Team Sky vs. Astana

The Tour de Suisse and the Critérium du Dauphiné are over and there are currently dozens of National Championships taking place throughout the world. This can mean only one thing, the Tour de France is almost upon us. As such, plenty of teams have finalised their Tour de France rosters while the remaining teams are expected to do so in the coming days. Unfortunately, like last year, there will only be one Irish rider present on the startline in Rotterdam. And like last year, this rider is Nicolas Roche who has recovered sufficiently from a hamstring problem which forced him out of the Tour of Romandy back in April.

Dan Martin and Philip Deignan are two riders who were hoping to make their Tour de France debuts this year but who will now both be sitting out the Grand Départ for different reasons. Martin was given the opportunity to ride the Giro d’Italia as Garmin’s G.C. leader. He took this opportunity and impressed on the two toughest mountain stages of the race, finishing 9th on the stage up Monte Zoncolan and taking 20th in the Plan de Corones mountain time trial. He also managed to make the huge split on Stage 11 when the race was turned on its head. Still only 23 years old, it was decided that racing the Tour directly after the Giro would be too much too soon. He’s due to ride the Irish National Championships Road Race on Sunday 27th June and then take a well deserved rest so he can come back to racing re-energised and focused on the Vuelta a Espana which he should be riding for the 2nd time this September.

Deignan on the other hand, was a victim of misfortune rather than any race related decisions. He suffered from a knee injury early on in the season. Having recovered sufficiently from that he was then forced out of the Tour of California with food poisoning. Most recently he abandoned the Tour de Suisse, again due to illness. He has said via twitter that he’ll spend his time off the bike during the July trying to find out what is causing him to fall ill all the time so he can correct the problem and focus on the remainder of the season. Who knows, depending on Roche’s plans we could end up seeing three Irish riders take part in the Vuelta a Espana.

I’ve bought all the Tour preview mags I can get my hands on, and have also read the many many previews available online. Most articles seem to be in agreement that Contador is so dominant in both the mountains and the time trials that the only way he can possibly lose the Tour will be due to a mishap over the cobbles on Stage 3 or it will be due to the strength (or lack thereof) of his team. But is his team really that bad? I’ve taken a look at the Grand Tour credentials of the 8 team mates of each of the overall favourites. For each team the average age, number of Tour starts, number of Tour stage wins, number of Grand Tour starts, number of Grand Tour stage wins and the number of Tour rookies have all been taken into account:

Details of the previous Tour de France and Grand Tour performances of the G.C. contenders team mates. (Information on Garmin's Tour roster was not available. Astana's roster has also not yet been finalised, see for details).

For me, one of the most striking details is the lack of experience on Bradley Wiggins’ Team Sky. They will start with four riders who have never ridden the Tour de France before, as well as Geraint Thomas who has only ridden one. They have the least Grand Tour Starts and the least Tour de France starts (apart from Liquigas, surprisingly). Notwithstanding the fact their designated leader, Bradley Wiggins at the age of 30, has only completed two Tours de France. At the risk of repeating myself, as I have posted about this before, Wiggins reckons he has made a move ‘from Wigan Athletic to Man United‘. I can’t help but think the opposite is more applicable to his current situation.

Admittedly, Wiggins’ team will be more than capable of guiding him through the hectic first three stages across Holland and Belgium. Edvald Boassan Hagen, although still only 23, is already a winner of Gent-Wevelgem. Juan Antonio Flecha is a perennial podium finisher in races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. Both Geraint Thomas and Steve Cummings are also no strangers to cobbled races. Wiggins himself has the most experience over the cobbles of all the G.C. contenders.

Cadel Evans has said in this month’s Pro Cycling that “It’ll be more important to have a good team on the flat stages than in the mountains”. I’m not sure I agree with Evans on this one but it seems that Team Sky and Dave Brailsford agree with him completely as they have picked a team shockingly short of mountain support.

The two main domestiques that Wiggins will look to in the mountains will be Thomas Lovkvist and Simon Gerrans. Lovkvist is a solid rider who will be capable of staying with the leaders until the final climb of the day. However, there is also the issue of the Swede’s personal ambitions. Before Wiggins jumped on the Sky bandwagon late in the day, Lovkvist was under the impression he would be the Tour team leader for Sky.

Although he will now be aware he is working for Wiggins, he has said that he still harbours hopes of a high G.C. placing: “When we come to the Tour de France, I will be riding for the general classification”. This is bad news for Wiggins who needs his team mates to leave everything out on the road for him. A team mate who works for a leader most of the day but holds back some energy for himself so he might finish in the second group on the road is not ideal.

Then there’s Simon Gerrans who wasn’t picked for Cervélo’s Tour de France team last year, despite winning a Tour stage in 2008 and a stage of the Giro in 2009. The reason he was left at home was because the Cervélo team had been divided in two. One half was a lead out team geared to help Thor Hushovd win stages and the Green Jersey while the other half was a mountain team tasked with propelling Carlos Sastre to overall glory. Simon Gerrans, he was told, fit into neither. While Gerrans is a solid rider when the road goes uphill, he will always be hunting for stage wins for himself. He is a good rider to append to an already solid list of mountain domestiques but he is not good enough to form the crux of Wiggins’ mountains team. But when you look at the riders who Team Sky haven’t picked for the Tour, you begin to understand why they were so desperate to sign Vincenzo Nibali last winter.

Alberto Contador on the other hand, is the only Tour contender who can call upon a team mate who has won a Grand Tour of his own. In fact, in Oscar Pereiro and Alexander Vinokourov, Contador has two former Grand Tour winning team mates. While Pereiro’s Tour de France win in 2006 is seen as a default victory and the product of a freak breakaway akin to the one witnessed on Stage 11 of the Giro this year, he has also finished 10th at the Tour on three occassions. He has been hampered by injury for the past two seasons, but should he stay fit and healthy, Pereiro will be a valuable asset to Contador.

Additionally, should Vinokourov be persuaded to ride as a team mate rather than attacking for no apparent reason (as he was known to do when part of the T-Mobile team which included Kloden and Ullrich), the Kazakh should regularly make the final selection and provide a useful pawn for Contador. Although he is bound to have a stinker of a day (or two) along the way, he always does. Contador can also call upon Paolo Tiralongo a veteran of 13 Grand Tours and Benjamin Noval who has ridden eight, three of those as part of a Tour de France winning team.

I’ll come back to the table above in a further post and discuss the chances of other teams, but for the moment I’ll conclude by saying: Contador’s team for the opening stages looks decidedly weak (although he can rely on Maxim Iglinskiy who finished 8th in both Milan San Remo and the Tour of Flanders this year). However, if the Spaniard is to make it through to France unscathed and with his team intact, it’s hard to see anything stopping him. On the other hand, if Wiggins sails through the opening stages, he may look around the team bus and long for Christian Vande Velde, David Zabriskie, David Millar, Johan van Summeren, Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal instead of a group of classics riders he will then be stuck with. The Belgian born Wiggins could find himself horribly isolated by the time the Tour reaches the leg aching stages through the Pyrenees.

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#Astana#Contador#Team Sky#Wiggins

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