The last time there were more than 100 kilometers of individual time trialing in the Tour de France, five years ago, the three-week race ended in dramatic fashion. Going into the last time trial, the day before reaching Paris, Alberto Contador was holding the yellow jersey by 1:50 over Cadel Evans, with Levi Leipheimer in third, at 2:49. The time trial was 55.5 kilometers, slightly longer than the similar stage this year and long enough for Leipheimer to contemplate grabbing second place from Evansor even snatching the maillot jaune from then teammate Contador.
Both of those scenarios looked possible when, over the opening 40 kilometers, Leipheimer gained three seconds per kilometer on Contador, and slightly less on Evans. Using the split times of the three riders, I did a quick computation that showed that if they continued at the same speed Leipheimer would win the Tour by eleven seconds over Evans, with Contador in third at 22 seconds. That didnt happen, mainly because Evans and Contador started respectively three and six minutes behind the American and knew just what they had to do in the final kilometers to hold on to their overall placings.
The last part of that time-trial course included more turns and was more sheltered than the earlier kilometers, and there was a gnarly climb into the finish town of Angoulme that Leipheimer underestimated. And so Evans and Contador matched Leipheimers finishing speed and the verdict of the time trial was: 1st. Leipheimer, 2nd. Evans, 51 seconds slower, and 5th. Contador, 2:18 back. As for the overall podium, that proved to be the closest in Tour history: 1st. Contador, 2nd. Evans, at 23 seconds, 3rd. Leipheimer, at 31 seconds.
Leipheimer, then age 33, was thrilled with his stage win. That was the best day of my career, he said after the time trial. I had the best legs Ive ever had. Your confidence starts to build on itself during the race. You feel good, and I think your mentality changes. Its hard to describe. You just open up. The American was closer to winning that Tour than most people imagined. Had he not been teammates with Contador, Leipheimer would not have had to work for the Spaniard on the two decisive climbing stages in the Pyrenees, where, despite pulling for his teammate, he only conceded 31 seconds to Contador on those two climbing stagethe margin by which he lost the Tour! If Contador had been working for Leipheimer on those two days, the result would almost certainly have been reversed.
Ive related these elements of the 2007 Tour because of their relevance to the 2012 Tour thats about to start in Lige, Belgium. Contador is not riding because his suspension for a steroid positive wont be lifted until August, while Evans and Leipheimer are again in the hunt for the yellow jersey and relishing the prospect of a significant amount of time trialing. But this Tour is not just about time trials. It also has more categorized climbs (25) than in any of the past six Tours and many more potential contenders than Evans and Leipheimer faced in 2007.
Yes, the time trials will be important, but probably no more important than last year, when there was only one long time trial, not two. Evans knew he could beat his main rivals, Andy and Frnk Schleck, by more than two minutes in that Grenoble time trial and so his strategy in the preceding mountain stages was to gain time where he could (as he did on the slick downhill finish into Gap) and keep his losses to a minimum on the summit finishes (as he did so famously on the Col du Galibier).
Evans wont be able to do the same this year because several potential contenders are as good or better than him at time trialing (specifically Brad Wiggins, Chris Froome and Leipheimer). That means that if Evan wants to repeat as champion (and he does!), the Australian will have to have the Tour won before the final time trial. And that means hell have to gain significant time on Wiggins and the other three in the mountains, whether its uphill or downhilland several mountain stages do end after tricky descents.
Also, most of the other contenders are as strong or stronger than Evans in the mountains, including Frnk Schleck, Chris Horner, Samuel Sanchez, Vincenzo Nibali, Ryder Hesjedal, Jurgen Van den Broeck and Robert Gesink. And some of those riders, notably Sanchez, Hesjedal and Gesink, wont lose too much time to Evans in the time trials. Inevitably, some of these contenders will fall by the wayside, just as Wiggins, Leipheimer, Horner, Van den Broeck and Gesink did last year, because of nasty crashes. Others will fall sick or get injured. So predicting who will end up in the top places is always an exercise as tricky as riding flat out in a prologue time trial in slick conditions.
Of the 12 riders Ive mentioned as contenders, 10 of them have been given the No. 1 designation in their teams. Of the other two, one is RadioShack-Nissans Horner, who has bib No. 14 and will be a protected rider while riding for team leader Schleck. But its possible that the veteran American, 40, will do better than the elder Schleck in the time trials and maybe get into some breaks in the hilly stages.
