the podium. After all, Contador was not that far from third place in 2015 and Nibali came out of the Giro much better than the Spaniard did 12 months ago. Contador had to dig very deep in the third week and nearly lost everything when he cracked in the penultimate stage. Nibali had his best days at the very end and his form even seemed to be on the rise when he rolled into Turin as the final winner.

 

If he goes for GC, Nibali should find the course to his liking. Nibali has improved his time trialling a lot but he has never been a fan of flat TTs. He has done pretty well on hilly courses and in mountain TTs and so he couldn’t have asked for better time trials.

 

Furthermore, the course leaves room for innovation and that’s where Nibali excels. With the Giro in his legs, it will be hard for him to match Froome and Quintana in a direct battle but Nibali can make use of hin ingenuity and strong team to make things happen where you least expect it. Apart from the Aspin and Ventoux stages, the mountain stages are all difficult enough to try things from afar and Nibali is surrounded by a formidable group of climbers than can blow things to pieces. Especially the penultimate stage with its tricky descent to Morzine should inspire Nibali to try something – regardless of his position in the GC.

 

Nonetheless, a second Tour de France win is not on the cards. Even if he is at 100% of his capabilities, it’s always going to be difficult for Nibali to beat Froome and Quintana at the Tour. With the Giro in the legs, it will be almost impossible and Nibali will probably stick to his plan of using the race to prepare for Rio. However, we won’t rule anything out from the rider who has just made one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent grand tour history.

 

Mikel Landa (**)

If everything had gone to plan, there would have been no chance that Mikel Landa would be a GC contender at the Tour de France. Sky signed the Basque to lead their Giro campaign and Landa was set to focus fully on the Italian grand tour. It was always a possibility that he would go on to support Chris Froome in La Grande Boucle but if he had done all three weeks at the Giro, the goal would only have been to be there for his captain on the key mountain stages.

 

However, nothing went as Landa had hoped. Another illness-marred spring put him on the back foot right from the start and it was hard not to have a feeling of déjà vu. Just like in 2015, he had to postpone his debut several times. Like it happened 12 months ago, he returned to competition in late March where he surprised his team by riding better than expected at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali. However, just like last year, it was the Vuelta al Pais Vasco that proved that he was finally back on track. He went into the race with just one goal: to win the tough summit finish on stage 2 close to his home. Knowing that he was unable to compete with the best riders, he hit out early on the final climb and even though he greatly benefited from the tactical battle and a lack of support for the favourites, his win here showed that the form was getting better.

 

Like last year, Landa headed to Trentino and again he used the race to warn his rivals that he is ready to go for Giro glory. A dominant ride in the first mountain stage put him into the leader’s jersey and he seemed to be at ease whenever the road pointed upwards throughout the rest of the race. Poor team support meant that he was isolated in the finales of both the final two stages and it is testament to his huge strength that he managed to win the race overall despite being up against formidable teams from Astana and Ag2r who had strength in numbers and could benefit from the tactical games in the flat finales.

 

The results have silenced all the critics and Landa lined up at the Giro as one of the three big favourites. Things got off to a rocky start as he showed signs of weakness whenever the road pointed upwards but he managed to limit his losses. Things suddenly turned around when he did the time trial of his life in Chianti and he went into the second rest day in the perfect position to strike in the high mountains. However, it all came to nothing as soon as the race resumed as a bout of illness took the Basque star out of the race.

 

The abandonment was a big disappointment for Landa who had been fully focused on the Giro all year but he showed strength of character by quickly resetting his goal. He immediately turned his attention to the Tour and the Olympics and as he only had to spend four days to recover from his illness, he was quickly back in training. The Dauphiné was the big test of his form and even though he was evidently not in his Giro-winning condition, he did a solid ride. Riding aggressively in the mountains, he provided key support for Froome and still did well enough to finish the race in 12th overall.

 

The performance was enough for Landa to earn selection for the Tour and he claims that he now has the same form as he had at the start of the Giro. However, he heads to France with just one goal: to support Chris Froome. He is not even the official back-up plan for the GC as Geraint Thomas is the second option for the overall standings.

 

However, Landa doesn’t rule another GC campaign out. In a recent interview with Spanish daily AS, he made it clear that a personal result could be a possibility if he can avoid any unnecessary time loss in the first week. Sky will probably be keen to keep both him and Thomas in GC contention. This year they have used a new strategy in both Catalonia and at the Dauphiné where they have used their formidable team of mountain domestiques to go on the attack instead of tapping out their usual fast pace on the front. Sky will have a lot more tactical options if they can keep a few riders in the GC game and Landa and Thomas are probably the preferred cards.

