In the left corner of the boxing ring we have the reigning Tour de France champion, brimming with confidence after his well-deserved victory in the queen stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné, Chris Froome
Surrounded by his “five-nation army “, dream-team Sky, he is only interested in the highest step of the Tour de France podium in Paris. One of Froome’s domestiques is Antioquian Sergio Henao, in his first Grand Tour since doping allegations and bad luck kept him barred from this stage since 2013.
In the opposite corner, the usurper, young and hungry, Nairo Quintana. You feel it that this might be his year. Supremely strong this season so far, with a string of impressive wins. Nairo competed in five multi-stage races earlier this season, finishing on the podium on each occasion. The 26-year-old Colombian rider has already won in 2016 the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, Tour de Romandie and more recently the Route du Sud. He comes to the Tour wiser and more mature. His team, Movistar, are exceptionally strong with super-domestique Alejandro Valverde and countryman Winner Anacona by his side.
You may argue that there is a list of potential general classification winners this year such as Alberto Contador from Tinkoff Team, Fabio Aru from Astana Pro Team, Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen from BMC Racing Team. Or local outsiders Romain Bardet from AG2R La Mondiale, Warren Barguil from Team Giant-Alpecin and Pierre Rolland from Cannondale-Drapac but barring crashes and malheur from the two musketeers, it seems they will fight for what is left after Quintana and Froome have crossed their swords.
Apart from Nairo, Winner and Henao, Jarlinson Pantano from IAM cycling is the fourth representative for the Escarabajos in the Tour this year. Pantano comes off a fourth place showing in the Tour de Suisse this year and will be seen in long breaks in the difficult mountain stages.
The boxing ring will be various bits of French countryside. When the route for this year’s edition was released in December, the general opinion was very positive. Well rounded, with a mix of mountain stages, not only in the Alps and the Pyrenees, but also in Jura and the Massif Central, the challenging terrain is very well distributed through the three weeks and should bring us emotions and thrills until the final stage. All of that mixed with 2 exciting time trials, some tricky routes through undulating terrain and a fair share of flat stages bear the promise of exciting 3 weeks.
It will take a very well-rounded cyclist to win the event. The race route seems more favourable for Chris Froome than for Nairo Quintana, but Nairo has said since he was on the second step of the podium last year that he has only one goal. The yellow jersey in Paris in this new exciting edition of the Tour de France.
The stages in which the battle is expected to be set loose are the following;
Friday July 8, stage 7
Stage 7 is the first mountain stage. It it is the stage in the race where Chris Froome likes to destroy his competition, taking an early advantage for the yellow jersey. To take the edge slightly off it, the organisers decided to throw in a descent after the final climb, which might see the big guns save some energy for later.
Saturday July 9, Stage 8
Stage 8 is the first brutal stage. Four big climbs on the way should shave off the majority of the peloton. Expect a small group of serious contenders for the overall victory, with Froome and Nairo up front, making their way down to the town of Bagnères-de-Luchon.
Sunday July 10, Stage 9
Sunday’s final stage in Pyrenees may turn into an all-out war of attrition as it’s followed by a rest day. With five climbs and a hors category mountain top finish, it’s the ideal moment for Nairo to shake off his main competitor.
Thursday July 14, Stage 12
After a few relatively quieter days, the peloton will face “the Giant of Provence”, the mythical Mont Ventoux. The stony surroundings without the slightest sign of vegetation give you the impression you are cycling on the moon. In 2013, Nairo’s breakthrough second place in the Tour de France, Froome finished 29 seconds ahead of Nairo, before the then 23-year-old fainted after the finish line. 3 years older and stronger than ever, Nairo will try to pull it his way on this mountain.
Friday July 15, Stage 13
Stage 13 is the crucial time trial and most worrying day for Nairo Quintana’s title aspirations. The 37 kilometre stage is mostly flat, despite two small climbs at the beginning and on the final run to the finish line. It has the potential for shaking up the General Classification with Froome already looking forward to this stage.
Sunday July 17, Stage 15
Stage 15 is a very tricky stage. One that can bring nothing or change everything. One, that should suit the brave, uncompromising rider to take the last chance to get back into the podium fight. With so many shorter and longer climbs, the route is an ideal ground for breakaways.
If after stage 16 the difference between the leader and closest followers is within three minutes, make sure you take some mornings off work and prepare for a four-day finale in the Alps. Tiredness, both mental and physical, will come into the fore. Watch out for those tight bends on the way down. You don’t want to repeat Kruijswijk’s mistake from this year’s Giro d’Italia. The Dutchman looked supremely comfortable in his pink leader jersey until one misjudged curve blew out his fairytale.
Wednesday July 20, Stage 17
Colombia’s independence day will see a quiet start ahead of the explosive final climbs on the windy alpine mountain. As cycling analyst David Millar states, “The perfect terrain for Quintana vs Froome”
Thursday July 21, Stage 18
Time trialling might not be Nairo’s strength, but the climbing time trial certainly is as he showed with victories in the Tour de Romandie and Route du Sud. This 17 kilometre long stage will show whether Nairo can do it at the highest level as well.
Friday July 22, Stage 19
The final mountain top finish is an important one. This is not a day where big differences are expected, but a bad day and you can lose the Tour. Nairo showed in his previous Grand Tours that he is at best in the final week.
Saturday July 23, Stage 20
It is all or nothing here. If you are still close to the top spot and your team is strong, this is the ultimate opportunity. The final stage to Paris on Sunday is flat and is for the sprinters so today is where three climbs of more than ten kilometres can still allow Nairo to win or lose the Tour de France.
So brace yourself for exciting 3 weeks of cycling at its best and you might even witness history in making by our small Colombian rider from Boyacá with his bid for the elusive crown of cycling, the yellow jersey in Paris. You will find live broadcast of the Tour de France roughly between 7am and 11am every day on ESPN or in your local bakery around the corner with Caracol..
By Arek Peryt