Nine North American riders to watch in this year’s Tour de France

Hesjedal, Horner among the Canadian and American riders to tackle the 99th edition of the Tour de France

Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp)

Boulder, Colorado
With his second consecutive podium in the Amgen Tour of California and seventh overall at the Tour de Suisse, Tom Danielson is on the rise after an early season derailed by a hard crash at the Tour de Langkawi.

His eighth place finish in last year’s Tour — his first — showed that the 34-year-old still has what it takes to perform at the top. He was Garmin’s highest-placed GC rider in a dream Tour that included a week in yellow and two stage wins for Thor Hushovd, a team time trial win, a July 4th stage win for Tyler Farrar and top spot in the teams classification.

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The former collegiate mountain bike champion never did live up to the impossible expectations that he would inherit Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France crown, but he has in recent years been a solid performer for his Garmin team in the mountains nonetheless. Danielson, one of the affable riders in the peloton, has been dogged by comments on whether he possesses the killer instinct to find a grand tour podium. He was in contention at the 2009 Vuelta a España when his stomach turned bad and he dropped from the front of the race. This happened again in 2011 at the USA Pro Challenge in August, but a month earlier, Danielson rode well throughout the entire Tour, save for his stage 1 time loss in the wind and crashes. He’s worked on those instincts in 2012 and nearly reaped the rewards at the Amgen Tour — until Robert Gesink (Rabobank) blew everyone away on Mount Baldy.

With Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde taking top billing as the team’s proclaimed GC leaders at the Tour, look for Danielson to feature as a strong helper in the mountains as his team looks for its best-ever showing in this year’s Tour. But, like Vande Velde, Danielson could break out if he sees the opportunity — and has the stomach for it.

Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp)

Wenatchee, Washington
As one of five North Americans in Garmin’s line-up, Tyler Farrar enters this year’s Tour de France with the newfound confidence of a stage winner, but without a win in 2012. He beat Mark Cavendish with a superb leadout in stage 3 — on the Fourth of July — in last year’s Tour.

Outside of second place at the GP Scheldeprijs, a Belgian semi-classic for the sprinters, Farrar has had a relatively quiet season thus far. He abandoned the Giro d’Italia after a heavy fall in stage 6. He is, however, the undisputed king of North American sprinters, and the soon-to-be Olympian should be at his best this July. Farrar will be one to watch for the sprints not only for his own prowess — he has consistently been one of the three top sprinters in recent Tours — but for the sprint battle in which he will take part.

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Farrar will go head-to-head against Cavendish (Sky), Matthew Goss (Orica-GreenEdge), Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD) and J.J. Rojas (Movistar). Another Tour de France stage victory for Farrar would serve as a huge boost in confidence for him as he will face much of the same opposition in the Olympic road race the weekend after the Tour’s finish on the Champs Élysées.

The Washington native has risen through the ranks from being Gord Fraser’s apprentice at Health Net to a two-year assignment with Cofidis to a position as the top sprinter for the American ProTeam. His path to a Tour stage win has been bumpy, however. Farrar’s father, Ed, was hit by a car while riding in late 2008 and was paralyzed from the chest down. In May of 2011, Farrar’s close friend Wouter Weylandt died in a crash at the Giro d’Italia. Farrar dedicated his stage win in 2011 to Weylandt and has slowly put the crash behind him. A bike race is small potatoes in the face of such tragedy, but a Tour stage win is the pinnacle of the sport for a pure sprinter and a second would go a long way to send Farrar to London with medal contention on the top of his mind.

Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp)

Victoria, British Columbia
Last year, Ryder Hesjedal rode to 18th in the Tour de France and was a key ingredient to Garmin’s teams classification win. This year, he has been on a whole other level, winning the overall in the Giro d’Italia in May. If he can mitigate the fatigue from his victorious Giro campaign in May, Hesjedal should find the form to improve on his career-best sixth-place finish in the 2010 Tour.

Whether the 100-plus kilometers of time trialing will work for or against him remains to be seen, however. His prowess against the clock played a major role in his Giro win, as he used the time trials to gain precious time on his rivals while maintaining his advantage with strong performances in the mountains. Against time trial strongmen such as Bradley Wiggins (Sky), who defeated world champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in the Dauphiné time trial earlier this month, and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), who was second to Martin in the final time trial of last year’s Tour, Hesjedal will certainly have his work cut out for him. But, as he recently told VeloNews, “I have shown that my time trial has improved. Those guys (Wiggins and Evans) are at a higher level, but I can hold my own.”

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Hesjedal shares leadership duties for Garmin with Americans Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson. Indeed, he carries the confidence of a grand tour winner into this race, and will be one to watch as a dark horse for the overall should Evans or Wiggins falters.

