Top Tour de France Riders Reviewed, Ranked and Rated
Competing and winning the Tour de France is the ultimate in cycling performance.
A grueling “Grand Tour” stage race, the 2012 Tour de France begins in Liege, Belgium on Sunday, June 30 and runs clockwise through Northern France, into the Alps, then onto Southern France and the Pyrenees before finishing in Paris on Sunday, July 22. Featuring a prologue time trial and 20 stages, the 2012 edition of the Tour covers a total distance of 3,497 kilometers or 2,172 miles. With three mountaintop finishes and two long time trials in addition to the prologue, the winner of the general classification (GC) or the Yellow Jersey competition will have to be both a superior time trial specialist and an excellent climber.
So, who are the top Tour de France contenders for 2012? CyclingCommentary.com breaks it down by identifying the top riders in the pro peloton, reviewing their prospects, ranking their performance and rating their chances for success at this year’s Tour de France.
Cadel Evans, BMC Racing Team
Age: 35 Weight: 67kg / 147lbs
As the 2011 winner of the Tour de France, Cadel Evans climbs well and time trials well. More importantly, he has been a consistent performer in three-week Grand Tours. Evans has finished in the top 10 at the Tour in 5 of the 7 races in which he has competed with a second place finish in both 2007 and 2008 before winning in 2011. He finished 4th in the Vuelta a Espagne in 2007 and 3rd in 2008. In 2010, Evans finished 5th at the Giro d’Italia, the first and only time he attempted the Italian Grand Tour. The early part of 2012 season saw modest performances from the Australian, though he did win the Criterium International in late March. In June at the Criterium du Dauphine, Evans showed that he was among the men to watch for this year’s Tour de France, winning the opening stage, time trialing well and taking 3rd overall. His slow buildup to this year’s Tour, in combination with a very strong and experienced BMC Racing Team that is totally dedicated to his Tour success, bodes well for the aging Evans. He has likely planned his peak well; and if we wins, he will be the oldest back-to-back Tour winner in modern history.
Bradley Wiggins, Team Sky
Age: 32 Weight: 69 kg/152 lbs
Bradley Wiggins has had an incredible start to the 2012 cycling season. The Brit won Paris Nice in March, the Tour of Romandie in April and the Criterium du Dauphine in June. Wiggins is one of the top five time trial specialists in the pro peloton. Over the last several years with substantially lower body weight, he has been able to hang in the mountains with all but the best climbers. His team, Team Sky of Britain, is perhaps one of the strongest teams in this year’s peloton. Sky demonstrated its superiority in the Dauphine by securing 3 of the top 4 spots in the seven-day stage race. Team Sky will race almost exclusively for Wiggins at this year’s Tour, but will also play lead out train to World Champion Mark Cavendish, perhaps the world’s best sprinter. Wiggins has been a decent, though not great Grand Tour contender, finishing with 4th place finish in the 2009 Tour de France and a 3rd place finish in the 2011 Vuelta a Espagne. Wiggins withdrew from the 2011 Tour de France due to a race-ending crash. His only weakness appears to be his current strength – his form has been so good, there is legitimate concern that he may have already peaked for the season. He claims not, but a three-week stage race will tell.
Dennis Menchov, Team Katusha
Age: 34 Weight: 65 kg/143 lbs
Dennis Menchov has been totally off the radar thus far in 2012, but the Russian, nick-named the Silent Assassin, is a proven Grand Tour Winner. Menchov won the Vuelta in 2005 and 2007, and he won the Giro in 2009. He has finished in the top 5 at the Tour de France on three occasions since 2006. He is a brilliant time trial specialist, having just won the Russian Time Trial Championship on June 22. So, the dude is definitely on form and a force to be reckoned with at this year’s Tour. His Team Katusha is strong, but not among the strongest in the peloton. Were he to come to the Tour with a team like Sky or BMC, then we might have had to give him a top ranking. As it is, we expect Menchov to be on the podium come July 22.
Vincenzo Nibali, Liquigas-Cannodale
Age: 27 Weight: 64 kg/141 lbs
Vincenzo Nibali, at aged 27, is an up and coming rider who won the Vuelta in 2010 by climbing well and placing well in the time trials. He followed that up with a 2nd place finish in the 2011 Giro d’Italia. While he did not race the Tour de France in 2011 or 2010, he placed 7th in the 2009 Tour, which featured Lance Armstrong’s comeback. Clearly, Nibali has the credentials to win a Grand Tour. With Ivan Basso and a strong Liquigas-Cannondale team there to support him, the “shark” is a force to be reckoned with at this year’s Tour. His season has been relatively uneventful, excepting a victory at Tirreno-Adriatico in early March and a 3rd place podium spot at Milan-San Remo. Nibali was unspectacular at best at the Dauphine, but you can bet that he will be on-form for the Grand Boucle.