 

If everything goes to plan, Landa won’t win the race as Froome will ride into Paris in yellow. However, Sky have learned that it is always good to have a plan B. After all their leader disappeared in the 2011 Tour, 2013 Giro, 2014 Giro, 2014 Tour, 2015 Giro, 2015 Vuelta and 2016 Giro and few teams have had such a rocky relationship with the grand tours. All year Thomas has been the official plan B but the Welshman is never going to win the race on this mountainous course. Landa is a much better climber and has proved that he can take on almost everybody in the toughest stages. The unusually hard course with its many mountains suits him really well and if things go wrong for Froome, he will be supported by a best team he will ever have at his disposal. Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe will make sure that he doesn’t lose any time in the flat stages  - which could potentially be a big risk – and the time trials suit him well. He will always lose time to the best time triallists but his performance in Chianti proves how much he has progressed in the discipline. The TTs in the Tour are both very hilly and he should be able to limit his losses.

 

The amount of time trialling still means that Landa is an unlikely winner of the race but the podium is definitely within his reach. After all, he was the best climber in the 2015 Giro and he has occasionally indicated that he can get back to that level. He hasn’t done much racing this year so he arrives relatively fresh and with room for improvement. If Froome stamps his authority on the race, Landa probably won’t get the freedom to go for a spot on the podium but if Sky continue their tradition of losing their leader prematurely, the Basque climbing star could very well save the race for the Brits by riding to his second top 3 in a grand tour.

 

Tejay van Garderen (**)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Those results are all solid but it was the Dauphiné that really proved how far van Garderen had come. Unfazed by the hard competition, he went head to head with no less of a figure than Chris Froome and nearly upset the major favourite. He was favoured by an advantage gained in the team time trial but in the Pra Loup stage he delivered a remarkable feat when he clawed his way back to Froome at a point when everybody thought that he had ridden away from the rest. In the end, he even managed to distance the Sky captain. He was unable to follow Froome in the final two mountain stages but he was much closer to Froome than anyone had expected. In fact, no one has probably been so close to beating Froome at the Dauphiné since the Brit emerged as a grand tour contender – if we omit the 2014 edition where the Sky leader suffered a bad crash.

 

The performance made van Garderen hugely confident for the Tour and he was on track for a podium finish for most of the race. Great riding in the classics stages in the first week, a fantastic team time trial from BMC and solid climbing in the Pyrenees left van Garderen in GC contention as he arrived in the Alps. However, a sudden bout of illness forced him to leave the race, a withdrawal that he has described as the biggest disappointment of his career.

 

Van Garderen had more misfortune later in the year when he crashed out of the Vuelta and he also had to deal with internal adversity in the BMC team. Even though he has publicly embraced the arrival, it must have been frustrating for van Garderen to learn about the signing of Richie Porte. Even though the two captains still have an equal status within the team, it’s a small sign that the management doesn’t fully believe that their American star is a potential Tour winner.

 

However, van Garderen has been unfazed by the internal rivalry and has been determined to prove that he is still a podium contender at the Tour. He silenced his critics by winning the time trial at the Ruta del Sol and even though he lost out to an outstanding Valverde in the queen stage, his second place in the Spanish race was a clear indication that he was on track. A TTT win in the first stage set him up for potential victory at Tirreno-Adriatico but it all came to nothing when the queen stage was canceled due to bad weather before he was taken out of GC contention by misfortune in the final road stage.

 

The Volta a Catalunya was the first chance for van Garderen and Porte to work together and they proved that they complement each other well. They both rode aggressively in the mountains and both finished the race in the top 5, with Porte beating his teammate by a few seconds. They again teamed up for the Tour de Romandie but that race ended as a disappointment. Porte left the event due to illness and van Garderen lost time in the first mountain stage. He bounced back with a brave attack in the queen stage and nearly managed to keep up with Chris Froome as the pair went on the offensive from afar.

 

However, it was the June races that were the ultimate test for both Porte and van Garderen. The fact that Porte headed to the Dauphiné was probably already a small sign that the Australian has the most confidence from the management as the French race is widely regarded as the best preparation. On the other hand, van Garderen got a big chance to take his first WorldTour stage win at the Tour de Suisse where he lined up as arguably the biggest favourite.

