Rating the Tour de France favorites, from W(iggins) to Z

From Evans to Sanchez, Wiggins to Menchov, we run down the favorites for the 2012 Tour de France

Photo: AFP

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Cadel Evans (AUS), BMC Racing ★★★★

Throughout his decade-long career on the road, Cadel Evans had a reputation as a quirky rider, prone to buckling under pressure. But that was before the fall of 2009. Now he enters the 2012 Tour de France as the defending champion and one of two top favorites for victory in Paris.

It was in October 2009 that Evans won the world road title with a gritty attack in Mendrisio, Switzerland, barely 10 minutes from his current home in Stabio. That move — and his subsequent transfer to BMC Racing — was the birth of a new-look Cadel Evans.

He won the 2010 Flèche Wallonne spring classic, then rode through stage 9 of that year’s Tour with the yellow jersey and a fractured elbow. In 2011 Evans made a run through the early stage races, winning Tirrreno-Adriatico and finishing second at the Critérium du Dauphiné. And on July 24, 2011, Evans stood atop the Tour’s final podium in yellow, the first Australian to do so.

Now the task is to get back there.

With the support of George Hincapie, who has ridden alongside more Tour de France winners than any rider in history, and Italian workhorse Manuel Quinziato, Evans enjoys one of the strongest teams in the peloton. Factor in team manager Jim Ochowicz’s dogged obsession with excellence and team owner Andy Rihs’ will to assemble the best team possible, and Evans’ path to yellow should be smoothly paved.

True, the BMC squad has struggled this year, but early season setbacks are nothing new for Evans. In 2011 he missed the Ardennes classics with a quadriceps injury. This year he pulled out after the Amstel Gold Race to recover from a sinus infection.

But Evans’ return to form has taken more time than in 2011. His only wins to date came at the two-day Critérium International and a stage at the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this month. That victory, which came from a gutsy, late, three-man attack, gave the peloton notice that BMC Racing’s early woes wouldn’t count them out in July.

And while Evans didn’t win the Dauphiné, he asserted his presence throughout and took home the points jersey, finishing third overall, less than a minute and a half down on winner Bradley Wiggins (Sky). When he finished second a year ago, it was also behind Wiggins.

The Briton himself recognized Evans’ talent for reaching his peak right at the critical moment.

“Cadel was down by a similar amount last year in the Grenoble time trial here,” Wiggins said after winning the stage-4 time trial at the Dauphiné. “By the time the Tour came around, that last time trial, you know, I think I would’ve struggled to beat Cadel that day. It just showed how he turned that around.”

Even in the midst of the excitement about his Dauphiné win, Wiggins was wary about underestimating Evans and pointed to how greatly his form differed between June and July last year. The Australian’s rivals are not distracted by Evans’ relatively quiet spring, aware that a lot can change between the end of the Dauphiné and the second week of the Tour.

Evans’ greatest asset will be how well rounded he is. Strong in the mountains, strong in the time trial, with a mind for strategy, backed by a team that has more star power than any other in the peloton, Evans is favorite 1A.

The course, which features more than 100km of individual time trials and just three true mountaintop finishes, appears ideal for Evans and the team that Ochowicz built around him.

As he did last year, Evans has a team packed with classics-style riders to pull him safely through the grind of the early race. Stalwarts like Quinziato and Marcus Burghardt should keep Evans safe through the Tour’s tough opening week and into the Vosges and Jura mountains.

And this year he has climbing specialists Tejay van Garderen and Steve Cummings to pace him in the high mountains. That is the one thing that Evans lacked more than any other in 2011 — a superdomestique capable of riding with the race’s top contenders.

The rest Evans can do for himself. He should be able to gain plenty of time against the clock to be competitive with Wiggins. And Evans’ chase of Andy Schleck on the Col du Galibier to save his 2011 Tour, when no other GC favorite — not yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) nor Alberto Contador — would (or could) help, was the stuff of legend.

When it’s all laid on the road, we wouldn’t be surprised to see the final GC come down to under a half-minute between the Evans and Wiggins after the time trial in Chartres on the race’s final Saturday. That is, if Evans can continue to keep cool in the July heat.