Samuel Sanchez, Euskatel-Euskadi
Age: 34 Weight: 65 kg/143 lbs
Since 2008, the year Samuel Sanchez won the Olympic Road Race Championship at the Beijing Olympics, Samu has entered the Tour de France on three occasions. The Spaniard placed 6th in 2008, 3rd in 2010 and 5th in last year’s Tour. He has two podium finishes at the Vuelta, with a 3rd place in 2007 and a 2nd place in 2009. Sanchez is a top tier rider, who climbs with the best and time trials consistently in the top 10. If he had a stronger team than the all-Basque team that supports him, Sanchez could realistically shoot for the top of the podium. Like Nibali, he enjoyed strong early season form in 2012, winning the Tour of the Basque Country and finishing second at the Volta a Cataluña. Sanchez showed up with decent form at the Dauphine, but a crash in the first stage set him back. He limped through the French race, and is reported to be recovering and training well at altitude. If he has recovered from his crash in June, Sanchez will be one of the Tour’s top animators.
Jürgen Van Den Broek, Lotto-Belisol
Age: 29 Weight: 69 kg/152 lbs
Jürgen Van Den Broek, like Nibali, is an up and coming Grand Tour rider. He placed 4th overall at the 2010 Tour de France and was racing well in 2011, when a crashed out of the race. He recovered in time to race the Vuelta 2011 where he finished 8th overall. At 69 kilograms, the Belgian is a surprisingly strong climber. He climbed his way to a 4th place finish at the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine, and he finished 5th at this year’s Dauphine. Given his incredible power to weight ratio, JVDB should be a better time trial specialist than he is. He dropped over 7 minutes to Fabian Cancellera in Stage 19 of the 2010 Tour de France, which cost him the podium. His Lotto team also represents a potential chink in the Belgian’s armor. Nevertheless, Van Den Broek is on form and will be a top contender at this year’s Tour.
Levi Leipheimer, Omega Pharma-Quick Step
Age: 29 Weight: 62 kg/136 lbs
Levi Leipheimer is a strong climber and one of the most aerodynamic time trial specialists in the professional peloton. Switching teams from RadioShack to Omega Pharma-Quick Step in the off-season (good move Levi!), Leipheimer shares the role of captain with Tony Martin at this year’s Tour de France. The American started his season where he left off in 2011. Having won the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge in August, Leipheimer began 2012 with a win in the mountainous Tour de San Luis, beating Alberto Contador by hanging with him and the mountains and crushing him in the time trial. Traditionally strong in the early season where he was a 3-time winner of the February edition of the Tour of California, Leipheimer has consistently fallen short come July. His best finish at the Tour was a 3rd place podium spot in 2007, but since then, he has not cracked the top 10. This year may be different as Leipheimer experienced a mid-season setback by breaking his fibula during a training ride in early April. That setback may actually prove to be a positive for Leipheimer who has shown that he is on the mend and building form for the Tour. Remarkably, he finished 6th in the Tour of California in May, and he followed that up with a 3rd place podium finish at the 2012 Tour de Suisse. Ironically, his weakness at the Tour de Suisse was his time trial performance, where he finished rather anonymously in 17th and lost over a minute to the stage winner. If Levi can get his time trial act back together by July and his form continues to improve, this Tour de France could be tailor made for Leipheimer.
Tom Danielson, Garmin-Barracuda
Age: 34 Weight: 59 kg/130 lbs
Tom Danielson is the other American who could well race to a top 10 spot in this year’s Tour de France. Ostensibly, “Tommy D” is riding in support for teammate Ryder Hesjedal, who won the 2012 Giro d’Italia. Feather light at 59 kgs, Danielson is a brilliant climber but a so-so time trialist. He has had a decent season with a 3rd place finish in the 2012 Tour of California and a 7th place finish at the recent Tour de Suisse. In his inaugural appearance in the 2011 Tour de France, Danielson raced to am impressive 9th overall (8th after Contador was disqualified). Once Hesjedal falters from cumulative fatigue and sky-high expectations, Danielson will be able to ride for his own account with the support of a rock-solid Garmin Barracuda team. We expect him to crack the top 10 again this year at the 2012 Tour de France.