 

Unfortunately, June didn’t end as van Garderen wanted. While Porte rode splendidly in France, the American suffered in the cold on stage 6 which saw him drop out of contention for the win. He still bounced back with a great win in the queen stage and together with eventual winner Miguel Angel Lopez, he was clearly the best climber in the race. On the other hand, he did a surprisingly poor time trial, just like he did earlier in the year at the Tour de Romandie.

 

The poor time trials reflect van Garderen’s development. In the early part of his career, the TTs were his bread and butter while he always had to limit his losses in the mountains. Now he is a much better climber. What is remarkable about his performances is his maturity. Honestly, we have never had too much belief in his climbing skills. Obviously, he has always been a talented climber but in the past he gauged his efforts very poorly and almost always blew up because he had tried to follow the best. That has clearly changed. Last year’s Dauphiné was a prime example of how to just riding up the climbs at your own speed and that approach has turned van Garderen into one of the best climbers in the world.

 

The improved climbing seems to have come at a cost as he no longer seems to be time trialling as well as he did in the past. He may have won that TT in Ruta del Sol but apart from that he hasn’t been at his former level. Luckily, that may not be a massive disadvantage in this year’s Tour. Both time trials are pretty hilly and will be less about power and more about climbing. Among the GC riders, van Garderen should still be one of the best, especially in stage 13 which has a solid mix of climbing and flats.

 

Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine that van Garderen can realistically go for the win. He will never climb well enough to match the likes of Froome and Quintana. On this year’s harder course, a podium spot will also be much harder to achieve and unlike last year, he won’t be the sole leader of the team. There is lots of uncertainty about Porte’s ability to maintain his level for three weeks but there is a very big chance that the Australian will be flying in the early part of the race. If Porte emerges as a potential winner of the race, van Garderen could very well drop down in the internal hierarchy and that could put a dampener on his personal opportunities.

 

On the other hand, BMC will be reluctant to sacrifice their American card completely. After all, Porte is a bit of a wildcard that could go both ways. Van Garderen is a much safer bet as he has proved that he can handle a grand tour and be in the top 5 in Paris. Unless Porte takes yellow, BMC won’t be expected to take much responsibility so van Garderen should probably be allowed to do his own race. The first part of the season has been mixed but in Switzerland he again proved how much he has improved his climbing. Last year he was very close to the podium and if he can return to that level and avoid misfortune, it won’t be impossible for him to get the podium spot. That could set him up for an elusive win which could give his home country its first credible Tour de France winner for more than 20 years.

 

Romain Bardet (**)

Like Thibaut Pinot, Romain Bardet finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having been announced as the next potential French Tour de France winner. However, while his compatriot has had difficulties handling the pressure in the past, Bardet seems to be pretty unfazed by the attention and the hype his great talent has created. That is made even more remarkable by the fact that the talented Frenchman is just 25 years old and remains the youngest rider who can realistically aim for a top 5 result just two years after a stupid punctured denied a spot among the best five riders in the race.

 

Having excelled in the biggest U23 stage races, Bardet was already known as a big talent when he signed a contract with Ag2r for the 2012 season and he immediately proved that he has the skills to become of the sport’s greats. He captured the attention of a broader audience when he nearly finished off a long-distance breakaway in his first ever classic, the Amstel Gold Race, in the most grandiose fashion. Later that year he finished 4th in the Tour of Turkey and 12th in the Tour de Pologne before he again did a fantastic long-distance attack in Il Lombardia at the end of the season. In general, his first season may not have been littered with great results but his many attacks made him a well-known figure and made him a lot stronger for the next year.

 

Already from the start of the 2013 season he proved that he had stepped up his level by finishing 7th in the Etoile de Besseges and in general he took a lot of top 20s in the spring.  However, at that point, he had mostly shined in the hilly terrain but in the Route du Sud he proved that he can also handle climbing in the high mountains by taking fourth overall. That set him up for his very impressive Tour de France debut where he finished 15th overall and ended as the best Frenchman – a feat that always gives quite a bit of attention in the home country. As it has been the case for so many others, his first grand tour served him well. Just weeks after the end of the race, he won the Tour de l’Ain overall and ended his season on a high by taking fifth in the Tour of Beijing.

 

In 2014, he went from talent to WorldTour contender. After he took his first one-day win in La Drome Classic and helped Carlos Betancur win Paris-Nice, he was in the spotlight at the very highest level in Volta a Catalunya which probably had the strongest line-up of all the early WorldTour races. In the queen stage, he made use of a tactical battle between Chris Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana to escape with Tejay van Garderen and even though he was beaten in the sprint for the stage win, it set him up for an overall fourth place finish.