Bradley Wiggins (GBR), Sky ★★★★★

Bradley Wiggins won over a lot of fans after spending more than two weeks in yellow this spring. The Briton’s historic treble of wins at Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné has his believers confident that Wiggins will wear yellow on the Champs-Élysées.

And if he does, he may have defending champion Cadel Evans to thank for showing him the way.

“It was inspirational watching Cadel giving his all, day in, day out,” Wiggins told the media this week in Mallorca, Spain. “He had a few bad days; he had a wobbly moment on the Télégraphe climb, but fought back and got himself into a position to win at the final time trial. I’ve always thought that is perhaps the way I could win the Tour one day.”

Wiggins, a gold medalist on the track in Beijing in 2008, continues to evolve from a rider once built more for prologues than 25km climbs. While this year’s course, featuring more than 100km of time trials, is more suited to him than any over the last half-decade, Wiggins knows as well as anyone that the Tour is won by climbers who can time trial. Historically, he has been the opposite.

The 2012 season has proven his best yet — and one of the best in history. He’s won three of the five races he’s entered, finishing third with a stage win at the Volta ao Algarve in February and withdrawing in miserable weather at the Volta a Catalunya in March.

Wiggins has worked at altitude in Tenerife over three separate training camps this spring and made his final build-up to the Tour in Mallorca, Spain. If his work on the climbs has paid off, however, his strength in the time trial and even more so, his team strength, will be what sets Wiggins apart from his competitors.

If he can hang on with the top GC contenders, or at least limit his losses, when the race climbs the Col de Peyresourde twice in two days, the 53.5km penultimate stage time trial will be where Wiggins can distance his competition.

Wiggins’ team is by no means a gaggle of rookies, and the British squad announced its intentions loudly when it announced its roster this week. While world champion Mark Cavendish will have Bernhard Eisel, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Christian Knees by his side, the remainder of Sky’s Tour nine is built to deliver the maillot jaune to Paris. Wiggins will have last year’s Vuelta a España second-place Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Michael Rogers and Kanstantsin Siutsou around him in the mountains — these five men make Sky one of the three strongest GC-focused teams in the race, along with BMC Racing and RadioShack-Nissan.

“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time and I’ll do everything I can to win the Tour de France,” said Wiggins. “Hopefully we can do the business for ourselves and our fans, and become the most successful British-based cycling team ever.”

Coming off an historic spring run and with a supporting cast like he has, Wiggins is the top favorite for yellow in Paris. If he comes through, Sky would follow Evans’ first Aussie victory in 2011 with the first for the English. He’s already worn yellow on 18 days this year; what’s a few more?

Vincenzo Nibali (ITA), Liquigas-Cannondale ★★★★

Winning the queen stage and overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, finishing second in the Tour of Oman with a stage win, taking third at Milan-San Remo and second at Liège–Bastogne–Liège — Vincenzo Nibali’s 2012 season started off with a bang.

The 2010 Vuelta a España winner skipped the Giro d’Italia this year in order to focus on the Tour de France.

Strong in the mountains, decent against the clock and eager to jump at every opportunity, a podium placing is an attainable goal for Nibali. That is, assuming that he can count on his Liquigas-Cannondale team for support when Peter Sagan is chasing stage wins.

Nibali has already announced that he will leave the Italian team once his contract expires at the end of the year, and he has cause for concern that the green train that so powerfully controlled the Giro won’t be fully behind him.

With an incredible 12 wins already under his belt this season, the young powerhouse Sagan has taken sprints from some of the world’s best finishers this season, and come July he will test the water in the deepest pool of the year. Sagan enters the Tour on a streak that saw him win nine stages and the points jerseys in his final two preparation stage races: five at the Amgen Tour of California and four at the Tour de Suisse.

The final maillot jaune is a big ask, but not impossible for Nibali, and there is a chance that Liquigas-Cannondale will focus more of its energy on the Slovak stage-win machine than the departing Sicilian. The top Italian squad is yet to announce its final Tour roster.

What Nibali can hope for is bagging stage wins and certainly a top-five GC result. His strengths will suit some of the stages with more of a classics flavor, particularly early in the race. The new mountain finish on La Planche des Belles Filles, a 5.9km climb that finishes on a 14-percent grade, in stage 7 is perfect for the “The Shark.”

