Blazin' Saddles: Tour de France 2018 yellow jersey guide and top 10 predictions
With the start of the 105th edition of the Tour de France just days away, the final race preview from our blogger Felix Lowe weighs up the main contenders for the yellow jersey before making some typically brash predictions for the outcome of the race.
Now in its 99th year, the maillot jaune, of course, is worn by the rider who leads the general classification at the end of each stage. In short: the rider who covers the course faster than anyone else (although in the days of bonus seconds and the 3km rule, this is not always strictly the case).
Coloured yellow because of the hue of the paper stock on which the Tour's founding newspaper, L'Auto, was published, the yellow jersey today is sponsored by the bank LCL and is, arguably, one of the most iconic and instantly recognisable pieces of kit in global sport – right up there with the Barcelona strip, the All Blacks kit and, er, Petr Cech's skullcap.
Time bonuses of 10-6-4 seconds for the top three riders every day (except after time trials) can skewer the early general classification as the sprinters fight for the right to wear yellow. There are also 3-2-1 bonus seconds available at new designated 'B' sprints on the profiles of the first nine stages. But come Paris, the rider who wins is one who usually can excel both in the mountains and against the clock.
While the smallest winning margin in the Tour's history is still the eight seconds by which Greg LeMond beat Laurent Fignon in 1989, it's worth adding that the Tour has never been won on bonus seconds: he who wears yellow in Paris does so after completing the course quicker than anyone else.
Now that pre-amble is out the way, let's look at each of the main contenders and give them a star rating. Tellingly, no rider has earned five stars – highlighting just how close the battle for yellow could be this July.
Team Sky's Chris Froome in yellowPA Sport
Chris Froome (Team Sky) ****
Just because Froome has won the past three Grand Tours that doesn't make him the out-and-out favourite. If anything, it should act against him. We saw how Alberto Contador struggled in his Giro-Tour double attempt in 2015 and, more recently, Nairo Quintana's troubles last year.
If the 33-year-old is going to snare a record-equalling fifth Tour win he'll have to do it differently than any of his previous four wins, all of which came after riding (and on three occasions winning) the Dauphine in June.
His team is strong with a genuine Plan B in Geraint Thomas (who won last month's Dauphine in Froome's absence). But it also boasts two debutants in Egan Bernal and Gianni Moscon, while Jonathan Castroviejo has only ridden alongside Froome for seven days at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Last year we witnessed Froome's smallest winning margin. Old Father Time is catching up; his rivals are getting better. Could we witness the changing of the guard this July? For Froome to win a fifth yellow jersey it will have to be his most polished and dogged performance yet. Despite what the bookies say, the odds – and history – are stacked against him.
Team Sky rider Chris Froome shakes hands with second placed Movistar rider Nairo QuintanaReuters
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) ****
The Colombian is now 28, the same age Froome was when he won his first Tour. Is this his best chance yet at bettering the man who has stood above him on three Tour podiums? Quintana will have learned a lot from his humbling last July, where he finished outside the top ten and, for the first time, off the Tour podium.
With just one stage win all season, Quintana's preparation for the Tour has been solid if unspectacular – largely involving blocks of training at altitude in his native Colombia. Will just 28 race days count against him? Quite possibly. But at least Quintana will start this race fresh – having burned himself out with four Grand Tours on the bounce this time last year.
While much has been made of Movistar's three-pronged team leadership, Quintana will clearly be the main man – with Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde as back-up. But with both Spaniards harbouring their own personal ambitions, the pressure will be on Quintana to prove his mettle.
Get to the Alps in contention, and Quintana will be one of the favourites for yellow. But he'll need to show the attacking flair he displayed in the Tour de Suisse: while the Tour favours conservatism, Quintana must ride offensively for he will need a gap going into the final time trial should he wish to join the select group of riders who won all three Grand Tours.
