Blazin' Saddles: 6 talking points from the Tour de Suisse and Tour of Slovenia
With the experienced Richie Porte winning the Tour de Suisse and the exciting Primoz Roglic starring in the Tour of Slovenia, what do last week's races mean in relation to the Tour de France, which starts in less than three weeks on Saturday 7th July?
In last week's Blazin' Saddles we took a look at what their performances in the Criterium du Dauphine meant for the likes of Geraint Thomas, Romain Bardet, Adam Yates, Vincenzo Nibali, Tom Dumoulin and Dan Martin ahead of the Tour de France.
Now it's the turn of those riders who have chosen a different path in the build-up to the most important stage race of the season. Here are a few take-aways from another thrilling week's worth of racing in Europe.
Porte shaping up, again, to be Froome's biggest threat
Since his annual blitz on Willunga Hill it's been a quiet season for Richie Porte, who won the Tour de Suisse on Sunday without adding to his solitary stage scalp this season from back in January. That shouldn't be too huge a concern: Tours have been won that way before, while the Australian showed enough form in the mountains to indicate that he'll enter the race all guns blazing.
Of course, Porte's big problem has been finding consistency throughout a three-week Tour. It wasn't until his fifth place in the 2016 Tour that he bettered his previous highest Grand Tour finish – seventh place back in his debut Giro back in 2010.
Last year, Porte entered the Tour in the form of his life but crashed out on the descent of the Mont du Chat – wiping out Dan Martin's hopes, to boot. This year, the 33-year-old has had a more low-key and less successful build-up to his season's big target. But the cloud over former team-mate Chris Froome – plus the historic difficulties faced by riders attempting a Giro-Tour double – means this could be Porte's best chance to win the Tour. At least, since last year.
Ulissi wins Stage 5 as Porte takes lead
BMC's winning performance in the opening TTT in Frauenfeld bodes well – especially after Sky blitzed the TTT in the Dauphine – while the way Porte stormed up the Klausenpass in yellow, dropping all his rivals with 80km still to ride in pursuit of stage winner Diego Ulissi, was Froome-esque in its bombasticasity.
Question marks will remain until he proves us otherwise, but could this mature and measured version of Porte finally see the Australian deliver in the biggest race of all? He'll need everything to go his way, and he'll have to avoid the kind of catastrophe which he seems so adept at attracting. But stranger things have happened.
Nairo Quintana, on the other hand, is a different kind of beast. The Colombian is a proven Grand Tour winner – as opposed to a proven lieutenant to a Grand Tour winner – but he is yet to win the biggest of them all, last year slipping out of the top ten after burning up his matches finishing runner-up in the Giro.
Where Porte rides for a BMC team that will be built around him, Quintana rides for a Movistar team of individuals where three riders – himself, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa – will form a leading trident that will battle for leadership on the road. If it sounds fun, it's also potentially a recipe for disaster. But then again, disasters happen frequently in the opening week of Grand Tours – and what a luxury it is to have a capable back-up plan. More so, two of them.
As it stands, Quintana will surely be the man Movistar expects to push Froome the most vigorously in July. There's no doubting Landa's panache but he's inconsistent as his monobrow is bushy – showing the whole range of his skills and limitations over the week-long race in Switzerland, which he finished exactly four minutes slower than Porte.
As for Valverde, the evergreen Spaniard won again over the weekend in La Route d'Occitanie but while his consistency is commendable, it would be an insult to Quintana if his chances were compromised by the sentimental backing of a 38-year-old entering the twilight of his career.
Quintana made a hash of his 2017 by trying an unlikely double off the back of two fiercely-fought Grand Tours the previous year. The 28-year-old has limited his race days in 2018, concentrating rather on training at home in Colombia. He should be in peak condition next month.
It is only by backing Quintana that Movistar will win the Tour. The Colombian showcased his climbing by attacking early in the 27km climb to Arosa and holding on to beat Porte by 22 seconds. This should be proof enough to end the speculation and (at least in private) set Movistar's hierarchy in stone.
Uran and Fuglsang lead chasing pack
Favourites fade and each year a rider with the ability to perform with consistency and conservatism emerges. 12 months ago, it was Rigoberto Uran who turned back the years to finish runner-up – a position, let's be fair, the Colombian is quite used to.
Already twice runner-up in the Giro when he finished behind Froome in the 2017 Tour, Uran must be the only GC rider of his generation never to have won a stage race of any kind in his career. And the 31-year-old was at it again over the weekend, when he finished runner-up to Primoz Roglic in the Tour of Slovenia for EF Education First-Drapac.
Uran showed off his climbing legs with victory in stage 3 at Celje, passing touted duo Roglic and Rafal Majka before edging out Daryl Impey in the final sprint to deny the South African another memorable win in what has been a stellar season.