Alejandro Valverde, Movistar Team
Age: 32 Weight: 61 kg/135 lbs
Alejandro Valverde has something to prove in 2012. After serving a two-year suspension for his role in Operacion Puerto (alleged blood doping), the Spaniard his back with a vengeance. Since his return in January, Valverde came in 2nd overall at the Tour Down Under, 3rd overall in Paris-Nice and 1st overall at the Vuelta a Andalucía. At the recent Tour de Suisse where he rode in support of teammate and overall winner, Rui Costa, Valverde finished 9th. He is clearly building for the Tour, and he has the support of a very strong and motivated Spanish Movistar Team. Valverde has an impressive Grand Tour pedigree. He won the Vuelta in 2009, and he has six top 5 finishes at the Spanish Grand Tour. At the Tour de France, he finished 6th in 2007 and 9th in 2008. He is a brilliant climber and uphill sprinter, but his time trial skills are lacking. As such, he is expected to do well at this year’s Tour de France by cracking the top 10.
Janez Brajkovic, Team Astana
Age: 28 Weight: 65 kg/143 lbs
Perhaps, Janez Brajkovic is a long shot for a top 10 finish at the Tour de France 2012. Jani first showed his potential at the 2010 Criterium du Dauphine when he rose to the top of the podium by hanging with Contador in the mountains and dominating in the time trial. Under the tutelage of Johan Bruyneel while at Astana and RadioShack, the featherweight Slovenia learned how to ride a time trial bike, winning the Slovenian Time Trial title in 2009 and 2010. He has ridden in support of Leipheimer at the Giro and Armstrong at the Tour, but never raced for his own account. In the off-season, he moved from RadioShack to Astana (good move Jani!), where he will ride as co-captain for the aging Alexander Vinokourov. Jani recently finished 7th at the Dauphine, so he is beginning to show his form. With the support of a very strong Astana Team, Brajkovic could well score a top 10 finish at this year’s Tour.
Frank Schleck, RadioShack-Nissan-Trek
Age: 32 Weight: 67 kg/148 lbs
Frank Schleck certainly has a Grand Tour pedigree, finishing 3rd at the 2011 Tour de France and 5th in both 2008 and 2009. He showed his magnificent climbing skills at this year’s Tour de Suisse where he attacked early and dropped his competitors and long climbs. The Luxembourger went on to place 2nd overall at the Swiss race. Publicly, he is proclaiming that he is at top form now and that he is unlikely to maintain in through the entire Tour de France. Is he sandbagging or just afraid to assume the leadership mantle at a troubled RadioShack-Nissan-Trek. Brother Andy will not race this year with an injury at the Dauphine, but Schleck potentially has the support of a very strong and experienced team. The problem for Frank is that this year’s Tour features two long time trials, and despite his high power to weight ratio, Frank sucks when it comes to the race against the clock. All things considered, Schleck will be lucky to crack the top 10, and we don’t think luck is on his side.
Robert Gesink, Rabobank Cycling Team
Age: 26 Weight: 68 kg/150 lbs
Robert Gesink, the young gun from the Dutch Rabobank squad, is overrated at best. Cyclingnews.com picks the Dutchman for a top 5 placing, but that pick seems wholly unwarranted, given Gesink’s inconsistent performances. Granted, he won the 2012 Tour of California with an amazing attack on the penultimate stage, and he took a 4th overall at this year’s Tour de Suisse. He is on form, but has likely peaked. Last year, he was a ‘no-show’ at the Tour de France with a 33rd place finish, but he was 5th overall in the 2010 edition of the Grand Boucle. To his credit, he also has two top 10 finishes at the Vuelta. The Rabobank Cycling Team is decent, but opportunistic. If Gesink falters, the team will throw their support behind teammate Leon Sanchez. A strong climber and an inconsistent time trialist, we give him the benefit of a top 15 finish at the 2012 Tour.
Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin-Barracuda
Age: 31 Weight: 72 kg/148 lbs
Congratulations to Ryder Hesjedal on his amazing win at the 2012 Giro d’Italia. He climbed well, time trialed fast and raced intelligently. But if he thinks that he stands a chance of “doing the double” in this post-EPO era, the Canadian should think again. Likely, he has recovered from the Giro and begun to rebuild some form, but the cumulative fatigue of one Grand Tour win earlier in the season will prevent him from winning another in the same year. Garmin-Barracuda boasts a very strong team, who will throw their support behind Tom Danielson as soon as Ryder falters.
