There’s never a shortage of drama on the Tour de France. Something “big” happens every day. Whether it’s a crash, a race-altering attack, or post-stage polemics, the Tour is always packed with more storylines than any race on the calendar.
That’s no surprise. The stakes are incredibly elevated for riders and teams. Everyone brings their A-game to France. The Tour is the one race of the season when every rider is at their absolute peak fitness. That compounding pressure makes the Tour de France such compelling viewing. Coming into the 104th edition of the Tour, there are enough plot lines to fill a novel. Here are five big stories we’ll be watching this month:
1. Froome’s quest
There’s no bigger story this year than Chris Froome’s run for a fourth overall Tour crown. The GC battle is always the central focus of any Tour. This year’s fight for the yellow jersey should be compelling on several levels.
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Team Sky has dominated the Tour de France like no other squad in a generation. The UK team has won four of the past five yellow jerseys on the trot, and Froome enters this year’s Tour hoping to claim his fourth within five years. No rider’s won four Tours without winning a record-tying fifth. Can he do it?
Despite telltale signs at last month’s Critérium du Dauphiné that Froome might be off his best form, the Kenya-born star will line up as the man to beat. What’s in Froome’s favor? A few key points: Alberto Contador is the only other former Tour winner in the race. Froome’s experience gives him an incalculable advantage over his rivals. Second, “Fortress Froome” looks as strong as ever. For rivals to even get close enough to take a shot at Froome, they have to battle through a wall that includes Sergio Henao, Michal Kwiatkowski, Mikel Landa, and Geraint Thomas. And finally, Sky and Froome have consistently demonstrated they are able to tweak their approach to fit the demands of each year’s Tour route. Last year, Froome’s ambush attacks on the flats and on the descents knocked his rivals off-balance. They’ll surely have a few surprises up their sleeves again this year.
What could derail Froome? A few things. Like in 2014, perhaps a crash, or an illness will see him exit early. Some suggest that a growing media storm surrounding Team Sky and links to triamcinolone could knock Froome off-balance, but that’s unlikely. Froome has deftly handled the pressure and innuendo that comes with the yellow jersey. Since he’s not been caught up in the Fancy Bears leaks controversy, it’s unlikely to faze him much. Winless so far in 2017, Froome doesn’t bring that same aura of invincibility into the Tour. Froome will also face his deepest field of rivals yet. So to pull off another Tour win, Froome will have to be at his most nimble and aggressive.
Few can take on Froome one-on-one, but with an unconventional Tour course on tap, rivals must be ready to lay a trap to try to surprise Froome (similar to last year’s ambush that cost him the Vuelta a España). To beat Froome, a rival might have to be willing to lose to win. That’s a big ask, but this year’s GC battle has the potential to be the most fascinating in the past few editions.
2. The Sagan show
Whether he’s popping wheelies, stomping the competition, or producing Sagan-rich moments (when is the next video, Peter?), the Saganator is the best thing to happen to cycling in a generation.
This year’s Tour provides a wide-open canvas for Sagan to continue his emergence as cycling’s transcendent star. The two-time world champion packs the on-the-road chops and the post-race charisma to draw in mainstream sport fans. With plenty of opportunities for sprints, at least eight if not more, this year should be even better for Sagan’s growing legions of fans.
Last year, Sagan won three stages, and finished in the top-six in seven others. That’s Merckxian by any measure. And with Sagan poised to tie Erik Zabel’s record of six green jerseys, the Slovakian superstar (and soon-to-be father) will be a delight to watch before, during and after each day in the Tour.
Get the popcorn ready, kids, the Sagan Show is about to begin.
3. Nairo’s double
Another big talking point will be the most audacious bet in 2017. Nairo Quintana came within 31 seconds of pulling off the first half of the Giro-Tour double. There’s sure to be a lot of chatter about whether the Colombian’s gamble on cycling’s double was boom or bust. No one’s managed to pull off one of cycling’s most elusive achievements since Marco Pantani in 1998. Alberto Contador last tried it in 2015. He ran out of gas after going deep to win the pink jersey, racing to fifth in the Tour.
There will be huge pressure on Quintana to follow through in July. Just imagine if Froome crashes out — like he did in 2014, the same year Movistar sent Quintana to the Giro — and Quintana doesn’t have the legs to take advantage of the opening. Or the recriminations if Froome falters, but a “fresh” rider who didn’t race the Giro, like Richie Porte or Romain Bardet blasts into the yellow jersey instead.
However, another strong showing by Quintana would go a long way toward proving that a modern-era Giro-Tour double could be a realistic goal. There are already rumors flying around that Froome will attempt the Giro-Tour double, or even try to race all three grand tours in the same season. Quintana and Movistar deserve plaudits for daring. The idea that second place in the Giro is viewed as a disappointment reveals much about Quintana’s stature in the peloton.
4. Merckx’s record
Stricken by Epstein-Barr all season, Mark Cavendish confirmed Monday he would race. Why is the proud Cavendish starting when he knows he’s far from his best? The allure of Eddy Merckx’s all-time stage-win record.
Though he regularly talks down the Merckx record, Cavendish wants it bad. Already with 30 stage wins on his palmares, cycling’s most prolific sprinter will roll into the Tour far from ideal conditions. With only four days of racing since mid-March, Cavendish is struggling to overcome glandular fever that derailed much of his 2017 season. Cavendish confirmed his professionalism and love for the Tour by committing to race. He’s proven time and again he can win even when he’s not at his best. This year could be even more challenging for Cavendish to claw closer to Merckx’s mark.
This year’s sprint field looks as deep as at any time since Cavendish has emerged as the peloton’s preeminent sprinter in 2009. Along with familiar foes, such as André Greipel, Sagan, Alexander Kristoff, and Marcel Kittel, there’s a band of young, ambitious sprinters coming up. Those include Arnaud Démare, Nacer Bouhanni, and Michael Matthews.
At 32, is time running out for Cavendish’s quest for the record? Fernando Gaviria, who won four stages in his grand tour debut at the Giro d’Italia last month, set to race the Tour next year, will only make things more complicated in the future. If Cavendish could squeeze a stage win or two out of this year’s Tour, the Merckx mark could be within his grasp.
5. Safety worries
Security questions both on and off the bike will be a hot talking point throughout this Tour. The UCI and ASO are under pressure to develop safer race conditions. No one wants to see another debacle like last year’s Mont Ventoux amateur hour.
It’s the safety concerns away from the race that have many more worried in France this summer. No one likes to speak about the vulnerability of an event as sprawling and wide open as bike race. Behind the scenes, French authorities are taking steps to try to make the area around a bike race as safe as possible. Expect to see more police and more controls along the route and at the start and finish areas.
Several high-profile attacks over the past months in France and across Europe have heightened worries coming into the Tour. Let’s hope this is one story that no one will be talking about.