“I’m convinced in my abilities,” Nibali told VeloNews at the first road stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné. “In these last years, I’ve always done well in the stage races and in the one-day races, the classics. You can’t ask for more, knowing that sometimes you win by a small amount, but sometimes you can lose by that same amount.”

We’re convinced as well.

Frank Schleck (LUX) ★★ and Chris Horner (USA) ★★★, RadioShack-Nissan

One of the peloton’s strongest teams on paper, it appeared early last week that RadioShack-Nissan was losing depth leading up to the Tour. With newly crowned 2010 Tour de France champion Andy Schleck out of the race with a fractured pelvis and Chris Horner missing from the team’s preliminary roster, Fränk Schleck was penciled in to share GC duties with Jakob Fuglsang and perhaps even Andreas Klöden.

Then team boss Johan Bruyneel — who last week experienced arguably the toughest five days of his career after the leaking of a letter alleging a 14-year doping conspiracy — abruptly reversed course Monday and chose Horner over Fuglsang for the team’s final Tour nine.

In the course of a very rocky week Horner went from spending July training and perhaps starting the Tour of Poland to filling the role of arguably the strongest GC rider in the RadioShack roster.

With the younger Schleck and Fuglsang out, and Klöden suffering through a challenging early season, the two-pronged GC attack of Horner and Schleck may set Bruyneel’s squad up better than in 2010, when RadioShack started four potential GC riders and only finished one, Levi Leipheimer.

Where his brother had the opportunity (and challenge) of riding solely for himself in the 2010 Tour, which Andy won retroactively in May following the disqualification of Alberto Contador, Fränk has not had that chance. The elder Schleck has ceded the spotlight to his younger brother since giving the yellow jersey to teammate Carlos Sastre at L’Alpe d’Huez in 2008.

Schleck’s difficulties in the early going of 2012 have been well documented. But second overall at the Tour de Suisse in June and the Tour of Luxembourg, behind Fuglsang, gave team owner Flavio Becca reason to push for his countryman to take command of RadioShack’s Tour squad.

Team director Kim Anderson, passed over by Bruyneel for the Tour, said this week that Schleck, who started the Giro d’Italia at the last minute and abandoned during stage 15, would likely aim more for stage wins than the overall.

“I have of course heard predictions that with his current form, that Fränk is a good bet to figure in the showdown of the victory, but to hope for that is, I think, total baloney,” said Anderson in an interview with Danish website Politiken.

Enter Horner.

The American returned to racing in March, after a pulmonary embolism suffered last August following his race-ending crash at the 2011 Tour. He took second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, then rode well through the Tour of the Basque Country after taking time off to rest an inflamed knee, but came up short in the Bakersfield time trial at the Amgen Tour of California. The American ultimately finished eighth overall after a bold, long-range attack on the Mount Baldy stage, where he finished sixth.

Horner, 40, finished ninth in the 2010 Tour, riding in service of Lance Armstrong until late into the final week of the race. If he is to contend for the GC in 2012, he’ll need to ride the TT of his life in stage 19… and make the absolute most of the La Toussuire and Peyragudes summit finishes. Can Horner drop Wiggins and Evans in the mountains? Yes. But he’ll need three-plus minutes on them to make it to Paris in yellow. Horner, Nibali and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) are the most explosive climbers able to produce a race-saving time trial. They’ll need to team up to beat back Evans and Wiggins in the mountains if they hope to wear yellow in the final weekend.

Schleck, on the other hand, can’t be counted on in the time trial. And having come off more than two weeks of racing at the Giro, it will be interesting to see how he works with Horner when the road tilts up. If he does in fact turn his focus to hunting stages, the Luxembourger could prove a valuable asset to Horner.

Fabian Cancellara, Jens Voigt and Yaroslav Popovich are names associated with controlling a race. They’ve delivered Armstrong, Contador and Carlos Sastre to Tour wins over the last decade and each made the final Tour roster. There is no team stronger than RadioShack as a whole, and without a sprinter to support — no Mark Cavendish (Sky), Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) or Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Barracuda) — whichever GC rider emerges at the Tour will have the team’s full backing.

Our bet is that it’s Horner.

Ryder Hesjedal (CAN), Garmin-Barracuda ★★★

Canucks look good in pink and Ryder Hesjedal made Canada’s first grand tour win look natural in May. His victory at this year’s Giro d’Italia bumped Garmin’s laid back former mountain biker onto a list that he would not have made two months ago: the top favorites to win the 2012 Tour de France.