Uran takes amazing Stage 3 in Slovenia
But then, having finished the queen stage in the chasing group behind stage winner Roglic, Uran put in a thoroughly underwhelming performance in the 21.5km ITT to remind us that he will never win a stage race through his own ability alone. Needing your rivals to slip up is no way of winning a Grand Tour – and it's for this reason that Uran will struggle to win, or perhaps even replicate, his performance from last July.
Meanwhile, over at Astana, Denmark's Jakub Fuglsang will have another chance to prove his worth as team leader as Miguel Angel Lopez recovers ahead of the Vuelta. Fuglsang put in a solid if unspectacular performance in Switzerland to finish runner-up behind Porte, whom he pipped for second place in the stage to Arosa. The Dane did, it should be noted, finish well ahead of all his GC rivals in the final time trial to showcase his all-round ability.
Winner of the Dauphine last year, the 33-year-old is one of those riders capable of ghosting onto the podium – a la Uran last year – but like the Colombian, he'll never win Grand Tour. Together, they should comprise a strong group of second-tier GC riders in July. But with the competition so fierce, they may even face a battle to make the top five.
Roglic has weapons in his armoury to cause an upset
On paper, you'd put Primoz Roglic of Slovenia right near the top of the list of Tour contenders off the back of his superb form this season. The 28-year-old from LottoNL-Jumbo added a third GC scalp to his name this season following earlier wins in the Basque Country and Romandie after winning both the queen stage to Kamnik and the decisive final day ITT in Novo Mesto.
To win a Grand Tour you need that perfect blend of climbing and time trialling ability – and Roglic's form this season shows that he's chomping at the bit to take a step up. But a three-week race is another beast – and Roglic is still unproven in Grand Tours.
Roglic claims GC lead with Stage 4 win in Slovenia
On his two performances in Grand Tours he has notched stage wins in the 2016 Giro and the 2017 Tour – but finished 58th and 38th respectively. A lot will depend on how conservatively Roglic – a naturally aggressive rider – is prepared to race the Tour, and how much backing he gets from his LottoNL-Jumbo team, who may favour the more experienced legs of Steven Kruijswijk.
Either way, it's been a remarkable season for Roglic and it will be fascinating to see where he takes it from here. Should the Slovenian prove himself capable of climbing with the big guns in July, then he could top the list of outsiders.
Suisse stutters a timely reminder for Gaviria
After notching four stage wins in his maiden Grand Tour at last year's Giro, all eyes will be upon Fernando Gaviria in the Tour as he makes his long-awaited debut. After all, such was the Colombian's promise that Quick-Step were prepared to let Marcel Kittel leave for Katusha-Alpecin.
Kittel's abysmal form continued with a string of embarrassing performances in Slovenia, where he failed to feature in the two bunch sprints. If this may indicate that Quick-Step backed the right horse in the off-season, then Gaviria still has to keep his side of the bargain.
Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ), Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) - Sprint
Image credit: Imago
On his day, the 23-year-old is a match for anyone in bunch sprints – as exemplified by his seven wins so far this season. But with team-mate Elia Viviani performing so well in the Giro, Gaviria may be feeling the pinch ahead of Quick-Step's bid to keep going a run of five Grand Tours in which they have won at least four stages.
Gaviria was denied by world champion Peter Sagan in stage 2, Sonny Colbrelli in stage 3 and Arnaud Demare in stage 8, leaving the race with three bridesmaid performances which should spur him on to being the best man in France. He shouldn't be too concerned – but by losing to three very different types of sprinters, it was a timely reminder for Gaviria that winning a Tour stage won't be as plain sailing as it is in the Giro.
And with the likes of Dylan Groenewegen keeping Caleb Ewan and Mark Cavendish at bay in Slovenia, and Nacer Bouhanni overcoming yet more Cofidis in-fighting to win at stage at La Route d'Occitane, Gaviria will need no reminding that the sprinting competition in the Tour will be like nothing else he has previously experienced.
Groenewegen claims Stage 2 in Slovenia
Sagan a shoo-in for green
When Peter Sagan was kicked out of last year's Tour, Michael Matthews stood in admirably to wrest the green jersey from the shoulders of Marcel Kittel in spite of the German flat-track bully's five stage wins. It marked perhaps the start of the decline of Kittel, which has stretched over to his time at Katusha-Alpecin.
While Matthews has had his own battles this season, he was very much eclipsed by Sagan in Switzerland as the world champion notched his fourth win of the season and took a record seventh Tour de Suisse points jersey.
Capable of winning bunch sprints and uphill kicks alike, Bora-Hansgrohe's Sagan will enter the Tour as odd-on favourite to win a sixth Tour green jersey and add to his tally of eight Tour stage wins. Matthews was a capable deputy for Sagan when he was unjustly thrown off the Tour last July – but no one does it better than the real McCoy.
Only a mad man would bet against Sagan's wearing green in Paris.