The other outsider is Team Skys Froome (bib No. 104), who rode so well at the 2011 Vuelta a Espaa that he came in second, one step above team leader Wiggins. Froome was fighting a bacterial infection earlier this year, but he showed at the recent Critrium du Dauphin that he is close to the brilliant form he had in Spain last fall. The Kenya-born Brit has a similar build to Wiggins, can time trial almost as well as his team leader, and he showed in the Vuelta that he may be just a little better than Wiggins on the steeper climbs. Froome has also been training with his teammate at Skys various high-altitude camps in the Canary Isles, and so you can bet hell be ready to step in should Wiggins falter of fall in the next three weeks.
Now for a rundown on the 10 men (from 10 different nations!) who seem destined to be the main contenders in the hunt for the yellow jersey, starting with the defending champion and continuing with riders in number order:
No. 1: Cadel Evans (Australia), 35, BMC Racing
It can be argued that last year Evans was a little lucky because so many of the other contenders crashed, leaving just Andy and Frnk Schleck, an upstart Thomas Voeckler and a less-than-100-percent Contador as his opposition over the final week. But the tough Aussie had previously twice finished second at the Tour on weaker teams than the eight BMC men who supported his last year, and he now has the confidence of knowing hes a winner and that his team is even stronger this time. He knows that Marcus Burghardt, George Hincapie and Michael Schr will keep him near the head of the peloton on the flat stages, that Amal Moinard, Manuel Quinziato and Tejay Van Garderen will be there for him in the mountains, and that Steve Cummings and Philippe Gilbert will be strong on the several hilly, in-between stages. In other words, with his always-gutsy style and devoted team, Evans will be a hard nut to crack.
He finished on the podium last year despite working for his brother Andy, who came in second to Evans, and who is absent this time because of a pelvis fracture obtained in his time-trial crash at the Dauphin. Critics say that the two Schlecks dont race as well if separated, but Andy had his best Tour in 2010 (winning the race by default after Contadors drug suspension), and at that Tour brother Frnk crashed out of the race after only four days. This year, its Frnk whos on his own, and he will likely ride well despite the turmoil that has encircled the RadioShack team this season (the Schlecks poor form, Fabian Cancellara crashing out of the cobblestone classics, Frnk Schleck being forced to replace the injured Jakob Fuglsang as team leader at the Giro, Fuglsangs anger at being left off the Tour team, team director Kim Andersen not being assigned to the Tour by team manager Johan Bruyneelwho then recused himself from the Tour because of his involvement in the USADA doping conspiracy investigation). Strategy-wise, RadioShack has strength in depth behind Schleck and Horner with powerful veterans Cancellara, Andreas Klden, Yaroslav Popovych, Jens Voigt and Haimar Zubeldia.
No. 31: Samuel Sanchez (Spain), 34, Euskaltel-Euskadi
Supported by eight Basques whose only task is to ride hard for their leader, Sanchez is again shooting for the podium. He falls below the media radar because of his low-key character and ungainly style, but Sanchez has achieved much in his long career, including winning the Tours King of the Mountains title last year. Besides this climbing strength, the Spaniard is also a useful time trialist and he looks sure to surprise a few people over the next three weeks before he defends his Olympic road title in London.
Hailed as Italys next cycling messiah, Nibali has yet to live up to that aspiration. He obviously has the talent, having won the Vuelta two years ago and twice finished on the podium of the Giro, but he has placed just 20th and seventh in his two Tour appearances in 2007 and 2008. This year, he opted not to ride the Giro to focus on the Tour, but his preparation rides at the Tours of California and Switzerland were less than reassuring. At his best, Nibali can climb with the other contenders and be solid in time trials, but except for that 2010 Vuelta win and his close victory over Horner at this years Tirreno-Adriatico, he has been the nearly man of Italian cycling. The presence of the Tour-savvy Ivan Basso and the precocious Peter Sagan at his side may inspire Nibali at this Tour, where his biggest assetgoing down technical descents extremely fastmay very well put him into the top five.
No. 61: Ryder Hesjedal (Canada), 31, Garmin-Sharp
Three qualities make the 2012 Giro champion a true threat at this years Tour: a strong body, mental resilience, and an aggressive attitude to racing. Whats more, Hesjedal, whos been a team worker for most of his career, knows that his Garmin-Sharp teammates Tom Danielson, Daniel Martin and Christian Vande Velde will turn themselves inside out to help in on the hills, while David Millar, Johan Van Summeren and Dave Zabriskie will be there for him on the flatsbesides setting up Tyler Farrar and Robbie Hunter for the sprints. And knowing that Evans didnt win the Tour until he was 34 can give the Canadian confidence that even if he comes up short at this Tour, there are several more to come when hell be the potential winner.
