Photo: Christophe Ena (AP)

The time has come once again for a few hundred skinny fellows to hop on their bikes and ride unconscionable distances, every day, for three weeks. They’ll yell at each other in various European languages, celebrate famous victories, weep over crushing defeats, crash out in horrifying ways, and generally wring out their bodies in a garish spectacle of endurance and pain for the honor of making it to Paris in one piece. The Tour de France is back.

And thank God, because the 105th edition of the race features something that’s been painfully absent from the past five editions of the race: intrigue. Chris Froome is the most dominant champion the race has seen in a decade, winning four of the last five Tours and only losing the 2014 race because he crashed out. If this had been a normal season for Froome, then one could comfortably assume that he’d earn his fifth yellow jersey and tie Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain for the most Tour de France wins (non-Lance Armstrong division).

But this has been anything but a normal season for Froome. The British rider won the Vuelta a España last September, but failed a drug test in the process. Froome loudly proclaimed his innocence, and while several prominent members of the cycling world called on him to chill, Froome was allowed to race while contesting the result, and he won the Giro d’Italia in stunning fashion. One day after the Tour de France tried to bar him from the race in order to avoid hypothetical future embarrassment were his appeal to fail, Froome was cleared of all charges by the UCI. Other riders have cast a suspicious eye on the handling of the case and data that’s been released, but Froome will take the starting line this weekend in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île.

He is probably the favorite once again, because his team is simply too strong and because he’s never truly cracked in the Tour. However, racing the Giro d’Italia to get some work in before a possible suspension may have cost him some form, as riders who tend to double up on the first two Grand Tours of the season tend to have a hard time staying in top form during the third week of the Tour. He’s also 33 and only won last year’s race by 54 seconds. Froome is there for the taking. All of his rivals must sense that this is their best chance to dethrone the champ, and that dynamic coupled with a fascinating course should hopefully make this year’s Tour one of the best in recent memory.

The Course

This year’s Tour has eschewed the semi-traditional foreign starts for a course that takes place almost entirely within France. Riders will ride clockwise around France for 3,329 kilometers, first from the northwest all the way to the Belgian border, then through the Alps and Pyrenees before a jaunt back up to Paris.

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The first week is typically a relaxed affair, where the sprinters get their time to shine before the race for the yellow jersey kicks up in the mountains. Not so much this year. The first few stages along the Atlantic could very well be rainy and windy, which always makes for some fascinating racing. Over the past few years, teams with general classification (GC) riders have taken the opportunity to punish rival squads by pushing the tempo on windy days. Because it’s so much harder to make up any distance when riding through a headwind, you can easily pick up huge chunks of time if you can dislodge your rivals. We’ve seen this happen in the 2013, 2015, and 2017 Tours, and organizers seem to have realized that windy days make for fantastic early drama.

Stage 9 might be the best stage of this year’s race, as riders will have to navigate 15 sectors of cobbled roads from the Paris-Roubaix one-day race. It’s one thing for the hardmen of the Spring Classics to conquer the notoriously jagged cobbled sectors, but when little tiny bird-shaped climbers have to make their way across, the race becomes truly chaotic. Vincenzo Nibali seized the 2014 Tour because he most adeptly handled the cobbles. After a rest day, the race once again makes use of varied terrain, as Stage 10's Plateau de Glières features a chunk of dirt road.

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The mountains come thick and fast after the first rest day, and the Pyrenees look like they’ll decide who wears yellow into Paris. Stage 17 should be a really odd day of racing, as the course is only 65 kilometers long, but features three nasty climbs and a summit finish on the Col du Portet, which is 16 kilometers long at an average gradient of 8.7 percent. The grid-style start and short ride should make it an explosive day. Stage 19 looks like a classic in the making, since it’s 200 kilometers long and features famous climbs like the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque. After that, riders must finish up the competitive portion of the race with a spiky little time trial in the Basque County that’s harder than it looks on paper. The lack of big flat time trials is an obvious attempt to make things harder for Froome, who is a fantastic rider against the clock, and the early cobbles are almost certainly going to shake up the race before riders even see their first real mountain.

The Contenders

There’s Froome, obviously. Team Sky return to the Tour with a typically stacked roster of mountain shepherds, three of whom (Geraint Thomas, Wout Poels, and Michal Kwiatkowski) could easily lead rival teams and may even have to lead Sky if Froome falters. Perhaps the biggest reason why Froome has been so unimpeachable has been the steady work of his teammates, though a new rule reducing team sizes from nine riders to eight could make the race a bit more unpredictable than in years past.

