Blazin’ Saddles: Tour de France talking points from Suisse and Slovenia
With the final preparation races for the Tour de France now over, our cycling expert Felix Lowe looks at the main talking points following the Tours de Suisse and Slovenia, as well as the Route de Sud and Ster ZLM.
Hard to look beyond Sagan for green
World champion Peter Sagan was on pulsating form in the Tour de Suisse, winning two stages with such ease that he even had the time to invent an impromptu new celebration. Quite what it was, was anyone’s guess: a fluttering dab, a rain dance, a magic sprinkle, or even limp-wristed jazz hands are all viable options.
Sagan’s two wins – plus his second place behind Michael Matthews in Bern – saw the 27-year-old Slovakian coast to the points jersey classification, something he’ll be keen on repeating next month. Sagan has won the Tour’s green jersey for the past five years – and even though ASO have thrown in more straight sprints for the purists, it would take a brave man to bet against him making it six from six.
Matthews and Gilbert to ask Sagan some questions
The Australian’s win over Sagan in Bern did underline the kind of opposition Sagan may come up again once the Tour kicks off in Dusseldorf. Having not ridden competitively for the best part of two months, Matthews is returning to form at just the right time. With Team Sunweb without any viable GC contender – no offence intended, Warren Barguil – it looks like Matthews will be their protected rider in the Tour.
Almost a decade older than both Sagan and Matthews, Philippe Gilbert fills the same mould of rider as his younger rivals. After a stellar spring, the Belgian will make his first appearance in the Tour in four years looking to add to his solitary Tour stage scalp in 2011 (when his opening day win saw him net the yellow jersey).
It will be fascinating seeing Sagan – who now rules the roost in slightly uphill finishes in France – take on his predecessor Gilbert and a challenger-lite in Matthews.
Cavendish and Greipel may struggle
With as many as seven potential bunch sprints on the cards, it looks like ASO were dangling a huge carrot in front of Britain’s Mark Cavendish when they were coming up with the 2017 route. The Manxman trails Eddy Merckx’s all-time Tour stage count by four – the same amount of triumphs that he notched last year. But fatigue from the Olympics plus a debilitating bout of mononucleosis has set back Cavendish considerably in his Tour preparation.
The 32-year-old Dimension Data rider returned to action for the first time since Milan-Sanremo in the Tour of Slovenia, which he rode more for conditioning purposes rather than targeting wins. Tenth place in the opening stage won by Sam Bennett was followed by a runner-up ride behind the Irishman in the fourth and final stage on Sunday, suggesting Cav may struggle against the big guns when the Tour gets under way in less than a fortnight – despite his upbeat reaction.
As for his fellow veteran Andre Greipel – well, the Gorilla struggled to impose himself in Ster ZLM, losing out to the likes of compatriot Marcel Kittel and double stage winner Dylan Groenewegen. Greipel’s win in May’s Giro d’Italia kept up his record of notching at least one victory in every Grand Tour he’s ridden since the 2007 Vuelta a Espana. Could that superb run be about to end?
Majka gives Bora-Hansgrohe another dimension
Three weeks of mountain training in Sierra Nevada is clearly paying off for Poland’s Rafal Majka, who – along with Bennett – ensured that Bora-Hansgrohe won three of the four stages in Slovenia, plus the overall, sprint and KOM classifications.
Rafal Majka of Poland, riding for Bora-hansgroheGetty Images
A top five finisher in both the Giro and the Vuelta, Majka has rarely had the opportunity to target GC in the Tour. Last year, following then team-mate Alberto Contador’s withdrawal, he had a free role en route to picking up his second polka-dot jersey in three Tour appearances. This year, Majka – still only 27! – will be Bora’s main man for GC during a race where Sagan and the green jersey remains a priority.
Having won the Tour of Slovenia off the back of a strong performance in the Tour of California, the omens are good for Majka. Could this be the year that he also nets a top five finish in France? Or wins a third polka dot jersey? Either way, he should be very much in the mix.
Caruso key to Porte’s chances
While Damiano Caruso missed out on the overall win in Switzerland thanks to Simon Spilak’s superb ride in the queen stage, the 29-year-old Italian reckons finishing runner-up in Suisse could represent a turning point in his career.
