When the announcement of the route for the Tour de France 2014 took place on 23nd October it was accompanied by largely predictable responses from all involved; Contador and Riis installed Froome as heavy favourite (diverting the pressure from themselves), Cavendish all but burst at the seams with excitement, Dave Brailsford fielded the obligatory Froome/Wiggins questions, but it was the quote from Chris Froome himself that caught my eye:
“The route certainly looks like it’s got something for everyone.” In other words, “oh great….cobbles!”
In reality the 2014 Tour looks like one for the climbers, with 5 mountain top finishes, big days in the Alps, Pyrenees and the Vosges, and just the one time trial. Stage 5, however, between Ypres and Arenburg might cause a few sleepless nights – it features 15.4 km of the (in)famous cobbles which symbolise cycling in northern France – could this stage turn out to be the Tour’s very own slice of the ‘Hell of the North’?
In Alberto Contador’s words:
“The pave (cobbles) present an interesting challenge…It’s a stage where a mechanical or a crash can greatly alter the outcome. It won’t decide anything, except for anyone who has problems.”
To translate this into a well worn sporting cliché – the Tour won’t be won on stage 5, but it could be lost. As race director Christian Prudhomme put it, if you’re going to take the Tour across northern France then you have to embrace the cycling landscape and ride the cobbles. Of course, when the riders take on the cobbles in the Spring classics they are largely happy on that terrain – they’ve trained for it, planned for it, and got themselves kitted out for it.
It’s already been suggested that Nairo Quintana, for example, has never ridden the pave before. Fighting for position alongside 180 other highly motivated riders will be some learning curve for the young Columbian.
On a serious note, 2014 is a big Tour for Alberto Contador. The Spaniard’s aura slipped around the time of his positive test for Clenbuterol in 2010, and apart from a brief renaissance in winning the 2012 Vuelta Espana the downward spiral has continued since – no significant race wins in 2013 tells it’s own alarming story. At the unveiling of this mountainous route for 2014 – a route that should suit his style – Contador said:
“I will try to take on Froome, but it won’t be easy. He was incredibly strong this year, and he just kept getting stronger. I hope he’s hit his peak.”
…which, to me, sounds pretty defensive coming from the man who not that long ago was the dominant grand tour rider in the sport – although to be fair to him, it’s far too early to come out with fighting talk, and shouting the odds without much in the way of recent results to back you up would be pretty poor form. But the truth is, if it’s another barren year for ‘el Pistolero’ in 2014 then what is currently a dip in form suddenly starts to look like terminal decline.
Froome, understandably, is talking like the favourite he is, saying:
“We’ve got five mountaintop finishes, that’s more than this year (2013). That’s a good thing for me and also with the penultimate stage being a 50-plus-kilometer individual time trial, that’s something that suits me…So, yes, I’m getting excited about the prospect of taking on next year’s Tour.”
Of course, if Froome carries his 2013 Tour de France form into the 2014 edition there isn’t much which doesn’t suit him…except perhaps those cobbles.
So who will challenge Froome? Prior to this year’s Vuelta Espana I was pretty convinced that 2014 would prove to be the year of Froome v Nibali, and despite his surprise defeat in Spain to Chris Horner the Italian is sure to provide a big challenge.
So who else?
If Quintana comes a cropper on the cobbles, or struggles with that difficult second Tour in some other way, it’s possible to imagine him not quite being the force he was in 2013. Rodriguez is another year older – can he really mount a genuine challenge at 35 years of age?
Valverde is the eternal podium, but always the bridesmaid, while Evans will focus on the Giro d’Italia. Andy Schleck has stuttered since his fractured pelvis, and both Porte and Wiggins may well be riding for Froome…
…so could Tejay Van Garderen mount a challenge this time around? Or perhaps Dan Martin? Or even Chris Horner?
Considering the Tour is still 9 months away, lets just agree that it’s far too early to be getting excited about all this and making predictions. Now the route has been announced it’s time to put the Tour to bed for a few months and get on with our lives…
…should be a good race though!