As the Tour de France gets set to begin its run through the Alps on Friday, several memorable story lines have begun to emerge. Sadly, it is largely due to the interesting twists that have led the two pre-race favorites for the maillot jaune were forced to withdraw from the race after crashes.
First it was defending champion Chris Froome who ceded the fight to Team Sky teammate Richie Porte after breaking his left wrist and right hand in crashes during the Stage 5 run on the cobblestones that normally feature in the spring classic Paris-Roubaix. Then it was Tinkoff-Saxo Bank’s leader, the two-time yellow jersey winner Alberto Contador, that was forced to leave the race after crashes in the Vosges mountains on Stage 10. With the roads about to tilt ever skyward, beginning with Friday’s summit finish at Chamrousse and continuing through the second weekend, there are five big stories to watch:
- Could Vincenzo Nibali finish his sweep of the Grand Tours? The 29-year-old leader of Astana has been in the yellow jersey all but two days during this year’s race — which means both that he is strong, and that his team has had to do a lot of work protecting the Italian day in and day out in the peloton. Nibali, who has already won the Vuelta a Espana (2010) and Giro d’Italia (2013), could become just the sixth cyclist in history to win all three Grand Tours during his career if he remains in yellow until the Champs-Elysees. For a rider who long toiled in the shadows as a domestique for other team leaders such as Ivan Basso, this could be unlikely vindication for a strong career well raced.
- Is Richie Porte up to the challenge of leading Team Sky? So far, the 29-year-old Tasmanian has managed to keep himself under three minutes behind Nibali. With the high mountains looming, the former triathlete will have to find some way to shave down the advantage the Italian enjoys. Having never been a leadership position before (formerly serving as a lieutenant for Contador and 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins), is Porte up to the test? He finished in the top 20 last year, but a solid result as a second (or third) fiddle and improving on podium position are two very different beasts.
- Is this finally Alejandro Valverde’s time to shine? Ever since finishing in third place at the 2003 Vuelta a Espana, Valverde has been tabbed as a potential future winner of the Tour de France. 11 years later, the man from Murcia is still searching for his opportunity after being pipped by Contador as the next great stage-racing Spaniard. Unlike Porte, however, Valverde has been a team leader in the past and has a Grand Tour victory to his name after taking the 2009 Vuelta. He has finished in the top 10 on three different occasions in France, including last year’s eighth-place result. Barring an unfortunate incident, he will almost certainly claim his first podium finish in Paris; but with the two favorites gone, there is no better chance than the present for the 34-year-old to finally fulfill the promise of his youth and don yellow.
- Can anyone take the green jersey from Peter Sagan? With a 150-point lead on Bryan Coquard, the Cannondale sprinter has been wearing the maillot vert since stage 2. Sagan has yet to win a single stage, and the opportunities are shrinking for the Slovak star as the roads ramp toward the heavens, but his consistency has put him in position to go nearly wire-to-wire (save the first of Marcel Kittel’s three stage wins to date on opening day in England). As long as he remains near the top threats to his title and stays consistent, he could become the first rider to win three straight since Erik Zabel’s run of six straight from 1996 to 2001.
- Could a Frenchman finally return to the podium? Behind the three leaders, three of the next four riders in fourth through seventh place are racing on home soil. Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet, 3:01 behind Nibali’s leading time, is also just 14 seconds off Valverde’s pace and less than a minute behind Porte. His compatriot, FDJ.fr’s Thibault Pinot, is less than a minute off podium pace himself. And in seventh, right behind American cyclist Tejay Van Garderen, lurks Bardet’s teammate Jean-Christophe Peraud. All of these riders are within four minutes of Nibali’s pace; French fans can legitimately hope for the first podium finish by a countryman since Richard Virenque finished second in 1997, and the most optimistic can even dream of their first win since Bernard Hinault’s 1985 victory.