Richie Porte (BMC)Getty Images
Richie Porte (BMC) ****
If the Tasmanian is ever going to win the Tour, this is the year. Sure, we said the same thing 12 months ago, but that's more reason for saying it again. Like his fellow 33-year-old and former team-mate Froome, Porte is getting no younger. But while Froome's powers – although clearly a step above the rest – seem to be on the wane, Porte has shown enough in recent years to suggest that his still peaking.
Last year, his terrible crash on the descent of Mont du Chat ended his hopes and pretty much scuppered those of the unfortunate Dan Martin. But Porte has fought back. His annual win on Willunga Hill won't have raised eyebrows Down Under but the commanding way he went about winning the Tour de Suisse will have caught the attention of his rivals, perhaps propelling him to the top of the list of contenders.
The foundations of his win in Suisse came down to the team time trial – and Porte will have a strong BMC unit around him this July, with Tejay Van Garderen and Damiano Caruso more than able lieutenants. But Porte also rode each stage in yellow in Switzerland with the authority of a Grand Tour winner elect – and showed just why he is, on his day, the best climber in the sport.
Porte's problem is stretching out those good days over an entire three-week run. Avoid the pitfalls of week one, stay upright, and have a little luck – and this could be Porte's year. Although we always say that, don't we?
Britain's Geraint Thomas, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey (L) and France's Romain Bardet Getty Images
Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale) ****
The Frenchman's Factor bike is adorned with the silhouette of the Gaullish chieften Vercingetorix on horseback while the top tube boasts the message: take the risk or lose the chance. Bardet should bear this in mind for he'll need to adhere to that mantra if he wants to end France's 34-year wait for the maillot jaune.
Twice a podium finisher on the Tour, and never outside the top 15 in five attempts, the Frenchman's rise has been steady and logical – but so too is his inability to go that one step further needed to make him a winner.
Bardet's disintegration in last year's penultimate day's time trial in Marseille highlighted the unlikeliness of us seeing the 27-year-old winning a Tour de France that boasts an ITT as its final focal point. While this year's route only features a single solitary race against the clock, the performance of Ag2R-La Mondiale in the Dauphine TTT was wretched enough to suggest that Bardet could be well down on GC come Monday next week.
What Bardet does have in his favour is a pair of excellent climbing legs, a good tactical mind, and a team of livewires capable of pulling off a coup over hilly terrain (even if they can't master riding fast together in a line). Knowing that he will need a cushion ahead of stage 20, Bardet must ride positively and aggressively.
Vincenzo Nibali (Getty Images)Getty Images
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) ****
Arguably the most versatile of all the main contenders, Nibali has demonstrated his class over the years with victories in all three Grand Tours as well as in two Monuments, most recently at Milan-Sanremo. The Sicilian has a knack of coming good when it matters most – so his patchy form this season should be taken with a pinch of salt: besides winning La Classicissima, the 33-year-old has done very little of merit in the few stage races he has tackled.
Bahrain Merida's poor performance in the team time trial set the tone for his Dauphine last month, and Nibali enters the Tour with the oldest team in the race. But the experience of Franco Pellizotti and Domenico Pozzovivo will be an asset, as will the climbing ability of the Izagirre brothers.
In a race with as many downhill finishes as uphill showdowns, Nibali's descending skills could prove vital, as could his command of the cobbles and all-round consistency. A second Tour win would be a surprise, but not out of the question.
Chris Froome and Mikel Landa, former Sky teammatesGetty Images
Mikel Landa (Movistar) ***
On to the second-tier contenders now and we start with the Spaniard who could prove the veracity of the 'Too many cooks' adage. When Landa joined Movistar from Sky over the winter, much was written about the mouth-watering prospect of him seasoning the broth alongside Quintana and Valverde in the Tour. Well, we've got our wish – and it could be spectacular or spectacularly bad.
The sight of frustration etched across the face of Landa became a regular occurrence last year when the 28-year-old was forced to nurse Froome through the mountains. Still, he came within one second of a place on the final podium – a result he'd like to build on for his new team.
Of course, nursing Froome could be replaced by nursing Quintana should the Colombian prove Movistar's main man. Although, to be fair, the entire team could need nursing after three days should they falter in the TTT at Cholet. On his day, Landa climbs with wings. He'll be exciting to watch whatever happens – but his fate depends largely on how Quintana performs.