Tony Martin, Omega Pharma-Quick Step
Age: 27 Weight: 75 kg/165 lbs
Tony Martin rides a mean time trial, earning the stripes of World Time Trial Champion in September 2011 and recently securing the German national time trial title. Like his teammate, Levi Leipheimer, Martin enjoyed some early season form taking 5th at the Tour of the Basque Country and 2nd at the Volta ao Algarve, though he did not defend his Paris-Nice title well. Also, like his teammate, he sustained an injury in April, breaking his collarbone. He returned to form in late May, winning the Tour of Belgium with a dominating performance in the time trial. At the Dauphine, he finished 10 minutes down in an unimpressive 23rd. Martin clearly pushes a lot of power, but he is relatively heavy and is unable to perform consistently well in the mountains. It is only by virtue of two long time trials at the 2012 Tour de France that he is considered for a top 15 placing. By the end of the Alps, he will be supporting Leipheimer in his bid for a Tour podium spot.
Andreas Klöden, RadioShack-Nissan-Trek
Age: 37 Weight: 63 kg/139 lbs
You want Andreas Klöden on your team. The wily German veteran has a ton of Tour experience, finishing 2nd in both 2004 and 2006 and securing a 6th place overall in the 2009 Tour. He was 13th in 2010 and withdrew in 2010 due to a race ending crash. When he is on form, he time trials well and he climbs well. He’s an old all-arounder, the operative word being ‘old.’ He will do well at this year’s Tour by virtue of the fact that he will do everything possible to help Frank Schleck reach the podium. If Schleck cracks, then Klöden might event become the team leader along with the aging Chris Horner.
Luis Leon Sanchez, Rabobank Cycling Team
Age: 28 Weight: 74 kg/163 lbs
Luis Leon Sanchez is among the top time trialists. Over the past five years, he has won the Spanish national time trial title on four occasions, most recently in June of 2012. The opportunistic Spaniard is always good for a stage win or two, but like Tony Martin, he is too heavy to win the long-term battle in the mountains. If he survives in contention in the Alps, he will certainly falter in the Pyrenees. The Rabobank Cycling Team is decent, but they will be undecided whether or not to support Gesink or to throw their support behind Sanchez, who is likely to secure a top 20 spot at this year’s Tour.
Chris Horner, RadioShack-Nissan-Trek
Age: 40 Weight: 63 kg/40 lbs
Chris Horner only made the 2012 Tour de France team by virtue of political pressure placed on Johan Bruyneel by the sponsors. Suffering from lower back problems, Horner failed to defend his Tour of California title from 2011, opted out of the Tour de Suisse and was left off the initial Tour selection by his team. Nearly 41 years of age, the American’s days as a Tour de France contender are over, though it’s great to see the ‘Red Neck’ in the Tour this year! He’ll do well in the mountains, trying to help Schleck regain the podium and will likely secure a top 20 overall spot.
Ivan Basso, Liquigas-Cannondale
Age: 34 Weight: 70 kg/154 lbs
Ivan Basso finished 7th in the 2011 Tour de France, but he decided to go for it this year in his home race, the Giro d’Italia. The “Smiling Assassin” finished 5th. Enough said.
Pierre Rolland, Team Europecar
Age: 25 Weight: 71 kg/156 lbs
Remember Pierre Rolland? He won the 2011 summit finish at Alpe d’Huez, secured the White Jersey of the Best Young Rider and finished 10th. A brilliant climb with what most be a huge power to weight ratio, he is unimpressive in the race against the clock. Thus far in 2012, the young Frenchman has been a no-show, but he must just be on form for the Tour. Who knows? What we do know is that there are too many miles of time trialing and not enough mountaintop finishes for this young gun to do much better than a top 20 finish.
Thomas Voeckler, Team Europecar
Age: 33 Weight: 66 kg/145 lbs
Thomas Voeckler was amazing in the 2011 Tour de France. Ever the opportunist, the Frenchman also showed himself to be a decent climber, wore the Yellow Jersey for days and managed a 4th place overall. Like Frank Schleck, however, he is a terrible time trialist. That, and a nagging knee injury from the Dauphine, will hold him back in 2012. He will be lucky to secure a top 20 finish at this year’s Tour.