Granted, following a first grand tour victory with a second, in the same year, is asking a lot. To many it was a surprise that Garmin brass would name Hesjedal a team leader for the Tour, particularly considering the recent record of Giro winners in July. Marco Pantani was the last rider to pull off the Giro-Tour double, in 1998 — and he was the last Giro winner to even finish on the Tour podium in the same season.

“It was always in my plan from the beginning of the year (to race the Tour),” Hesjedal told VeloNews. “It was mission accomplished for the Giro, so why not try for the Tour? Not racing the Tour just doesn’t make sense.”

Garmin’s other top GC contenders, Christian Vande Velde and Tom Danielson, will ride alongside Hesjedal after playing a key role in the team’s Giro triumph and finishing inside the top 10 at the Tour de Suisse, respectively. Vande Velde, fourth overall in 2008, and Danielson could both step up to the plate on the TT-heavy course.

With Daniel Martin eyeing his first Tour start and workhorses like Dave Zabriskie and David Millar, Hesjedal and company have a deep stable of support riders. Sprinter Tyler Farrar has had a winless season thus far and Garmin’s Tour roster is clearly built around a run at the GC podium, with Robbie Hunter the only rider likely pledged to support the American.

Hesjedal’s talents are well suited to this Tour, and his Giro ride proved above all that he is able to stay calm and unshaken when the race erupts — a talent that is even more critical in the Tour. The factor that Vande Velde named as the most critical to Garmin’s Giro win was what he called “the calm.”

“We were just always able to stay ahead of the game,” said Vande Velde. “There was never any moment when we had to panic to take back time. That’s key to having a great race. And (Hesjedal) was able to make things happen when people were not expecting it. He was an opportunist and using his underdog role to the maximum.”

No one does calm like Hesjedal. And while he is no longer an underdog, he proved in 2010, when he finished sixth overall at the Tour, that his laid-back demeanor carries over to the sport’s biggest stage.

It could easily carry over to the stage sitting before the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on July 22.

Levi Leipheimer (USA) Omega Pharma-Quick Step ★★★

The biggest question for Levi Leipheimer ahead of the Tour de France is whether being hit by a car in April set him back too far to be a serious contender or if the time he spent off the bike recuperating will ultimately give him an edge.

Leipheimer’s third place overall in the Tour de Suisse this month sent a clear message that he is coming up to form since recovering from a broken left fibula, just in time to place a bid on the Tour de France title.

After five top-10 finishes at the Tour, Leipheimer knows what it takes. And going into the Tour de Suisse, he was nothing if not well rested and looking forward to topping off his training with some tough racing kilometers.

“I will be fresh, because I have had such a big break there when I normally would have been racing,” Leipheimer told VeloNews at the prologue of the Swiss tour.

“I will hope to be coming back up to close to 100 percent by the time we get there for the Tour; that would be ideal. It’s best just to use the Tour de Suisse as training and help support the team and not put too much pressure on myself.”

At the Amgen Tour of California, fans were reluctant to believe that the hometown golden boy wouldn’t line up in perfect form in Santa Rosa and casually ride to a podium result. The truth of his lagging training after his time off the bike did not fully hit home until the Bakersfield time trial, where Leipheimer, a three-time California TT winner, placed 17th.

Nevertheless, Leipheimer was impressive in the mountains, given the weeks he was forced off his bike after a Spanish driver struck him from behind on the eve of the Tour of the Basque Country, fracturing his fibula. Leipheimer bounced back from his disappointing time trial to take ninth at the mountaintop finish on Mount Baldy two days later — a stage he won in 2011.

After finishing third, ahead of Fränk Schleck, on the hors categorie summit at Arosa in the eighth stage at the Tour de Suisse, Leipheimer acknowledged that he was not yet at peak fitness yet, but expected to reach it by the Tour’s final week.

“I’m happy because I’m improving day by day,” he said. “It’s a good trajectory for the Tour de France.”

When he’s at his best, there is little risk of the race getting away from Leipheimer. He is experienced and poised, and while he famously struggles with the repeated, sharp attacks of riders like Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, Leipheimer the diesel won’t face either of them at the Tour.

