The waiting is finally over, the shadow boxing and dress rehearsals are done and dusted and the Critérium du Dauphiné has left us wanting round two of the scrap between Richie Porte and Chris Froome!
Once team-mates and friends, Porte was one of those mainly responsible for helping Froome win the Tour in 2015, setting a relentless, blistering pace that just killed everyone else. But after the Dauphiné, the gloves are off. Froome first cost him a stage win by almost putting him in the barriers in the three-man sprint won by Fuglsang on stage 6, and he then ganged up with Kwiatkowski to put the hurt on Porte when he lost a little ground near the top of the Colombiere on the final day, ultimately costing not only Porte the race, but Froome also even lost out on a podium spot.
But all of that has served to whet the appetite for what is to come, and has fans and journalists all over the world picking their favourite out of the two.. Not even the bookies can separate them, with them sharing favouritism more or less.
The race kicks off this Saturday in Dusseldorf Germany, and over the next three weeks the 198 riders pass through Belgium, Luxembourg and in to France, covering a distance of 3,540kms.
How many will finish is anybody’s guess, but guess what, you can bet on that, with it being 5/6 for either over or under 170 riders (I’m going for over by the way on a relatively easy route this year).
The opening stage could well see Germany’s Tony Martin pull on the first yellow jersey of the race, with a 14km flat run along the banks of the Rhine in Dusseldorf, he’s 2/1 favourite to do so.
There are nine flat stages for the sprinters to get stuck in to, starting on the second stage that leaves Dusseldorf and finishes in Liege, a day where the German sprinters like Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and John Degenkolb will be fighting it out for the first Green Jersey of the race. It’s a mixed route that sees them hit every one of the five mountain ranges in France – the Vosges, Jura, Pyrenees, Massif Central and the Alps.
Stage 3 sees them leave Philippe Gilbert’s home town of Verviers, pass through Luxembourg and after a quite lumpy day they face an uphill finish of 1.6kms at 5.8% inside the French border in Longwy, one for the specialists like Peter Sagan or Greg Van Avermaet.
Stage 4 is the third 200km+ stage in a row, but should end in a sprint, but the first key stage of the race comes already on Stage 5 with the ascent of La Planche des Belles Filles, a beast of a climb that averages 8.5% for 5.9kms, with gradients of 20% in the last 200m. It was a stage where Chris Froome first really burst on to the scene in 2012, beating Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans over the brutal final metres.
Stage 6 is one of the longest at 216kms, but is pretty flat and should end in a sprint, Stage 7 is almost as long at 213kms and should end in a sprint too, but the winds could blow through the Burgundy vineyards and cause problems. Stage 8 is a beautiful run through the Jura mountains, with a tough Cat 1 on the way to the finish at Station des Rousses.
Stage 9 is a Sunday spectacular, the Queen stage that takes them over three Haute Category climbs, including the Grand Colombier, tackled from a new, steeper side for the first time, and the Mont du Chat which was used in the Criterium du Dauphine, when Chris Froome tried to drop Porte in that spectacularly fast descent.
Stages 10 and 11 are boring, flat, sprint stages, Stage 12 takes them in to the Pyrenees with a brutal last 100kms packed with five climbs. Stage 13 is a short and fascinating stage, with three Category 1 climbs in a stage of just 101kms. One to watch from start to finish. Stage 14 finishes in Rodez where Van Avermaet outgunned Sagan in a great finish in 2015 and Stage 15 looks like one for the break.
Stage 16 is another for the sprinters and 17 takes them finally in to the Alps with a brutally hard stage that see the classic climbs of the Croix de Fer, Telegraphe and Galibier before the 28km descent down to Serre Chevalier.
Stage 18 is the last chance for the climbers to leave their mark on this race, with the final summit finish of the race to Izoard. Stage 19 is one for the punchy sprinters. Stage 20 could well decide the race though, if not, at least some of the top 10 places, with a 22.5km TT around the streets of Marseille. And there’s the usual procession and sprint in Paris on the final day.
Contenders to watch out for...
It looks to be one of the most open races in quite a few years with Chris Froome and Richie Porte almost joint favourites, with Paddy Power actually making Porte their 13/8 favourite for the race.
Chris Froome has had a very disappointing year by his standards, with no win to his name since last September. In the three years that Froome has won the Tour he always warmed up for it with a win in the Dauphine. But not this year, and in fact he was well and truly trounced by Richie Porte in all aspects of the Dauphiné. He was well off Porte’s pace in the TT and despite his attempts to sabotage Porte’s chances on the final day, he ended up cracking and losing a minute and a half to his former team-mate over the 9kms of the final climb. He is a three-time winner of the race though and knows how to get it right come July, and he has a super-strong team with him that will work to try to get him in the jersey, and then keep him in it.
