The old adage says there are no miracles in the Tour de France, but there are certainly surprises.
No Tour is complete without at least one pre-Tour favorite flaming out, or having an unsung rider challenge for the yellow jersey. Thomas Voeckler has made a career out of it.
Who or what could be the surprise of 2015? With the front-end of the Tour looking more like a week of spring classics, it’s all but certain that at least one of the “Fab Four” will not arrive to the Pyrénées with his GC hopes fully intact. Last year, Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) both crashed out, opening the door for Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) to ride without true rivals all the way to yellow. It’s hard to imagine a similar scenario not unfolding this year.
Having favorites crash out is hardly surprising. In fact, in today’s nervous, high-strung peloton, it’s par for the course. More than a few big names will be out of the GC picture before the first rest day; the only question is who.
The real surprises in this Tour will come in the second half, when weary legs and a string of unrelenting mountain stages will push the peloton to its collective maximum. Add team dynamics, perhaps some bad weather, a touch of tactical savvy, and this Tour has all the makings of delivering at least one major surprise.
Could an outsider win this Tour? It’s unlikely, especially with the depth of teams surrounding each of the top favorites. Movistar, Tinkoff-Saxo, Sky, and Astana bring strong enough teams that share a collective interest in keeping the race under control going into the second half of the Tour. A few untimely crashes could knock those teams out of the GC hunt, setting the stage for unexpected fireworks.
And the idea of “outsider” is a relative term when it comes to the Tour, especially one this hard. There are four top favorites, with another three or four realistically nipping at their heels. Here are three who could catch the favorites:
Ryder Hesjedal, 34, Cannondale-Garmin
Best Tour finish: 5th in 2010
During this year’s Giro d’Italia, it was the usually savvy Canadian who was the one caught out, when he uncharacteristically missed a key move in stage 4 over an otherwise routine second-category climb, losing more than 5 minutes. That blunder might have cost the 2012 Giro champ a podium spot, but he never looked back, and turned the final half of the Giro into an “Easy Ryder” attack fest, scoring two second places in the final two mountain stages, clawing all the way back up to fifth overall.
Hesjedal was clearly one of the strongest in the mountains in this year’s Giro, and back to the Tour after missing last year’s edition, he won’t be asleep at the wheel in France.
Cannondale starts with the unconventional idea of having three riders sharing GC captain status. Along with Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky, the team will be backing all three as it determines who has the legs to go the distance. That could open up interesting opportunities, not only for Cannondale, but also Hesjedal. Though he’s a committed team player, Hesjedal will race his race, especially in what could be one of his final shots at taking on the Tour. With Talansky and Martin also threats in the mountains, Hesjedal will be able to play off his teammates and use the team’s collective tactics to put the top GC squads under pressure.
Just as he saw in the Giro, however, Hesjedal won’t be given a lot of rope by the serious GC rivals. Every time he slotted into a dangerous move during the Giro, Tinkoff-Saxo was quick to keep him on a short leash, for fear he could ride back into GC contention. With six Tours under his belt, Hesjedal is one of the most experienced riders in the bunch, especially when it comes to measuring his efforts, and knowing when it’s opportune to attack. If he has the legs, don’t be surprised to see him hanging around the top 5 deep into the third week. And at that point of the Tour, especially one as difficult as this one, anything could happen.
Romain Bardet, 24, Ag2r La Mondiale
Best Tour finish: 6th in 2014
At the other end of the spectrum is the whippet-thin Bardet, perhaps France’s purest climber in a generation. Last year, Bardet was part of the French renaissance that saw two compatriots reach the final podium, with teammate Jean-Christophe Péraud second and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) third. If that wasn’t a surprise, it’s hard to imagine what would be. This year, the French will have a harder time repeating their success. Péraud is 38 and could find it harder going against the “Fab Four,” while Pinot will be a marked man. Bardet could easily be the Frenchman who confirms the breakout performances of 2014.
His thrilling stage victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné, when he dropped the field over the Col d’Allos climb and descended like a banshee to win on the Pra-Loup finale, is indicative of his full quiver when it comes to skillset. He can climb, descend, handle his bike, and for being a climber, defend himself quite well against the clock. In some ways, he’s like a French version of Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and perhaps rides against the clock even better than his much more celebrated Colombian rival.
Bardet has only raced two grand tours during his brief, but very promising pro career, debuting with 15th in the 2013 Tour, and confirming that with sixth last year, losing fifth to Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) by just two seconds in the final time trial. None other than Bernard Hinault says Bardet could well be the breakout rider of 2015. And it’s apparent that Bardet isn’t afraid to do what Hinault says is essential to win the Tour: attack!
Alejandro Valverde, 34, Movistar
Best Tour finish: 4th in 2014
If favorite status was based on the 2015 season’s result, Spain’s Valverde would be right up there with the “Fab Four.” He dominated the Ardennes classics, reaching the podium at Amstel Gold Race and winning both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège with magisterial ease. In March, he won two stages and ran out of time bonuses, because he would have beaten eventual winner Richie Porte (Sky). Last weekend, he won his second Spanish national title to confirm he’s on track for the Tour. All good signs that Spain’s “Green Bullet” is ready to shine.
On any other team, Valverde would be the outright leader. But Movistar has Quintana, a once-in-a-lifetime type rider, and that changes everything for Valverde. Some would expect to see Valverde, who’s been a protected rider for more than a decade, to be chafing under Movistar’s decision to promote Quintana as its Tour leader. In some ways, Valverde is finding quiet salvation in Quintana’s rise, because it takes away the pressure that he so abhors off his shoulders, and puts it squarely on Quintana’s. Valverde has struggled previously at the Tour, especially when he has the pressure to carry the entire team. With Quintana now wrestling with that burden, the tables have turned, similar to perhaps what the Colombian enjoyed in the 2013 Tour, when Quintana finished second after Valverde flamed out in the flats.
Valverde is a deft rider who knows where to position himself to avoid first-week crashes. With more than a few stages favoring him in the first week, and Movistar’s track record of performing well in team time trials, Valverde should ride into the Pyrénées in very good position. Many will expect Quintana to take flight, but Movistar has already confirmed it will not sacrifice Valverde’s chances. The team wants to cover its bets, and Valverde will be able to ride his own race, even if Quintana struggles in one of the mountain stages. With all eyes on Quintana, Valverde could be the darkest of dark horses in this Tour.