Tom DumoulinGetty Images
Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) ***
The Dutchman is having a first tilt at GC in the Tour although the defence of his Giro title in May could prove far from ideal preparation. This will be Dumoulin's fifth Tour but he failed to finish his last two, despite two superb stage wins in 2015 – in the mountains and against the clock – showcasing the spread of his armoury.
An injury to his mountain lieutenant Wilco Kelderman could hit Dumoulin hard, and the 27-year-old may find himself riding for stage wins rather than the yellow jersey, before coming back in 2019 for a proper tilt at GC.
Rigoberto Uran 2018Getty Images
Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) ***
The unexpected runner-up in last year's race, Uran trailed his former team-mate Froome by just 54 seconds after riding a consistent race that saw the Colombian pick up a maiden Tour stage win. While one of the peloton's nice guys, Uran has both suffered and profited from being discreet and riding under the radar: tactics which can serve well but have their clear limitations.
Uran has now finished runner-up in three Grand Tours but has nothing in his locker to suggest he can go one better and end up on top. Pierre Rolland and compatriot Dani Martinez will support him in the mountains, but we'll see a lot of Uran riding in isolation this July.
Runner-up (again!) in the Tour of Slovenia in May, Uran is in good nick, but with the competition so high he'll struggle to make the podium this time round.
Jakob Fuglsang wins stage 4 of the Tour of RomandieGetty Images
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) ***
After years of winning Grand Tours with the likes of Alberto Contador, Fabio Aru and Nibali, Astana's man for the GC this year is a rider who just doesn't have what it takes to win a Grand Tour. Take nothing away from the Dane, but Fuglsang's best days are behind him – and those best days peaked at him finishing 7th in 2013.
Truth be told, Fuglsang is part of an attacking outfit that would be better suited to fighting for stage wins rather than placing the 33-year-old in the top five. Astana should let the Dane ghost himself as high as possible while encouraging Messrs Fraile, Sanchez, Cort and Hansen to battle for stage wins. Runner-up in Suisse, Fuglsang is on form but surely a maiden podium finish at such an advanced age is beyond him.
Great Britain's Adam Yates celebratesGetty Images
Adam Yates (Mitchelton Scott) ***
Given how his brother Simon performed in the Giro, a maiden podium finish is not something beyond Adam Yates. Fourth in the 2016 Tour, the 25-year-old will enter the race off the back of finishing second in the Dauphine and with the belief that he can secure his highest ever Grand Tour finish.
The belief stretches to his team, too: Mitchelton Scott have jettisoned sprinter Caleb Ewan in favour of surrounding Yates with a strong unit of riders who can protect him through crosswinds and cobbles, plus gain him time over his rivals in the TTT. Can he win the race? Not yet. Can he have as big an impact as his brother in the Giro? Probably not. But Yates will be a factor.
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) wins stage 17 of the Tour de FranceEurosport
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) **
Third in last year's Vuelta, the Russian makes his second appearance in the Tour after finishing 25th two years ago. His form has not been noteworthy this year and he'll ride in an ailing Katusha team that also has wishful aspirations for the misfiring Marcel Kittel in the sprints. A top 10 is not out of the question but Zakarin will need a huge upturn of fortune and form to leave his mark on this race.
Alejandro Valverde wins in Abu DhabiGetty Images
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) **
Poor Valverde – he'd shudder to think of being grouped together with Zakarin on a miserly two stars… But the reality is that, for all his attacking verve, the Spaniard will be third wheel in Movistar's three-prong attack – and at 38, a year after such an horrific injury, it will be a huge surprise to see him holding it together for a whole three weeks.
His form in stage races this year has been unparalleled – but he hasn't exactly tested himself in the most competitive of fields. There will be nowhere to hide in the Tour – and Valverde can't expect any help from team-mates Quintana or Landa. He'll entertain but also combust.