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After going for an ill-advised Giro-Tour double last year, Colombian mountain man Nairo Quintana is back at this year’s Tour fully geared up to take his shot at Froome. The two-time runner-up hasn’t been heard from much this year, though he won a stage at the Tour de Suisse and he typically lays low until the Tour. Quintana is maybe the most talented climber in the world, and if his tiny frame can survive the cobbles, he seems like the best bet to beat Froome. His Movistar team is as loaded as they are confusing, as they say they’re headed into the race with ancient wonder Alejandro Valverde and eyebrow king Mikel Landa both sharing “team leader” duties with Quintana. It’s a good insurance policy should one of them end up in a ditch outside of Roubaix with a broken collarbone, but it is slightly worrying, since everyone will need to get on the same page and ride for one leader by the second week if they really want to win the Tour.

Vincenzo Nibali earned the most exciting win of his career at Milan-San Remo this year, and he brings a strong team with him to France. Everyone loves the Shark of Messina for his boldness and tactical genius, and if anyone’s going to try some wacky shit on the cobbles or some unsuspecting descent, it’ll be Nibali. The 2014 champion is 33, like Froome, but he hasn’t declined at all. His Bahrain-Merida team is quite strong, and Domenico Pozzovivo might very well be the best lieutenant anyone has in this race.

Froome’s former teammate Richie Porte is the fourth of our tier-one Super Serious Contenders. His team, BMC, might not exist in two months, but they’re bringing their best group to France. Greg Van Avermaet is a genius on the cobbles, Teejay Van Garderen is a capable mountain climber (as long as he avoids utter heartbreak), and Simon Gerrans is one of the smartest riders in the peloton. Porte has been unlucky in Tours past, and he’s never been on a Grand Tour podium despite one of the peloton’s best records in one-week stage races. His time trial skills will come in handy on Stage 20, and his squad is the big favorite for the opening week’s team time trial.

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There are a good handful of contenders who could also win the race, including last year’s podium finishers Rigoberto Uran and Romain Bardet. AG2R’s Bardet is France’s best hope at the yellow jersey, though his shaky time trial skills and middling team could hold him back. Adam Yates is an intriguing outside pick after his twin brother nearly won the Giro this spring. Dan Martin and Warren Barguil are good enough in the mountains to make things interesting. I suppose you could also talk yourself into one of the Ilnur Zakarin/Tom Dumoulin/Bauke Mollema/Primoz Roglic/Rafal Majka group emerging as a serious challenger.

Other Guys To Know

Taylor Phinney is back! Phinney was all set to become cycling’s next big American star and then he broke his leg in 2014 in one of the most horrifying crashes you will ever see. He’s recovered in the years since and managed to finish in the top 10 at Paris-Roubaix. He’ll tow Uran around on flat stages, but he’ll definitely take his shot at winning a stage or two. The one-time polka dot jersey holder is probably the USA’s best bet at winning a stage in France.

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Peter Sagan is the most famous cyclist in the world, and while he’s just 28, he’s more or less already won everything a cyclist could possibly hope to win. After winning five straight green jerseys at the Tour, he was unfairly kicked out of last year’s race after a controversial crash. The three-time defending world champion will come back this year with a vengeance, and he’s a contender for pretty much every single stage.

Quick-Step Floors are probably the best cycling team in the world, though they tend not to field serious GC contenders. This year is no different, though Julian Alaphilippe and is one of the most exciting stage hunters in the peloton and he’ll a force to reckon with on most uphill stages. Colombian sprinter Fernando Gaviria will finally make his Tour debut this year, and with Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, and Mark Cavendish getting older, the stage is set for Gaviria to establish himself in a big way. At his first Grand Tour, he won four stages. Quick-Step are built to support him on flat stages, and the 23-year-old has been on form all year.

While Sagan sometimes seems like an untouchable monster, Michael Matthews has gotten the better of him. The Aussie sprinter can also win on a variety of terrains, and assuming Tom Dumoulin is too tired from the Giro to need his entire team to shepherd him around, Matthews is going to be in the mix on plenty of stages. His rivalry with Sagan is a fun one, since both men are wickedly competitive and capable of wild shit on all sorts of stages.

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Final Prediction

This blog is over!