This article appeared in the Sunday Herald
It is a remarkable thing, but people are actually talking about the terrain, the peculiarities of the course and the relative merits of the riders ahead of the 97th Tour de France, which starts in Rotterdam on Saturday.
It’s not that controversy has been wholly absent from the run-up, but no major riders from last year’s race – aside from Franco Pellizotti, King of the Mountains in 2009 – will be missing from the Tour caravan when it converges on the Dutch port.
There is also a vague feeling of ennui after all the doping scandals that have rocked cycling in recent years. The dramas of the coming weeks may well involve ignominy, but light enough has been shone on the secrets of the peloton to guarantee that it will be as clean in 2010 as it is likely to get.
For those who take an interest in the physical geography of the Tour – and the science of the thing can be every bit as dumbfounding as viticulture – a number of things stick out about this year’s race: the first week, which winds first through the Netherlands and Belgium before entering France on July 6, will offer a taste of the Northern Classics, including some of their most treacherous terrain; there is no team time trial this year; and the climbs look harder and are likely to be more decisive relative to last year.
That first incursion on French soil a week on Tuesday finishes in Arenberg, home to the notorious cobblestones of the “Drève des Boules d’Hérin” that form part of the “Hell of the North”, as the Paris-Roubaix spring classic is known. In 2004 the Basque rider, Iban Mayo, put paid to his Tour chances there, and anyone serious about placing high in the general classification must be up front and out of trouble before crossing the “pave”.
In the Pyrenees there are, unusually, two ascents on the Col du Tourmalet, one in the mammoth 196km 16th stage to Pau – which covers the four dreaded passes nicknamed the “Circle of Death” – and then at the finish of stage 17. Other major climbs in the Alps (including four in stage 9 between Morzine and Saint Jean-de-Maurienne) have likewise been included in tribute to epic battles of yore, but still there have been complaints that too few stages actually finish on a major summit. In fact, there were more stages last year in which it was feasible that breakaway climbers could be caught in the final kilometres after a big climb.
All of which is to say, Team Sky fans, that Bradley Wiggins will be up against it as he endeavours to improve on last year’s fourth overall. The 30-year-old Londoner, who has always been fast on the flat, was a revelation in the mountains riding for Garmin-Slipstream in 2009. But he wasn’t that good: mostly it was his ability to make up time on long final descents that ensured he kept within distance of the overall podium. That and his time trialling – but this year, after the prologue, there is only one further time trial, and that in the penultimate stage by which point he could be well back.
Britian’s only pro-cycling outfit are going for broke, however. Having omitted their most prolific sprinter, Greg Henderson, from their nine-man team in favour of the seasoned Canadian domestique Michael Barry, it is clear they are basing their entire approach around supporting Wiggins.
Otherwise, the majority of Anglo-Saxon interest will revolve around one man: Lance Armstrong. Having retired after his seventh Tour win in 2005, then returned with the stated ambition of winning an eighth, he finished third overall last year. This time, riding for RadioShack, he has not enjoyed a trouble-free build-up. Besides enduring crashes and illness, he has had to fend off allegations from his former US Postal team-mate Floyd Llandis that he doped in 2002 and 2003.
Nothing has been proven, but it is not the first time Armstrong has been implicated by conspiracy theorists who discern a cover-up. The American and his former Astana team-mate Alberto Contador, Tour winner in 2007 and 2009, are also impugned in the ongoing war between the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD), who allege the UCI have consistently shown favouritism towards the pair and that Astana were in the habit of keeping doping inspectors waiting for almost an hour for samples after stages. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have just turned down an AFLD request to carry out their own targeted tests over the next three weeks, on the grounds that they have “access to confidential information from the police and customs” that they cannot share with other organisations.
At any rate, Armstrong has started to put together some form in recent weeks, with podium finishes in the Tours of Luxembourg and Switzerland. He also has a strong team around him, including Andreas Kloden, Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, and the winner, this month, of the Dauphin Libere, Janez Brajkovic, but let’s not forget the American is 38.
For his part, he was keen to talk up Contador’s chances last week. The two struggled to keep a lid on their strained relationship at Astana – the Spaniard declaring last year: “He [Armstrong] is a great rider but it is another thing on a personal level, where I have never had great admiration for him and I never will” – but Armstrong was all plaudits for his rival. “Alberto’s a complete rider with very few weaknesses. He climbs better [than anybody else] and he time-trials with the best,” he said.
Contador is odds-on favourite, but there are others worth keeping an eye on, not least Andy Schleck, Saxo Bank’s attack dog, the veteran Australian Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team), Giro d’Italia winner Ivan Basso – back racing, for Liquigas, after a two-year suspension for blood doping – and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, from whose Grand Tour checklist only a win in France is missing.
In terms of new contenders, Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), the 27-year-old Belgian who finished 15th overall in his Tour last year, and the 24-year-old Czech, Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), who improved on 13th in 2008 with ninth in 2009, may well impose themselves.
But while Spain have been knocked off their perch as favourites in the build-up to the World Cup, it will take something seismic in the first week for Contador to suffer the same fate.