Race winner Britain's Geraint Thomas, wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey of the DauphineGetty Images
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) **
After winning the Dauphine and learning about Froome's supposed ban from the race, Thomas must have felt that his time had finally come. The subsequent closure of the case against Froome will have seen the Welshman drop back down the pecking order – although he'll be aware that the salbutamol scandal and the Giro victory could well take their toll on Froome.
As such, Thomas will start this Tour with genuine aspirations. The 32-year-old will be riding to win – at least, until Froome proves that he can mount a serious challenge himself. But Thomas's problem has never been ability – more so, bad luck and dodgy bike handling. Going three weeks without a hefty fall or a raft of punctures seems inconceivable to the point of impossible.
Need we remind you that Thomas has never finished higher than 15th place in 12 Grand Tours. But wasn't he strong in the Dauphine? That will be food for thought – for us, Sky and, most importantly, G himself.
Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates)Getty Images
Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) **
It may seem unfair to put Martin in the same bracket as the likes of Zakarin and Sky's Plan B but things have been far from rosy for the Irishman since joining Team Emirates. A stage win in Valmorel in the Dauphine marked a return to form of sorts, but his team has hardly thrown the 32-year-old much of a bone in their team selection.
The experience of Rory Sutherland and Marco Marcato will be an asset, and at least Martin won't be sharing leadership with Aru. But with miscuing sprinter Alexander Kristoff also in tow, it will be a familiar tale for Martin, whose GC aspirations were forever compromised while at Quick-Step.
Two time trials should put pay to his yellow aspirations but Martin will target the top five he came close to securing last year, where, in the form of his life, his chances were severely dented by being collateral damage in Porte's fall. If he can limit his losses and stay upright, Martin will have his say.
Slovenia's Primoz Roglic of Lotto NL-Jumbo Team Getty Images
Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) *
Of all the outsiders, the Slovenian is perhaps the most appealing because of the huge strides he's taken this season. Winner of his last three stage races – in the Basque Country, Romandie and Slovenia – Roglic has combined his ability to climb and time trial to devastating effect.
But he's unproven over three weeks, having finished 38th in his maiden Tour last year (despite a memorable stage-winning ride over the Galibier). If it looks like the 28-year-old could be a Grand Tour contender one day, it would be unlikely if that day comes at any point over the next month.
Steven KruijswijkGetty Images
Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) *
It remains to be seen who leads LottoNL-Jumbo's charge – but you suspect that, despite Roglic's rise, the responsibilities may lie with the far more experienced Kruijswijk, the rider who came within a snowbank of winning the Giro in 2016.
Bob Jungels celebrates winning Liege-Bastogne-LiegeEurosport
Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors) *
Bauke Mollema - Tour de France 2017 stage 15 Getty Images
Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) *
A rider so conservative he would make Jacob Rees-Mogg bleed red, Mollema enters the Tour with an impossible task: trying to inspire his ramshackle Trek Segafredo team from having a purpose besides making up the numbers as peloton fodder.
The 31-year-old put on a rare show of attacking verve last July when he saved his Tour with a stage win after dropping out of GC contention early on. That, it seems, will be his best route of action this July.
Rafal MajkaGetty Images
Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) *
The Pole will have a free role in a team in which all focus will be on Peter Sagan and the world champion's quest for a record-equalling sixth green jersey. Not that Majka will mind: he got used to playing second fiddle to Contador for all those years at Tinkoff.
The 28-year-old – yes, he's still only 28! – once made the podium in the Vuelta and has a top five from the Giro, but he's yet to crack even the top 25 of the Tour. Rather than yellow, Majka will have his sights set on stage wins and a third polka dot jersey – with anything else a bonus.
Can Richie Porte upgrade his Dauphine yellow to Tour yellow?Getty Images
Predicted Top 10: Porte breaks his duck
1. Richie Porte, 2. Nairo Quintana, 3. Chris Froome, 4. Romain Bardet, 5. Vincenzo Nibali, 6. Adam Yates, 7. Rigoberto Uran, 8. Tom Dumoulin, 9. Dan Martin, 10. Jakob Fuglsang