It’s a universal truth held by any within cycling that ‘The Tour is the Tour’.
While the Giro d’Italia may be the choice of the cognoscenti, and La Vuelta España has in recent years been the most exciting of the three Grand Tours, nothing compares to the scale and status of the Tour de France.
Even to be a part of the Tour is an achievement, such is its magnitude, but you can bet your last dollar that Cannondale-Drapac will not roll out in Düsseldorf on Saturday July 1, 2017 simply to make up the numbers.
Those numbers, however, are impressive: a route of 3,540km, to be contested over 21 stages by 22 teams and their 198 riders who individually will endure hours of suffering in the quest for one of sport’s greatest prizes.
The men clad in green have been building nicely for the sport’s premier fixture with Tom Skujinš stage win at the Coppi e Bartali in March. A busy April saw Alex Howes win King of the Mountains at Pais Vasco and Michael Woods secure a top-ten finish at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In May’s Tour of California, Andrew Talansky won atop Mount baldy to claim the fifth stage on the way to finishing third overall.
No sooner had ‘The Pitbull’ wrapped up the team’s first World Tour win of the season then Pierre Rolland upped the ante by claiming a Grand Tour stage win at the Giro d’Italia, but the Frenchman was only getting started in Italy, it seems.
A little over a fortnight later, he won the Queen stage at the Route du Sud, a brutal rendezvous with the mighty Col du Tourmalet en route to a summit finish at 1830m in Gavarnie. A day later, Tom Scully won the final stage into Nogaro, marking a strong showing for Cannondale-Drapac in the last significant race before the Tour de France.
Talansky and Rolland, unquestionably a formidable climbing duo, will be augmented by the talent of Rigoberto Uran, the Colombian mountain specialist.
Taylor Phinney is another Cannondale-Drapac heavyweight to feature prominently this Tour. The Boulder, Colorado native is a superb time-trialist and with organisers ASO making the opening stage a race of truth, he will roll from the starting house in Düsseldorf with a very realistic prospect of pulling on the yellow jersey.
The countdown to the Grand Départ has begun. The Tour awaits. Every cycling fan has his or her favourite race, yet none can deny the Tour’s status as the greatest of them all. Cannondale-Drapac will compete with ferocity and with pride. POC will be with them every kilometre of the way.
Flat, fast and finished in the blink of an eye (for the spectator, at least), the Grand Départ of the 2017 Tour de France in Düsseldorf is a gift to the time-trial specialists, and perhaps also to the men who will fight for overall victory.
The phrase ‘pan flat’ might have been coined to describe the first 14km of the 104th Tour de France, and riders who have made a specialism of the race of truth will relish this out-and-back course on the banks of the Rhine, which contains only one technical section and is largely a test of pure speed.
For the riders of Cannondale-Drapac, the opportunity to go deep—every time trial in the world demands that its competitors ride to exhaustion—is one they are likely to embrace with relish.
In Taylor Phinney, the team has a very real prospect of victory. The Boulder, Colorado native is an 82kg powerhouse blessed with a beguilingly smooth pedaling technique. His approach is more likely to centre on the controlled application of power rather than any ‘death or glory’ mission.
Phinney has the combination of muscle and souplesse required to claim the first yellow jersey of the race and will surely do everything in his power to claim the greatest prize in cycling.
Any stage that ends with a final kilometre pitched at 20 per cent is always likely to deliver excitement. The implicit pledge of the road into La Planche des Belles Filles, however, is supported by history. Twice the Tour de France has visited this resort in the Haute-Saône and twice the outcome has been one for the record books.
Chris Froome (Team Sky), the three-time and reigning Tour de France champion, scored his first Tour stage victory here in 2012. Two years later, Vincenzo Nibali, then riding in the baby blue of Astana, reclaimed the yellow jersey with an emphatic victory, his second of a campaign that would end in triumph on the Champs Élysées.
This year, it’s a stage likely to be ringed in red on the calendar of the Cannondale-Drapac team. With such a formidable array of climbing talents in the squad, the team in green will fear no one as the road tilts relentlessly skywards.
