Given the clear superiority of Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Cadel Evans (BMC) and a Tour de France route that caters to their talents against the clock, you could argue that every other GC contender is a dark horse. The wise Inner Ring summed it up nicely with the headline “Who will finish third?”
Still, it’s worth remembering that the first week of the tour is crazy and crash-heavy and Wiggins or Evans or both could hit the tarmac. Wiggins broke his collarbone last year in France and the year before it was Evans with a fractured elbow. It’s a guarantee that at least one top CG rider will not survive the first week.
Given that scenario, there’s room for two dark horses on the podium in Paris and maybe even a rider who isn’t a master time trailer. Yo, let’s break it down!
Denis Menchov (Katusha)
We just had to get the Russian out of the way because he bores the crap out of us. The Silent Assassin has done jack so far this season but he’s an experienced grand tour rider. Slow and steady and not a word to the press. We have a bias against Menchov just based on lack of entertainment value. He doesn’t “animate a race,” he puts it to sleep. The man is a human tranquilizer. But perhaps Menchov is still working with his buddy Dr Ferrari and he’s ready for one last swing at La Grande Boucle. We have him out of the top five and hopefully out of the top ten. Au revoir, Denis.
Samuel Sanchez (Euskatel)
We’re huge fans of the Men of Orange and Samuel Sanchez. Repeat fact for thousandth time: 100 kilometers of time trial. Got it. The man can climb like the polka dot champ he was last year. He’s experienced, he holds up well over three weeks, his team is 100% Sammy-Focused, and he’s not afraid to take risks on a descent and attack with aggression. Sammy is going to ride the way Andy Schleck would have been forced to ride in the mountains. Attack, attack, attack. And let it be said that Sanchez can deliver a decent time trial and we all know the final TT is more about energy reserves than specialist skill. We’re giving Sammy a mental seat push. Top five for sure, maybe podium.
Alejandro “Nothing Wrong” Valverde (Movistar)
Nothing would please us more than watching Valverde crash out on the first corner of the opening prologue. In fact, we’d like Valverde and Vinokourov both out in the first corner. There’s a decent chance Valverde will pick up a stage win like Vino did two years ago. Then, look out, because he’s gonna get crowd boos and an unsympathetic treatment by half the media. He may even write a letter of outrage like Vino.
Robert Gesink (Rabobank)
Based on his results winning the Tour of California and his fourth overall in the Tour de Suisse, Gesink Fever has gripped the media. As fevers go, that’s not too exciting but there’s no question the boney Dutchman has his best shot in years. The question for us is his mental fragility and whether he survives the first week. If you could pick one guy to go down in the first seven stages, it would be Gesink. Sweeping statement: no podium.
Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp)
As much as we were impressed by Hesjedal in the Giro and as highly as we value Jonathan Vaughters’ genius, we don’t see Hesjedal near the podium. It’s been 14 years since the last man pulled off the Giro-Tour double — that was Marco Pantani and we know exactly how he did it. So for that kind of accomplishment, you have to put Hesjedal in the same category as Indurain, Hinault and Merckx. Here at Twisted Spoke that just strains credulity. No podium, wears out in the Pyrenees.
Andreas Kloden (RadioShack-Nissan Trek)
Are you serious and when was your last neuropsychological exam?
Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto)
VDB might be the Belgian version of Denis Menchov — dull, quiet, nearly invisible until it matters in a stage race. Fourth on GC in the Algarve, third in Catalunya, 12th in the Pais Vasco and fifth in the Dauphine, Jurgen is certainly in the form ballpark. We’ll always remember the kid at the summit finish two years ago on Tourmalet. He rode right through the middle of then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s entourage and didn’t feel the need to apologize. He said he was here to race and Sarkozy should stay out of his way. You gotta love that. VDB is one of our dark-horse faces. Should Evans or Wiggins crash out, put Jurgen on the podium.
Frank Schleck (RadioShack Nissan-Trek)
He’s tired, his legs are cooked, he doesn’t want to be captain, he misses his brother Andy, he dislikes team manager Johan Bruyneel, he’s trying to figure out an exit strategy. Does this sound like a guy who wants to crawl onto the podium? No, it doesn’t. Goodbye Frank, see you at the next squad, get that Leopard scarf out of the closet, it may be back in fashion.
Levi Leipheimer (Oemga Pharma-Quickstep)
Being ancient ourselves, we have a soft, sentimental spot for guys like Leipheimer who are still competitive but running out of years. Big diesel engines like Leipheimer, Chris Horner and Christian Vande Velde do well in the Tour. Grind it out, stay with the lead group, throw down a good time trial. Does Leipheimer have a legit shot at the podium? Just don’t see it happening because our experience is that he always has one off day and the little guy tends to hit the ground. As his DS Brian Holm said this season, “Levi, he is made of chocolate.” Levi works with his personal physiologist, the brilliant Allen Lim and if anybody can get him ready and dial in his recovery, it’s Lim. Still, it’s a pont trop loin — a bridge too far, for you non-Frenchies. No podium, top ten.
Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Sharp)
While Garmin has designated Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal the Tour captain, that just strikes us as provisional, an interim role. Our guess is that the real boss is Vande Velde, who delivered a fourth overall back in 2008. The likable Vande Velde is our third and final pick for a podium in Paris, city of light and maillot jaune. He’s got the experience, he time trials well, he has a strong support cast and mostly, his build up has been flawless. His one problem is a propensity to crash too often, but so far this season his luck has held. Should he get through the first week intact, look out. Podium possible.
VIncenzo Nibali (Liquigas)
We’re fans of the Shark — and who isn’t — given his aggressive, attacking style of racing. He won the Vuelta two years ago and nearly pulled off wins in Milan San Remo and Liege-Bastogne-Leige. Still, he did squat in the Tour of California including a lousy time trial. He then followed that up with an unimpressive performance in the Dauphiné. He then retreated to the mountains to chop wood and do hill repeats and pray his legs suddenly reappear. Nothing would please us more than to see Nibali on the podium at Le Tour. But somehow we have this nagging feeling that he doesn’t quite have that 100%, 12 month, obsessive commitment shown by Wiggins and Evans. He’s immensely talented but that last piece isn’t in place yet. Thus, no podium.
Chris Horner (RadioShack)
We’re throwing in Horner because he’s 41 freakin’ year old and still capable of riding a top ten in the most brutally inhuman race in the world. Chapeau, you crazy bald guy. And you know what? He’s going to do it again just for Twisted Spoke. A great human story for RadioShack in what has been a disappointing and miserable season.
Final Prediction (With massive asterisk)
1st Cadel Evans. Because he’s tenacious, confident, multi-talented and Tejay Van Garderen will be a massive asset in the mountains.
2nd Bradley Wiggins. Why second? Because he has a bad day and Evans doesn’t –Simple as that.
3rd Christian Vande Velde or Samuel Sanchez or Jurgen Van Den Broeck
Asterisk: Wiggins crashes out of Tour for second year in a row. Because most times, the storybook ending doesn’t happen.