Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: Rating the top 20 contenders

There’s a feeling in the air this month that this could be the Tour of upsets.

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At the end of the 98th Tour de France in three weeks’ time, we will all look back and say, “Well, it was obvious that so-and-so would win, and that what’s-his-name would podium, and we knew that guy would flame out.” Then again, who will they be, these riders whose performances are so predictable?

There’s a feeling in the air this month — was it the crowd’s hostile reception to Contador in the Gallo-Roman arena Thursday that set the tone? — that this could be the Tour of upsets. What’s exciting about the race is that we can’t predict upsets but we can rejoice in them when they happen. This Tour very well might be one that is unpredictable.

Over the past 20 years we’ve been too conditioned by the multiple Tour victories of first Miguel Induráin and then Lance Armstrong and (now?) Alberto Contador to believe that an outsider has a chance of winning. But just consider these words spoken Friday by former Dutch racer Steven Rooks to Radio Netherlands Worldwide:

“The Tour goes on for three weeks (and) you’ve got to stay alert the whole time, even during the flat stages … not getting involved in pileups, dealing with nerves, continuous concentration, eating and drinking well, not getting sick. There are lots of deciding factors which show whether you’re ready or not.”

Rooks should know. He was really a classics rider but, 23 years ago, he finished second in the Tour, the last Dutchman to stand on the podium in Paris. He would like to think his compatriot Robert Gesink could be the next one to follow him, maybe this year.

So who will those mystery men be? The ones who win the Tour, step on the podium or flame out? None of us really knows, so here’s a detailed look at the top 20 contenders (from five-star to one-star ranking) for the 2011 Tour’s maillot jaune.


Alberto Contador (Sp), 28, Saxo Bank-SunGard

Contador is ready for the race. AFP PHOTO / PASCAL PAVANI
Contador at the team introduction Thursday. AFP PHOTO / PASCAL PAVANI

After winning Tour-Giro-Vuelta-Tour-Tour-Giro in his last six grand tours, Contador starts his fifth Tour de France as the outright favorite, despite the unresolved decision on his 2010 clenbuterol positive. He will have psychological problems coping with hostile crowds (he was booed and whistled at Thursday’s presentation and two-thirds of French fans believe he shouldn’t start), and he faces the strongest field of challengers since he began winning grand tours. Contador himself has doubts about riding the Tour so close to the Giro — which was physically draining despite his winning almost unopposed. The early Tour stages, particularly the team time trial, could see him lose time (and perhaps teammates) before the first high-mountain stage on July 14. In other words, he’s beatable.


Cadel Evans (Aus), 34, BMC Racing

2011 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré, prologue, Evans
Cadel Evans in the Dauphine prologue

By winning this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour de Romandie and placing second (for the fourth time!) in the Dauphiné, Evans is arguably on the best form of his storied career. He has twice come close to winning the Tour (second to Contador by 23 seconds in 2007 and by 58 seconds to Carlos Sastre in ’08) and he broke his arm the day he took the yellow jersey last year, so this could be his year. And he has stronger teammates for the mountains in Swiss Steve Morabito, Italian Ivan Santaromita and Frenchman Amaël Moinard.

Andy Schleck (Lux), 26, Leopard-Trek
After placing second at three grand tours (2007 Giro, 2009 Tour and 2010 Tour), the younger Schleck brother is going into this race to win. He can climb almost as fast as Contador and he has a stronger team (a good combination of experienced riders and young bloods), but he’ll need a solid lead before the stage 20 time trial (his weak point) to hold on to the yellow jersey. His form has been erratic all season, but he showed signs of good climbing form approaching at the recent Tour de Suisse, and he looks ready to step up this month.


Robert Gesink (Nl), 25, Rabobank
By finishing sixth in the Tour last year, this Dutch climber began to fulfill the expectations placed in him by a bike-crazy nation that’s looking for its first Tour podium finisher since Steven Rooks in 1988. But Gesink still doesn’t look ready for that despite improving his time-trialing ability this year and having a team entirely devoted to helping him.

Levi Leipheimer (USA), 37, Team RadioShack

2011 Tour de Suisse, stage 9: Final Podium
The final 2011 Tour de Suisse podium: left to right: Steven Kruijswijk, Leipheimer and Damiano Cunego.

As a podium finisher at the Tour and Vuelta, and a winner of the world’s most important weeklong stage races — including the recent Tour de Suisse — Leipheimer is perhaps the one dark horse who can upset the top favorites in this Tour. His RadioShack team should be superb in the TTT and will be outstanding in the mountains, just the ingredients he’ll need to keep in range of the yellow jersey going into the final time trial, his specialty.

Fränk Schleck (Lux), 31, Leopard-Trek
Older brother to Andy, Schleck placed sixth and fifth at the 2008 and ’09 Tours before crashing out on the early cobbles stage last year. He won the 2011 Critérium International two-day in March, including a summit finish, and he should prove an invaluable teammate (and roommate) and advisor for his brother.