Richie Porte has had the best season of his career so far and comes here with a genuine chance of dethroning Froome. Comfortable winner of the Tour Down Under with wins on the two climbs of Paracombe and Willunga Hill. Paris-Nice started out a disaster in the wind and rain, but ended with him winning the queen stage in impressive fashion. He was also very impressive in the Tour de Romandie, finishing 2nd in the Queen stage and 2nd in the TT to take the overall victory, well clear of Froome. And then in the Criterium du Dauphine, Porte again hammered Froome, but was ultimately done over by his former team-mate. Despite over a minute’s deficit starting the final climb, Porte not only caught Froome, but dropped him and put 21” into him by the finish, a seriously impressive performance by Porte.
Despite losing time in the 2nd stage of last year’s Tour, he moved from 81st place to 5th by the finish, but that is the problem with Richie – he always seems to find a day where he punctures, has a mechanical, is sick or is just not tactically sharp enough like in the Dauphine.. Will it be any different this year? I hope so, I backed him in January after Paracomb at 10/1, there’s not a whole lot of value now in him at 7/4 though. Besides the top two we have a whole bunch of guys who are well capable of taking advantage, should the top two slip up.
Nairo Quintana has had a great season on the face of things, but he is sure to be disappointed with his 2nd place to Dumoulin, who beat him fair and square all over the race, who even had time to take a dump in the bushes and still win.. Quintana has won the Giro and the Vuelta and finished 2nd twice and 3rd once in the Tour, but will he be able to step up to no. 1 this year with a Giro in his legs?
Alberto Contador looks a ridiculously big price at 16/1 to win it, he is the only rider in the race to have won all three Grand Tours (some more than once) and can always be relied upon to try to kick things off and go on the attack, especially when it’s least expected. He didn’t have great legs in the Dauphine though, but he should be good enough for a top 6 place.
Romain Bardet did superbly last year, pulling off one of the rides of the race on the penultimate stage to Saint Gervais Mont Blanc to take the stage and enough time to lift himself in to 2nd place overall. France expects the little man from Brioude to step up to the top step this year and we know how the crushing pressure of the French public can affect riders, but Bardet seems to cope very well.
Then you have the outsiders, riders like Fabio Aru, Alejandro Valverde, Dan Martin, Jacob Fuglsang, Esteban Chaves, Louis Meintjes and Thibaut Pinot – superstars the lot of them, who will feature in stages and could well fill some of the top ten places, and who knows, could even take victory like Tom Dumoulin did in Italy. I’m particularly interested in seeing how Louis Meintjes and Jacob Fuglsang go, Meintjes seems to have gotten his mojo back and Fuglsang comes here with the confidence of a win in the Criterium du Dauphine, and will be sharing team leadership duties at Astana with Fabio Aru, winner of the Vuelta in 2015.
Green, Polka-dots and White Jerseys....
Peter Sagan looks like he only has to stay upright to take a record-equalling sixth Green Jersey, drawing level with the great German sprint Eric Zabel, but will face strong competition in the flatter sprints from Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, Arnaud Demare, Michael Matthews, Mark Cavendish and Nacer Bouhanni. I like Arnaud Demare each-way at 12/1, the newly crowned French champion is in great form and will like this route.
The KOM will be the usual mine-field to try to predict, but I expect two-time winner Rafal Majka to be battling it out with Pierre Rolland, who has great legs at the moment. Rafal Majka will be my bet out of the two of them.
And the White Jersey competition for the best young rider should be good this year too, with Louis Meintjes, Emanuel Buchmann, Simon Yates, Pierre Latour, Jay McCarthy, Jasha Sutterlin and Alberto Bettiol set to battle it out, with Simon Yates going for two in a row in the competition for the Yates family, after Adam took it in 2016. It should be a great battle between Porte and Froome, but the others will have a say too. It’s a varied and challenging route, but not the hardest or most exciting on the face of it, but that might just open it up to others to try to seize the day and attack the top two. I think Froome looks vulnerable this year though and Porte is in the form of his life.. If Porte can hold it together and avoid the expected bad day, he could well have the last laugh on Froome.
I’ve backed him at 10/1 back in January, but there’s little value in him now at just 7/4 best price, instead my tips for the race would be to back Arnaud Démare each-way for the Green Jersey at 12/1, Rafal Majka each-way for the King of the Mountains at 7/1 and Louis Meintjes to win the Youth competition at 6/5 with Paddy Power. I like Jos Van Emden for the first stage time trial at 5/1 and Emanuel Buchman to finish in the top 10 is also worth a bet at 9/4.
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