Damiano Caruso of team BMC, rides during the 110th edition of the giro di Lombardia (Tour of Lombardy), a 241 km cycling race from Como to Bergamo on October 1, 2016.Getty Images
With Tejay van Garderen resting for the Tour, Caruso will have a key role to play in France as Richie Porte’s main mountain lieutenant – and given BMC’s woe in recent years, being a deputy on a Grand Tour can often mean assuming leadership at some point during the three weeks.
If Caruso could prove to be one of the Tour’s major players behind the scenes, then the same could be said for the simmering Mathias Frank, who should prove invaluable to Ag2R-La Mondiale team-mate Romain Bardet next month – despite yo-yoing somewhat in Suisse.
BMC may be wise to draft in Dennis
Bookending his Tour de Suisse with time trial victories, Rohan Dennis continued to show what a key rider he is for BMC. Having been forced out of the Giro as early as stage four, Dennis is a dark horse to make BMC’s final cut for the Tour – even if he still claims the Vuelta is his primary target for the remainder of the season (alongside the World’s ITT, of course).
Australian cyclist Rohan Dennis of the BMC Racing team prepares for the start of the People's Choice Classic street race, a preview race to the 2017 Tour Down Under on January 15, 2017 in Adelaide, AustraliaGetty Images
The final day in Switzerland witnessed an all-BMC TT podium with Dennis beating team-mates Stefan Kung and Caruso to the prize. While there is no TTT in this year’s Tour, there are two individual races against the clock for which Dennis would be a natural rival to the likes of Tony Martin and Chris Froome – especially in the absence of Giro winner Tom Dumoulin.
More to the point, a BMC team boasting both the selfless Dennis and Caruso in support of Porte would only bolster a team that many feel are Porte’s main disadvantage when it comes to taking on the juggernauts at Sky and Movistar in July. Given Porte’s unenviable penchant for bad luck and blowing up in the Tour, it could also be wise for BMC to have some other options up their sleeve – and Dennis is clearly up to the challenge.
Cannondale’s roll bodes well for July
What do they say about buses? You wait ages for one to arrive, and suddenly they come in their droves and are all luminous green. Cannondale-Drapac, it seems, can’t stop winning right now – and it was the man who ended their winless Grand Tour streak, Pierre Rolland, who turned on the style on the weekend by taming the Tourmalet en route to winning the queen stage of the Route du Sud with considerable panache.
Rolland’s rousing win came week’s after his superb scalp in the Giro – a race during which he attacked multiple times, but clearly rode within himself when it came to battling for GC. With Andrew Talansky – the man who ended Cannondale’s WorldTour drought with a timely win in the Tour of California in May – expected to target the yellow jersey in July, the in-form Rolland could easily pass under the radar.
New Zealander Thomas Scully kept the team’s winning streak going with a sprint win in the final stage of the Route du Sud. After so much sweat and toil with very little to show for it, Jonathan Vaughter’s men are beginning to reap the rewards. If they ride the crest of the wave from Dusseldorf and into France next month, then we could be in for a bit of a treat.
Poels returning to form at the right moment
So strong was Wout Poels during last year’s Tour that many felt the rangy Dutchman was being wasted as uphill fodder for Froome – especially given his winning performance in Liege-Bastogne-Liege earlier in the season.
Poels was unable to defend his La Doyenne crown this year owing to a knee injury, but the 29-year-old has made Sky’s long list for the Tour after coming through his return unscathed. Poels finished 41st in the Route du Sud – hardly anything to write home about – but reminded Dave Brailsford of his versatility. He’ll now continue training in the Pyrenees ahead of what he hopes will be a late call-up to Sky’s team.
While there is a curious lack of major climbs in this year’s Grande Boucle, a mountain goat of Poels’ calibre – provided he’s fit – will be a major asset as Froome bids to win his fourth Tour in five years. The Dutchman admits he’s still short of form, but knows that he can use the relatively leisurely opening week to get some racing kilometres in the legs. His selection poses a conundrum for Brailsford because it is both a gamble and a no-brainer.