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The media mob in Corsica this weekend is hounding the characters who, for the next three weeks, will be starring in that true reality show known as the Tour de France: Froome, Contador, Evans, Hesjedal, Valverde, Rodriguez, Porte, van Garderen, Martin and Quintana. Any of these 10 men could end up in Paris on July 21 wearing the final yellow jersey of this 100th edition of a race that can be the most predictable and the least predictable at the same time.
The greatest of the Tours four five-time winners, Eddy Merckx, told me a few years ago: When you are the strongest, the Tour is the easiest race to win because its the hardest race of all. In other words, Merckx was saying that the strongest rider will always come out on topbut he needs to have many and varied qualities.
Another personality who knew something about winning the Tour, co-founder Henri Desgrange, the race director for the first 30 editions, wrote a book about training for cyclists titled: The Head and the Legs. Desgrange knew that a potential Tour winner needed a smart brain to respond to all the mental challenges thrown at him, and strong legs to cope with all the demands of the race and his opponents.
For Merckx, that meant displaying strength in every department of the race: climbing, time trialing, stamina, teammates, strategy, experience, incentive and resilience, while Desgrange liked to praise the back-to-the-wall heroism of Frenchmen such as Lucien Petit-Breton, Eugne Christophe and Andr Leducq, whether or not they ended up winning.
Its a given in the modern Tour that to be a strong candidate for victory you have you have the personal strength (and top form) to match (or beat) the other contenders in the mountaintop stage finishes and the long time trials, the collective strength to do well in the team time trial, and the right colleagues to protect you on the flat stages and pace you up the hardest climbs. Less focus is given to the other three criteria that Desgrange and Merckx both emphasized: experience, incentive and resilience.
Looking at the experience of the 10 riders listed above, only the first three, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans have previously finished on the Tour podium (it doesnt look like 2010 winner Andy Schleck has a chance of challenging for the yellow jersey this year). Of the other seven contenders, the only one without a Tour under his belt is Nairo Quintana, the Colombian dark horse on the Movistar team who could be on a steep learning curve should his team leader Alejandro Valverde falter in the first half of this Tour.
Incentive is another understated requirement for a Tour winner. It was Brad Wiggins huge desire to win the Tour de France that made him devote everything to achieving that goal last year, but now he has won the Tour the brilliant Brit says he no longer has the incentive to try for a second Grand Tour victory. Thats not the case with his Team Sky teammate Froome, second in 2012, who said this week that he wants to keep shooting for the yellow jersey for another six or seven years. As for the rest of the current contenders, they all have every incentive to try to win the upcoming Tourparticularly Evans, Hesjedal and Valverde, who are all coming toward the end of their careers.
So that leaves us with resilience, a quality that can truly separate a champion from the also-rans. In the case of the Tour, that attribute can range from being mentally strong during a crisis (whether chasing back to the peloton after a mechanical or gritting your teeth on a bad day so as to not lose too much time to a rival), to being physically resistant to harsh weather conditions (whether thats heat-wave temperatures on a flat stage or a thunderstorm in the mountains).
So lets take a look at the men hoping to conquer this years yellow jersey. Froome passes the resilience test in many ways. His first experience of bike riding was on a mountain bike in the African bush when he lived in Kenya; and he began his pro road career five years ago with the South African-sponsored, Italian-based team, Barloworld, whose directors put him into the Tour in his rookie season (he finished 81st, including 14th in the final time trial) and into the Giro dItalia the following year (finishing 35th). Those two seasons, which also included Froome starting such varied classics as Paris-Roubaix and Lige-Bastogne-Lige, added to the Kenyan-born Brits resilience, as did the manner in which he has won a string of major stage races this year.
Perhaps his most impressive 2013 ride came at the end of April on the fourth stage of Switzerlands Tour de Romandie, when in miserably cold, wet conditions on the Col des Mosses climb, and after the last of his teammates (Richie Porte) had fallen back, Froome rode away from the group of favorites. He caught a four-man break and continued on through the clouds to join solo attacker Simon Spilak, who then sat on Froome before taking the stage. That performance more than made up for his losing the leaders jersey at Italys Tirreno-Adriatico in March, when Froome suffered in the torrential rain on the ultra steep grades of the penultimate stage to Porto SantElpidio, and was unable to follow the decisive attack by Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Sagan and Joaquim Rodriguez.
That same day at Tirreno, both Contador and Evans did better than Froome, and that stage result could have given both of these former Tour winners a psychological boost over the Team Sky leader. More recently, Saxo-Tinkoffs Contador faced Froome at the Critrium du Dauphin, where the Spaniard failed badly in the flat individual time trial (which is currently a weakness that may prevent him winning another Tour), but there was no questioning his resilience in the final mountain stage, in cold, misty weather, where he unselfishly rode support for his better-paced colleague, Michael Rogers.
As for BMC Racings Evans, his most recent ride came at the Giro dItalia, where he placed third overall despite not being close to his best form. His podium spot can be put down to experience and resilienceboth of which qualities ooze from the veteran Australians solid torso. Who doesnt remember the all-around skills shown by this former mountain biker at the Giro of 2010 when he won the epic stage over the muddy and hilly roads of Tuscanys strade bianche on a day of cold rain and strong winds?
Like Evans, Garmin-Sharps Hesjedal is a former mountain bike champion who can do well in any type of conditions and over any type of terrain. The Canadian was sad that he couldnt fully defend his 2012 Giro title because of a probable bronchial infectionbut he showed in his brief appearance at this months Tour de Suisse (before a crash put him out of the race) that he can quickly regain his best form in time trials and mountain climbing. Also, Hesjedal proved his resilience over and over in his former domestique role at Garmin.
Both Evans and Hesjedal have added strength in the shape of their teammates. Assuming that Evans is back to his best (remember his one man show of batting a headwind up the Galibier to contain Andy Schleck in the Aussies winning Tour of 2011?), he will benefit hugely from Tejay van Garderens climbing skills. Meanwhile, Hesjedal will have a plethora of talented helpers in Garmins other climbers, Dan Martin, Tom Danielson, Andrew Talansky and Christian Vande Velde, who could cause massive problems for the other teams on every hilly stagestarting this weekend.
None of the climbs on Sundays stage 2 to Ajaccio or Mondays stage 3 to Calvi have great elevation, but both feature short, steep hills in the stages final 20 minutes, while the constant turns and narrow roads along the coast on stage 3 offer perfect terrain for the Garmin teams aggressive tactics. And if their rivals are not attentive or resilient enough, some of them could leave the island of Corsica with their yellow-jersey hopes in the bin.
You can follow John at twitter.com @johnwilcockson
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