Brad Wiggins (GB), 31, Sky
He’ll get a great start with his Sky colleagues in the team time trial, and he can look forward to a top performance in the only individual TT, but Wiggins will need to be consistent on every mountaintop finish if he’s going to improve on his fourth-place finish of two years ago. Winning the Dauphiné has boosted his confidence and if he continues in the right mental state this three-time Olympic pursuit champ could be on the podium in Paris.


Ivan Basso (I), 33, Liquigas-Cannondale
The two-time winner of the Giro d’Italia and twice podium finishers at the Tour, Basso on paper is the one rider who can unseat Contador. But he has been enigmatic this year, never in good condition and riding poorly in time trials. His team is a solid mix of young and experienced riders who’ll do all they can to help their leader, but he may not find his best form until it is too late.

Chris Horner (USA), 39, Team RadioShack

2011 Amgen Tour of California, stage 5, Casey B. Gibson gallery
Horner in the lead at the Tour of California. Photo: Casey B. Gibson.

Like a fine wine, Horner simply gets better with age. Eating healthier (and less) has brought his weight down from the 70 kilograms (154 pounds) listed in his team book to 63.5 kg (140 pounds), which in turn has helped turn this “good” climber into one of the very best. Whether he can improve on the scintillating form that won the Amgen Tour of California and shoot for the podium, we’ll have to wait until the first mountain stage in the Pyrénées.

Samuel Sanchez (Sp), 33. Euskaltel-Euskadi
The Beijing Olympic road champion has placed second and third at the Vuelta, and was fourth at last year’s Tour, but he lacks the spark to go higher in a grand tour. His poor time-trialing ability works against him, while his excellent downhill skills won’t be too important in a Tour with so many mountaintop finishes.

Jorgen Van den Broeck (B), 28, Omega Pharma-Lotto
By placing fifth at the 2010 Tour, Van den Broeck raised Belgian hopes that he can shoot for the podium this year. He overcame a mental block in June by winning a semi-mountain stage at the Dauphiné, his first victory besides criteriums in nine seasons, but he’s a poor time trialist and his team isn’t built for the mountains.


David Arroyo (Sp), 31, Movistar
As sole leader of the Movistar team (in the absence of the suspended Alejandro Valverde), this solid Spanish climber will have all the support he needs to improve on his 13th place at the 2010 Tour and show that his runner-up spot (to Ivan Basso) at last year’s Giro was a true indication of his qualities.

Jani Brajkovic (Slo), 27, Team RadioShack

Brajkovic at the 2011 Tour of Catalunya.

Though he is talented as both a climber and time trialist (he beat Contador to win last year’s Dauphiné), this slim Slovenian has yet to prove he can sustain a challenge over three weeks. That’s why he’s more likely to end this Tour (ably) supporting his veteran U.S. teammates Horner and Leipheimer.

Jérôme Coppel (F), 24, Saur-Sojasun
Tabbed as the next great French rider at the Tour, Coppel can climb and time trial very well, and he has the full backing of a team that’s stronger than it looks, but can he bear the pressure of a nation rooting for him?

Ryder Hesjedal (Can), 30, Garmin-Cervélo
This unselfish, hard-working rider from British Columbia races like an old-style Tour contender. He likes to get in long breakaways, and he has the power to match the best on the climbs. If he is to improve on his seventh place of last year Hesjedal will need to gain some time on pre-mountain stages like the ones to Super-Besse and St. Flour.

Christophe Kern (F), 30, Europcar
Even though he’s already 30 years old, Kern has been tabbed as the likely revelation of the 2011 Tour after a startling performance at the recent Dauphiné (a mountain stage win and sixth overall after climbing with the best). He then won the French national time trial title to prove he has all-around strengths.

Andreas Klöden (G), 36, Team RadioShack
This Swiss-based German veteran spent most of his career working for others, notably Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong, but he still managed to finish on the Tour podium two times. He’s been on great form this year, especially in time trials, but should teammates Leipheimer, Horner or Brajkovic prove stronger in the mountains he’ll be a superb worker for them.

2011 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Tejay Van Garderen
Van Garderen at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Photo: Graham Watson

Tejay Van Garderen (USA), 22, HTC-Highroad
While Germany’s Tony Martin and Slovakia’s Peter Velits are HTC’s designated leaders, Tour rookie Van Garderen has the intrinsic ability and talents to do better than both of them. There’s no pressure on the young American, who will be inspired to contest the young riders’ white jersey with the likes of Gesink and Coppel, which in turn should see him competitive on the climbs.

Christian Vande Velde (USA), 35, Garmin-Cervélo
After crashing out last year and taking eighth in 2009 (after serious crashes at the Giro and Tour de Suisse hampered his preparation), the amiable Vande Velde looks ready to regain the form that earned him fourth place in 2008. By sharing team leadership duties with Hesjedal and getting help in the mountains from Tour rookie Tom Danielson, he may achieve his goals.

Alexander Vinokourov (Kaz), 37, Astana
In his final Tour de France, this veteran Kazakh with a mixed reputation is not going to rival the top contenders; but his aggressive style may help him fulfill his dream of wearing the yellow jersey in the opening week.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.