It seems generally agreed that the GC race is shaping up to be a two-horse race between Cadel Evans (BMC) and Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky). Notably, both of them are roleurs who excel at time-trials but can keep up with most climbers at the high mountains. Both are in excellent shape, with Wiggins fresh off a dominating performance in le Dauphiné and Evans a consistent performance plus stage wins and near-wins. Team Sky may be the stronger team compared to BMC, unless Team Sky's super-sprinter Mark Cavendish shows up and brings a few riders specifically to support him in the sprints. More importantly however, both Evans and Wiggins appear very confident as the Tour de France (TdF) approaches.
With all the above consideration, what does this mean to stage hunters, sprinters, and GC contenders?
In a previous post, we argued that this year's TdF will be very different from last year's. The GC battle will be very different, and the sprint battle will also be very different. With Andy Schleck's exit, the GC battle will be even more starkly different. Here are points that lead us to think so.
Team BMC and Team Sky have different GC ambitions. Podium placing will be a great result for Wiggins and Team Sky, but it is a lackluster outcome for BMC. With Evans the defending champion, nothing less than outright win will be acceptable to BMC. Luckily for Evans, teammate Phil Gilbert carries a fairly low "cost" to deploy, and Thor Hushovd is not even on the roster. This means a team dedicated to Evans. On the other hand, Team Sky has more cards to play, and they are likely to want to play all of them.
Many strong teams are now focusing for stages instead of placings. OmegaPharma-QuickStep the super-team may have Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer, but we think manager Patrick Lefevere agrees that a stage win by Sylvain Chavanel or Francesco Chicchi nets more sponsor value than a top-ten by Martin or Leipheimer. Add to this Lampre-ISD, FdJ, Liquigas-Cannondale, Astana, and Katusha. Perhaps RadioShack-Nissan-Trek has to be added to this list, if Frank Schleck loses too much time in the first week.
Many teams aiming for placings are rather weak. Examples include Lotto-Belisol with Jurgen Van den Broeck, Europcar with Pierre Roland / Thomas Voeckler, and Euskaltel. This means their GC riders will be forced to basically ride the wakes of BMC and Sky as they control the ascents. All in all, we think that Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, fresh off his Giro d'Italia win, has excellent chance for a top-5 finish. He proved himself able to contend even with less team support than others, and can hold himself in the time trials.
No strong climber is a credible GC threat. Last year's edition saw Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck mount seriously long attacks in the third week of the race. They were notable because both had credibility. This year we may see a climber with GC ambition attack from afar, but we don't see anybody with sufficient credibility pull a GC upset this way.
All these factors lead us to think that this year will see:
- A very controlled GC race, compared to our analysis days ago.
- A very chaotic sprint race, in agreement with our analysis days ago.
- Great opportunities for jokers, more so than what we thought days ago.
What are your thoughts?