Relentless is the correct phrase to describe a 5.9-kilometre climb that unfolds at an average gradient of 8.5 per cent. Even the average, though sufficient to dissuade mere mortals, does not do not justice to its severity. On three sections, each one-kilometre long, the gradient passes into double digits. The final kicker of 20 per cent is a leg breaker.
Happily, Cannondale-Drapac’s Rigoberto Uran, twice a Grand Tour podium finisher, defies the description of mere mortal. Such wicked gradients are the Columbian’s meat and drink. He has spent a career going wheel-to-wheel with the very best on such unforgiving terrain (witness his second palce at last year’s Il Lombardia) and will welcome any contest as the race climbs into La Planche des Belles Filles.
Stage nine might be described as the 2017 Tour’s first critical engagement with the mountains. A glance at the stage profile confirms as much. Race organisers ASO have crammed 4,600m of climbing into today’s 181.5km route, including the most savage route to the summit of the Grand Colombier (the ominously named “Directissime”) and the brutal Mont du Chat.
The riders begin the day in Nantua at more than 590m and start climbing almost immediately. Just 11km into today’s stage they will find themselves above 1,000m, at the summit of the Col de Bérentin.
By the standards of today’s stage, however, the third category Bérentin is small fry. Three haute categorie climbs – the Col de la Biche (1,316m), the Grand Colombier (1,501m), and the Mont du Chat (1,504m) – define the stage, and may have a significant effect on the general classification.
The riders despatched by Cannodale-Drapac to the Critérium du Dauphiné in June will already have experienced the Mont du Chat. Andrew Talansky, winner of the Dauphiné in 2015, and his young team-mate Alberto Bettiol, finished in the top 20 on the sixth stage of a race regarded as a key predictor of form for the Tour.
Descending specialists will welcome the fearsome run from the Mont du Chat’s summit to the finish in Chambéry. The phrase ‘what goes up must come down’ might have been coined for the finish of stage nine. Of the men in green, Rigoberto Uran might like his chances the best on the twisting descent to the Savoie’s departmental capital.
A summit finish at 2,360m atop the soaring Col d’Izoard will mark a spectacular end to the Alpine stages in this year’s 104th Tour de France. Its HC status – Haute Categorie, or ‘beyond categorisation’ – seems apt. Expect a battle royale to ensue on its wicked gradients.
For the non-climbers, stage 18 offers a miserable prospect. To reach even the lower slopes of the Izoard, the peloton must pass over the third category Côtes de Demoiselles Coiffées and then cross the summit of the Col de Vars at 2,109m.
Happily for Cannondale-Drapac, the team has climbing talent in abundance, and in Pierre Rolland, a rider with attacking instinct. While most in the peloton will look upon stage 18 with a sense of foreboding, the Frenchman, a stage winner already this season at the Giro d’Italia and Route du Sud, will do so with relish.
Rolland knows what it takes to win stages of the Tour de France too, and has been reborn at Cannnodale-Drapac. Having renounced a GC campaign in the face of increasingly formulaic racing, he may seek to make a statement for his preferred mode of engagement today: racing with attacking flair and panache.
The second of two individual time-trials in this year’s Tour de France will be of the greatest significance for those trying to win the race overall, but specialists against the clock like Cannondale-Drapac’s Taylor Phinney will also seek to make a statement.
A route of just 22.5km all-but-guarantees a fast, brutal, all-out assault on a course with only one climb: a short ramp leading to the Notre-Dame de la Garde cathedral. With no sustained gradients to throw the power to weight ratio back in their favour, diminutive climbing types will find little to please them in today’s profile.
Riders like Phinney, however, will be licking their lips, especially with the savageries of stages 17 and 18 in such recent memory. Today will be a day to celebrate pure speed.
As the riders enter the Marseille Velodrome one after the other, exhaustion will be the default setting. Perfecting a time trial means crossing the finish line with nothing left to give. After nearly three weeks of racing, today’s contre la montre will provide a searching examination.