 

Later in the season he finished 10th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege to prove that he can now also handle the very long distances and after having finished 4th in the Bayern Rundfahrt queen stage, he proved that he was fully ready for the Tour by finishing fifth in the Dauphiné. Nonetheless, many were still surprised to see the 23-year-old youngster riding with the very best on the climbs throughout the entire three weeks and remain in contention for the podium and the white jersey for a long time. In the end, he lost out on the coveted tunic to Pinot and a very unfortunate puncture in the final time trial saw him drop to sixth overall but it was still a remarkable performance by a rider who is younger than both Pinot and Nairo Quintana.

 

Bardet’s progression has been fast but gradual and last year he took another step up. His spring season was a disappointment and mainly his performance in Paris-Nice left him frustrated. However, he still managed to take another top 10 in Liege and he did the time trial of his life to finish ninth in Romandie on a course that didn’t suit him at all. Later he proved his aggressive nature by claiming the biggest win of his career with a gutsy attack over the top of the Col d’Allos in the first mountain stage at the Dauphiné.

 

The result created huge expectations for the Tour but it all seemed to go wrong in the first part of the race. Right from the start, Bardet was off the pace on the climbs and by the time, the race left the Pyrenees he seemed to be out of the battle for the GC. However, Bardet proved his mental strength by bouncing back in the Alps. After he had been close to victory in Mende, he rode extremely aggressively in the final week and crowned it all with a big stage win in the mountains. The attacks even allowed him to move back into the top 10 and finish the race in ninth overall and he was even close to winning the mountains jersey.

 

This year Bardet has improved even further. In the Tour of Oman, he was agonizingly close to beating an in-form Vincenzo Nibali in the queen stage. It marked a bit of a breakthrough as it was the first time he was up there in a head-to-head battle with one of the Fabulous Four. Paris-Nice didn’t suit him so a ninth place was a decent result before he went on to take sixth at the Volta a Catalunya, the most competitive one-week stage race in the spring. A solid sixth place in Trentino prepared him for his big spring goal in Liege but like many other climbers he suffered on the cobbles in the finale and had to settle for 11th. Struck by illness, he ended his spring with a disappointing showing in Romandie.

 

What really proves how far Bardet has come is his performance at the Dauphiné. Again he proved his mental strength as he bounced back from misfortune. In the first uphill finish, a late crash cost him time but he refused to give up. He went on the attack in the queen stage and really put the formidable Sky team under pressure. In the end, he wanted too much and went for both the stage win and the yellow jersey. That cost him both as he was beaten by Pinot in the sprint and the lack of cooperation in the finale cost him the time he needed to move into the race lead. However, he gained enough to finish the race in second overall, just 12 seconds behind Froome.

 

There seems to be no limit to Bardet’s climbing potential and based on his Dauphiné performance, there is no reason to suggest that he won’t be even stronger than he was 12 months ago. Time trialling remains a weakness but the TT he did in Romandie last year is a clear indication of his progress. This year’s time trials are both hilly and not too different from the one he faced last year in Switzerland. Of course he will lose time to the best but his losses won’t necessarily be too big.

 

For the first time, Bardet is the undisputed leader of a team and as usual, Ag2r have a formidable group of climbers. Bardet is never afraid of attacking and riders like Domenico Pozzovivo, Alexis Vuillermoz, Jan Bakelants, Cyril Gautier, Mikael Cherel and Ben Gastauer are all climbing well enough to support him in his aggressive riding. On the other hand, windy conditions in the flat stages could be a bit of a challenge as Ag2r only have Alexis Gougeard for the tough fight for position. However, Bardet is not afraid of taking on the bigger guys and he is actually pretty good at staying in front even in the toughest conditions.

 

With 15th, 6th and 9th places in his first three grand tours, he has proved that he can ride consistently throughout a three-week and that he recovers extremely well at such a young age. He has proved to have the mental strength to handle the pressure and with Pinot emerging as a potential winner of the race, he will even fly a bit more under the radar this year.

 

It is still an open question who’s going to be the next big French grand tour rider. At the moment, Pinot seems to be a few steps ahead but Bardet is the youngest of the pair. With a strong head, excellent climbing skills and a formidable ability to recover, the sky is the limit for the Ag2r rider who has every chance to confirm his potential with another great ride on a course that is suits him very well.

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