Leipheimer won the final TT at the Tour in 2007; so long as he can stay with Wiggins and Evans in the mountains, he should have a shot at the final podium. If he were to find himself there, Leipheimer would be one of the oldest podium finishers in the race’s history, at 38.

An American in a Belgian squad traditionally built more for the classics and stage wins than the GC, Leipheimer will see support from, and perhaps even a strong one-two punch with, Peter Velits. World time trial champion Tony Martin and Sylvain Chavanel will be there as well, but Leipheimer and Velits will largely be on their own when the race hits the Pyrénées in the final week. How deep the American can go, 3.5 months after suffering his broken leg, is largely a question yet to be answered.

Alejandro Valverde (SPA) ★★★ and Juanjo Cobo (SPA), Movistar ★★★

If ever a Tour de France course were designed for Alejandro Valverde, it was 2011. But the Spaniard nicknamed the “Green Bullet” wasn’t in the race, serving a suspension for his role in the Operación Puerto blood doping scandal.

The 2012 course, on the other hand, was clearly not designed for Valverde, who can hang in the high mountains and is best in the shorter, punchier climbs of the Ardennes and Vosges. Valverde is back in 2012, but may share duty as the Movistar leader with Vuelta a España champ Juanjo Cobo.

The Movistar captain is motivated for a podium, nonetheless, and believes he can achieve it. The 2009 Vuelta a España winner claims he has been working on his time trialing after returning from his ban, and his TT in stage 7 in the Tour de Suisse backed up his claim. Valverde finished 19th there, 1:22 down; notable for a non-specialist.

Over the course of 100km of time trials, that time gap can open up substantially, which is the primary reason that few share Valverde’s confidence about the likelihood of an overall podium.

On the strength of his TT, Valverde finished inside the top 10 at the Tour de Suisse this month while riding in service of Rui Costa, who took the win and praised his teammate afterward. That, along with Movistar’s near constant presence this year on the front of the peloton in races likes Paris-Nice, has proven that while the team’s budget may not be on-par with the deep-pocketed “super teams,” it is nonetheless a force that will make its mark all season.

Valverde said earlier this year that the classics would help him build the deep base he lacked following his ban. It is in the race’s third week where we may start to see weakness from the consistent Spaniard.

“The one-day classics will help me a little as preparation for my main target, the Tour de France,” said Valverde. “I am still lacking a little in stamina even if I have been training really hard.”

The Tour de France stages that Valverde has won in the past were transition stages. Similarly, his stage-3 Paris-Nice win this year had frequent, short climbs and a tough uphill finish. He nonetheless has the ability to make an impression on the GC by making the most of those types of stages. Plus, he has the support of some strong climbers, who will help him get through the Pyrènèes and put pressure on the rest of the peloton.

This year there are plenty of stages suited to Valverde’s style, featuring frequent, punchy hills that threaten to demolish the legs of sprinters looking for a stage win, as well as overall contenders that prefer extended climbing. He could certainly bag a stage win in Seraing as the peloton skirts the Ardennes after leaving Liège. The 198km stage jumps up and down, but none of the climbs are longer than 3km — Valverde terrain.

What Valverde lacks in time-trialing ability, Movistar teammate Juanjo Cobo makes up for. Depending on how the wind blows, it isn’t improbable that Cobo would take over the leadership role for Movistar during the race.

At the beginning of the year, team manager Eusebio Unzue said that Cobo would have his own right to the overall in France. While his primary objective this year is defending his title as the Vuelta champion, if Cobo should happen to snatch a result in the Tour along the way, he surely won’t complain.

Samuel Sanchez (SPA), Euskaltel-Euskadi ★★★

In a year without his friend and ally Alberto Contador, Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez is Spain’s best hope for the podium in Paris.

Nearly four years after his gold medal ride in Beijing, Sánchez has added to his palmarès a second-place finish in the 2009 Vuelta, third overall (by way of Contador’s sanction) in the 2010 Tour and fifth overall in 2011. He won his first Tour stage and the mountains jersey last year, and appeared stronger than Contador on Alpe d’Huez. Sánchez missed what should have been a second stage win when Pierre Rolland (Europcar) got one over on the two Spaniards high up on the climb.

