With mountains looming, handicapping the Tour de France favorites

The Tour de France enters the mountains this week, so Andrew Hood breaks down the race favorites before the road turns upward

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BORDEAUX, France (VN) — What a first week of the Tour de France. The storylines were endless, full of surprises, disappointment, and hope. Just like any good soap opera, the Tour is unfolding with satisfying plot twists.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Chris Froome (Sky) rolls out of week one with the yellow jersey firmly on his shoulders. Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), the Tour revelation so far, is nipping at his heels at just 12 seconds back, but Froome’s rivals are the ones looking exasperated and desperate as the Tour finally pedals into the mountains.

This is a Tour of three parts: the opening week, the Pyrénées, and the Alps. Here’s where the favorites stack up as the peloton takes its first of two rest days ahead of the first major climbing challenges of the 2015 Tour:

1st: Chris Froome (Sky)

Confidence is sky high at Sky, and rightly so. Froome survived the harrowing first week not only unscathed, but by taking important gains on his most serious rivals. Astute racing in stage 2 and a steady hand across the pavé in stage 4 confirmed Froome is up to the job. A searing attack up the Mur de Huy in stage 3 put his rivals on notice, and Sky’s superb team time trial Sunday confirmed Froome’s place in the pole position going into the Pyrénées. If his climbing legs are as good as they appear to be, this Tour could quickly become a fight for the podium behind what would be his second yellow jersey in three years. It’s still a very long way to Paris, but this Tour is Froome’s to lose.

What they said: “I am a bit surprised. I thought it would be me, not Nibali, who would lose time in the first week. My main rival is van Garderen.”

2nd at 0:12: Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing)

The revelation of the Tour so far, van Garderen rode with poise and confidence in a very challenging opening nine days of racing. Backed by superb support from his BMC Racing team, van Garderen floated through what was a near-perfect first week. Now it’s up to van Garderen to deliver, and based on what the peloton saw at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, when he was second just 10 seconds behind Froome, he is confident. Since he is so close to Froome, Sky will be attacking him to try eliminate the singular threat he presents. It will be interesting to see how BMC plays its tactics. Do they race to win? Or ride to secure a podium spot in Paris? The deciding factor will be the legs.

What they said: “It’s an incredible feeling. We’ve passed every test with flying colors, and it’s giving me a lot of morale going into the mountains. Everything is clicking. It’s all about momentum. I think we gained a lot of momentum in the first week.”

5th at 1:03: Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo)

By his own admission, Contador said he’s missing that spark or freshness that his other rivals who did not race the Giro d’Italia seem to have. That could well cost Contador going into the mountains. Will he be able to follow Froome’s accelerations? He couldn’t on the Mur de Huy, but the Pyrénées and Alps are another story. He limited his losses in the first week, but it remains to be seen how far he can go in this Tour. There is no doubt that Contador is wiliest among the GC favorites, and he will certainly be looking to exploit any weakness he could sense in Froome. It’s almost certain he will be attacking on descents and on the flats to try to catch out Froome in an unguarded moment. The brutal second half of the Tour favors a rider as experienced as Contador, and he will certainly go down swinging in his quest for the Giro-Tour double.

What they said: “I felt more assured on the first rest day at the Giro. Now I am more uncertain. I’ve seen that I lack the spark the others have, but I hope that won’t be important. If I am feeling good, I will try, because you have to take every opportunity you can when it’s there.”

9th at 1:59: Nairo Quintana (Movistar)

If there’s anyone who can match Froome in the mountains, and perhaps even gap him, it’s Quintana. Losing nearly two minutes in the first week certainly puts him on the back foot, and it remains to be seen just how strong Quintana will be in the mountains. It’s important to remember that the last grand tour he completed was the 2014 Giro, so it will be interesting to see if he has the gas to go the distance. Quintana is pure talent, and the second half of the Tour favors him more than any other rider. A lot of questions will be answered in the Pyrénées. Quintana has the legs to drop Froome, and he could take 15 to 20 seconds per finale, plus time bonuses, so it’s plausible he could crawl back against a strong Froome. If Froome can bury everyone, including Quintana, the fight for the podium could soon well commence.

What they said: “Froome has shown he’s the strongest. I hope to regain some time little by little. We took back some time on some rivals [in the team time trial]. In the mountains, we have to take back even more.”

13th at 2:22: Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)

The opening week of the 2015 Tour is in complete contrast to last year’s romp for the defending champion. Nibali set the tone early last year, and then barnstormed all the way to Paris, his way cleared by the early exits of Contador and Froome. This year, it’s Nibali who’s been taking the lumps. Losing time up the Mur de Bretagne on Saturday raised more alarm bells. Nibali, however, remains quietly confident. An excellent descender, the climb-riddled second half will favor experience and depth, and Nibali can manage his resources better than most. He’s proven to be consistent across grand tours, so it would be a mistake to count him out. Outright victory is a big ask at this point, but the real Tour is just starting, and just about anything could happen. Nibali will be ready to pounce at any sign of weakness from his rivals.

What they said: “It’s obvious the Tour didn’t start the way I would have liked, but now the real race starts. We move into mountains with long climbs and descents that suit me better. If I am not at the front in the Pyrénées, my Tour is over.”

The others

This Tour could still produce some surprises, van Garderen first among them. The top 10 is packed with a few riders who will certainly fade out of contention — Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Geraint Thomas (Sky), and Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step) — but one name to watch is Rigoberto Urán (Etixx). The scrappy Colombian has come out of the first week in solid position, sixth at 1:18 back. It was a shame that his teammate Tony Martin crashed out, because Der Panzerwagen’s absence probably cost Urán at least 20 seconds in the team time trial Sunday. Like Contador, he’s racing both the Giro and Tour this year, but unlike Contador, who went deep to win, Urán fell ill and didn’t burn all of his matches. Urán has never climbed with the very best in the Tour, but with his contract up this season, he could find himself fighting for the podium. … Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) is also flying off the radar. At 18th at 3:52 back, he’s too far off the pace to seriously contend for victory, but this climb-heavy second half will favor him. He could easily climb back into the top 5, and perhaps even the podium, like he did in 2013, if a few things go his way. … Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), seventh at 1:50 back, hasn’t looked his sharpest so far this Tour, and he’s committed to helping Quintana, but he should be able to remain within the top 10, giving Movistar a potentially potent one-two punch in the mountains. …. Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin), 19th at 4:17 back, lost time in the crosswinds and the team time trial, but he will dig deep in the mountains to stay with the best. Punching into the top 10 to match his career-best in 2013 (10th) will be his priority.

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.