No. 101: Brad Wiggins (Great Britain), 32, Team Sky
In the bettors book, Wiggins and his Team Sky henchmen are the odds-on favorites to win this Toureven though a Brit has never even finished on the Paris podium. On paper, Wiggins has done everything right in the year since he crashed out of the last Tour, but maybe Skys military precision will be two rigid to adapt to unforeseen circumstances. Will there be too much pressure on the team to constantly chase down dangerous breakaways? Or will they crack under the daily drudge of pulling the pack? Ideally, Wiggos ultra-strong teammates Froome, Eddy Boasson Hagen, Richie Porte and Michael Rogers will control the mountain stages; team sprint ace Mark Cavendish will get help from all the other sprinters team to control the peloton on the flats; and Wiggins will be fresh enough to win the Tour in the time trials. But even he knows that with so many strong teams and contenders, hell have to fight harder than hes ever fought to have the yellow jersey on the Champs-lyses.
No. 111: Jurgen Van den Broeck (Belgium), 29, Lotto-Belisol
You can say that this modest Belgian, who rarely wins a race, is still a work in progress. He did place top-five in 2010, but Van den Broeck does not have the raw talent of a Wiggins or a Schleck, even though he follows a solid regime in preparation for July. His best chance of winning a Tour may come unexpectedly, similar to how Carlos Sastre won the race in 2008. But not this year.
No. 131: Denis Menchov (Russia), 34, Katusha Team
Even though he has won the Giro and the Vuelta, this taciturn Russian has placed top five only twice in nine appearances at the Tour. His form has been poor this year, but whether thats caused by focusing everything on the Tour, well have to wait and see. Menchovs team can ride strongly, but its Tour selection does not have a solid look. Nor does he.
No. 151: Robert Gesink (Netherlands), 26, Rabobank
After losing his father in a mountain bike accident, breaking his right leg in three places, and then having a baby daughter with his partner, this likeable Dutchman has lived through many life experiences in the past year or so. Those happenings have greatly matured Gesink, the youngest of this Tours true contenders, and he will be a far more formidable opponent than many believe. Since rehabbing the broken leg, Gesink has shown improving form this year, with his victory at the Amgen Tour of California the highlight, while he placed top five in the time trials at both that race and the more recent Tour de Suisse. And with a potentially powerful set of teammates in the mountains, headed by Steven Kruijswijk, Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam, look for Gesink to go on the attack whenever theres an opportunity.
No. 191: Levi Leipheimer (United States), 38, Omega Pharma-Quick Step
By regular standards, at age 38, Leipheimer shouldnt even be considered as a Tour de France contender. But the American came to the Tour late. He rode it for the first time at 28, and he has shown throughout his subsequent career that he just keeps getting better. Even after his leg was broken in April, he worked diligently to regain his strength and find the form to place sixth overall at his first race back, the Tour of California, then third overall in Switzerland (despite not being at his best in the time trials). Now, with a well-balanced Omega Pharma-Quick Step team built around him and co-leader Tony Martin, Leipheimer has every chance of doing his best Tourand perhaps taking that yellow jersey that has so far eluded him.
I began this preview of what Im sure will be a surprising and spellbinding 99th edition of the Tour with a story about Evans and Leipheimer at the 2007 Tour. Five years on and five years wiser, and both with far stronger teammates around them, they should make their mark on the race in even greater fashion. They have the wherewithal to outsmart Wiggins, but only the next three weeks will show if they have the legs to match the tall Brit in his dream season of 2012. So far, Wiggins has become the only man in history to win Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the Critrium du Dauphin in the same season. To follow up that streak by also winning the Tour is perhaps too much to ask.
And so, after taking into account all the above considerations, my prediction for the 2012 Tour de France is the following: 1. Evans, 2. Wiggins, 3. Leipheimer, 4. Gesink, 5. Hesjedal, 6. Nibali, 7. Sanchez, 8. Schleck, 9. Menchov, 10. Van den Broeck. And should Schleck or Wiggins drop out of contention for any reason, I can see Horner and Froome both placing top 10.
Ill be writing about the happening in this Tour every day for pelotonmagazine.com, so if you have any questions any day, drop me a line.