The Canadian was a 2003 worlds silver medalist and 2004 Olympian in men’s cross-country mountain bike and moved to a full-time road career in 2005 with Discovery Channel. He has progressed steadily since and in 2010, Hesjedal was fourth in stage 17 at the Col du Tourmalet. The ride was a revelation and two years later, the Canadian delivered on a decade of promise with his Giro win. Hesjedal is a gifted descender and arguably the best all-rounder amongst the race’s GC contenders; he has finished inside the top 10 at Montepaschi Strade Bianche multiple times, landed on the Amstel Gold Race podium and in 2010, he jumped into the Tour’s GC picture when he rode away with Stuart O’Grady, Fabian Cancellara and Andy Schleck on the cobbles in the Tour’s third stage.

After a letdown in 2011, look for Hesjedal to follow the Evans model of staying at the front and in contention for stages through the Tour’s opening week. If he can gain time early — and find himself on the final podium — Hesjedal would be the first Giro winner to do so in the same season since the late Marco Pantani in 1998.

George Hincapie (BMC Racing)

Greenville, South Carolina
Going into his 17th and final Tour de France, George Hincapie will once again work as a key helper for an overall contender. “Big George” has watched the backs of three previous Tour winners over nine victorious campaigns — more than any rider in history — and will look to make it 10 as he shoulders road captain duties for defending champ Cadel Evans.

Hincapie’s absence from the upcoming London Olympics means that he can devote his full energy to helping Evans through the typically tumultuous opening week, which last year saw favorites such as Alberto Contador — on suspension from this year’s Tour — lose valuable time before the key mountain stages.

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Although Hincapie was briefly slated as a Tour contender following Lance Armstrong’s first retirement in 2005, he has again settled most comfortably into his familiar role as a lead helper. Last year he was notably absent from Evans’ side once the race hit the high mountains, but his shepherding of the Australian champion through the crash-laden first week allowed Evans to do his best work in the mountains against the likes of Andy Schleck and Thomas Voeckler.

Hincapie, the winner of stage 15 to Pla d’Adet in the 2005 Tour, will likely once again be a force at the front of the peloton as he looks to end his 19-year career on a high by delivering the maillot jaune to BMC Racing for the second year on the trot.

Chris Horner (Radioshack-Nissan)

Bend, Oregon
Chris Horner very nearly didn’t make the short-list for this year’s Tour de France. Now he is arguably the top American contender for the overall.

RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel reversed Horner’s unexpected exclusion from the team’s long list, even after publicly saying that the American’s decision to skip the Tour de Suisse was tantamount to skipping the Tour de France. Days earlier, USA Cycling named Horner to the U.S. National Team for the upcoming London Olympics, his first Olympic berth in 16 years as a professional.

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Suffice to say Horner’s pre-Tour fortunes have taken a rapid turn for the better, and the long training rides that he has occasionally documented on Twitter should have him well prepared for the 2012 Tour. Horner was top-10 overall in the 2010 edition of the race, and won last year’s Amgen Tour of California. While on course to that victory, he said that, “with the exception of Alberto Contador I don’t think there’s anyone that can drop me.”

Horner’s 2011 Tour ended with a heavy crash that resulted in a concussion and a pulmonary embolism. He made his return to racing at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he finished second overall, in March. Tendonitis and a flare up in a recurring back injury set Horner back later in the spring and his his eighth overall at the Tour of California this year might suggest that his form is not what it was 12 months ago. But Bruyneel clearly had the confidence in Horner’s preparation to select him for the final Tour team — particularly with Andy Schleck missing the race with a fractured pelvis.

It’s unlikely that he will be able to time trial with Evans or Wiggins, but Horner’s abilities in the mountains and his skills in reading a race are second-to-none. If he can drop Evans and Wiggins in the Alps or the Pyrénées to gain a buffer for the stage 19 time trial, he could be a legitimate threat for the overall. Only Horner knows for sure, but if he can regain the form that brought him such confidence (and the win) in last year’s Tour of California, he will definitely be one of the key North Americans to watch for this year’s Tour de France.

Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

Santa Rosa, California
Levi Leipheimer has had an unusual — for him — buildup to this year’s Tour de France. While Leipheimer normally looks to perform in weeklong stage races throughout the year before his assault on the overall of the Tour, his preparation was interrupted when a car struck him in Spain in April. He raced the Amgen Tour of California in his return from a broken fibula, and showed solid post-injury form to finish sixth overall.

Leipheimer himself has speculated that the forced rest could allow him to arrive at the Tour fresher than in previous years. His podium finish at the Tour de Suisse, which he won last year, provided a good indication of his recovery from the accident, and Omega Pharma’s confidence in his ability to prepare for the Tour means that he will arrive in Liège as team leader with Peter Velits serving as a second GC option.