Sánchez is decent against the clock and has the climbing chops to gain time on the more adept time trialists like Wiggins. Like Horner, though, he’ll need to make use of uneasy alliances in the mountains to distance the specialists. If he can do so, Sánchez has the sharp punch that Horner and Nibali lack — a tool he could use to pull yellow in front of his team’s home fans in the Pyrénées. And the Spaniard showed this spring that he could well hold onto a lead on the TT bike, given a chance.

“When I am in good form, I am OK with time trials,” he said earlier this year. “What is better for me is that there is not a team time trial, which always costs me a lot.”

Sánchez has been good in 2012. He finally won the Basque Country tour and was second in the Volta a Catalunya, taking a stage win. He also finished in the top 10 in Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Then, a hard crash in stage 1 of the Critérium du Dauphiné threatened to keep him from racing the Tour and the Olympics. Euskaltel management said that rumors of broken ribs were false, however, and Sánchez will enter the Tour as the team’s overall leader.

Sánchez planned his season with a focus on the Tour, aware of the dangers of placing too much faith in a one-day race.

“I would like to win another stage at the Tour without forgetting about the podium,” Sánchez said last December. “We’ve heard different things about the Olympic course in London, but it’s a one-day race and anything can happen.”

At the start of June, he was setting his sights on the Tour podium he missed in 2010.

“Considering that I have never been on the Tour podium, let alone win a grand tour, my goal is to try to reach the Tour podium this year,” Sánchez said.

Sánchez said that Contador’s absence from this edition would be to his own disadvantage.

“Alberto’s absence will favor some and hurt others,” he said. “It hurts me, because his tactics, his style of attacking and the way he makes the selection are better for me.”

This may be Sánchez’s final season in Euskaltel orange, with the team suffering in the Spanish economic crisis. Nonetheless, Sánchez, whom the Basque have adopted as their own, will ride into the Pryénées with the support of Egoi Martinez, Mikel Astarloza and Amets Txurruka. If he can survive the hectic first 10 days of the race, and if he has recovered well enough from his Daupphiné crash, Sánchez could very well give thanks to the only pro team he has ever ridden for with a podium place on the Champs Élysées.

Editor’s Note: Emily Zinn contributed to this preview.

Denis Menchov (RUS), Katusha ★★★

No stranger to the Tour de France podium, having looked over the Champs-Élysées on the podium steps in 2008 and 2010, and as the best young rider in 2003, Denis Menchov is a strong contender for the Tour title.

The Russian captain of a Russian team has his sights on a grand tour hat trick; Menchov has a Giro d’Italia overall title and two wins in the Vuelta a España on his palmarès.

Winning the Tour would round out Menchov’s career, making him just the sixth rider with titles in all three grand tours.

“In my career I’ve won just about everything else except the Tour,” Menchov said at the beginning of the season. “I’ve been close a couple of times, reached the podium… but you always dream of getting to the top. Having that yellow jersey is what really matters.”

A superb time trialist, if ever there was a year for Menchov to win the Tour de France, it’s this one. Menchov should be able to put time into GC contenders like Fränk Schleck and Samuel Sánchez against the clock. The question is whether his strength in the TT is sufficient for him to take the title from Wiggins or Evans.

Menchov’s tactics are primarily reactionary, which may prove advantageous against the more explosive climbers. When he’s on, Menchov inhabits the interesting middle ground of being able to out-climb the time trialists and out-TT the climbers. He said earlier this year that his exclusion from the race last year, when riding for Geox-TMC, may also improve his tactical understanding of the race.

“I had a chance to watch the race from the outside, analyze it,” he said during the Katusha team presentation. “It has given me a different perspective on the race. Not being part of the Tour last year definitely made me more determined to try to win it.”

What Menchov lacks, however, is team strength. He will have strongmen like Vladimir Gusev and riders for the mountains like Luca Paolini, but overall the Katusha squad is lacking the firepower to fully support an overall winner. That said, Menchov has throughout his career acted as something of a free agent — the wildcard to Michael Rasmussen at Rabobank and in 2010, a top-10 finisher at the Giro with Geox.

In terms of his form, Menchov’s presence at the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de Romandie was negligible and included a DNF. But the Russian has a history of coming out of nowhere at the right time. The time to be right is now, but Menchov is an outside favorite at best to deliver on Katusha’s aim for a Russian Tour champion.

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