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Leipheimer has four previous top-10 finishes in the Tour, and with Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador out of the Tour this year, he may find himself with a good shot at the top five, if not a second podium. The 101km of time trials will suit Leipheimer, who won the final TT at the Tour in 2007 when he finished third overall.

Leipheimer told VeloNews in early June that reaching the podium is “definitely possible.” He went on to say that, “You have to fight every day and be ready when the time allows you after three weeks of living on the edge.”

With world-class professionalism, fresher legs and the experience of nine previous Tour starts, Leipheimer will no doubt be ready to fight come July.

Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp)

Lemont, Illinois
Christian Vande Velde is another North American hopeful for Garmin and will start the race with a crack at leading the team into the mountains. Like Ryder Hesjedal, he was part of Garmin’s winning team time trial squad in the 2011 Tour de France and this year’s Giro d’Italia. He was a critical helper in Hesjedal’s 2012 Giro campaign, and goes into this year’s Tour as an alternate contender for Garmin. With a block of rest and an altitude camp in Boulder, Vande Velde should be on even better form for the Tour, which has been his main objective throughout the season.

He finished a career-best fourth overall in the 2008 Tour and, like Bradley Wiggins after his own breakthrough in 2009 — also with Garmin — Vande Velde looks to 2012 as his year to perform once more. The Illinois native and son of U.S. cycling fixture John Vande Velde, Christian was one face of Garmin’s three-man 2011 teams classification hunt, working hard in the mountains to maintain the special number plates for the squad after he lost a shot at the final GC podium in an early split.

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A career domestique at U.S. Postal Service and CSC, Vande Velde cautiously transformed into a GC rider at Garmin in his first season in argyle. Vande Velde was comfortable in his previous role, having played a part in Lance Armstrong’s 1999 and 2001 Tour wins and grand tour podiums for Carlos Sastre and Roberto Heras. But Garmin’s TTT win to open the 2008 Giro — earning Vande Velde the first American maglia rosa in two decades — was his coming out party.

Publicly, he starts the Tour this year as a helper for his Canadian teammate, but as Sky found out in last year’s Vuelta a España, good legs can up-end any rider’s role in a grand tour team.

Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing)

Boulder, Colorado
The 23-year-old Montana native goes into his second Tour de France in the service of leader Cadel Evans. This time, his BMC Racing team will be looking for him to gain valuable experience in the three-week trip around France as he matures into a future Tour contender. Van Garderen won the white jersey for best young rider at this year’s eight-day Paris-Nice stage race in March, and followed that up with fourth overall in the Amgen Tour of California in May, one placing better than 2011.

With George Hincapie and company keeping Evans out of harm’s way in the run-up to the mountain stages, van Garderen will look to take over as right-hand man in the Alps and the Pyrénées. Another place to look out for him will be in the Tour’s 101.1km (62.8mi) of time trials. After riding to second behind Dave Zabriskie in the 2012 U.S. national time trial championship, van Garderen should contend in the prologue and the stage 9 time trial. Whether he will temper his stage 9 effort to save himself for the mountains, or go all out in a chase for the white jersey, is yet to be seen. And it will be in the stage 19 time trial that we will see just how far van Garderen has come in a year; he lost more than five minutes in the penultimate-stage TT in 2011.

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Working for a defending Tour winner in Evans this year is part of van Garderen’s master plan to become an overall contender in the near future, so he is as much one to watch in the 2012 Tour de France as he will be in Tours to come. This is the future of American stage racing.

Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Sharp)

Los Angeles, California
The recently crowned 2012 U.S. time trial champion will undoubtedly feature in the two longer time trials of this year’s Tour de France. Zabriskie, who won the Bakersfield time trial on his way to second overall at the Amgen Tour of California in May, will not only be a key helper for Ryder Hesjedal on the flats, but will be looking to scalp the world’s best time trialists in his Captain America-themed skinsuit.

Zabriskie has won stages in all three grand tours, most famously with his defeat of Lance Armstrong in the opening time trial of the Texan’s final Tour win in 2005. One of the peloton’s quirkiest members, Zabriskie enters this year’s Tour with some of the best form of his career. The extra servings of time trial kilometers will play directly to his strengths, and America’s top rider against the clock will no doubt be at his best as he battles Bradley Wiggins (Sky), Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) and world time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) for victory in stages 9 and 19.

Previous Dave Zabriskie coverage >>

The six-time U.S. professional time trial champion is among the best in the world with a pair of aero bars in his hands, and will look to add to his tally of six grand tour time trial victories this July.