Forget the disappointment of Brexit and the English Football team being embarrassed by minnows Iceland, because as of this Saturday, the greatest sports event in the world kicks off for its 103rd edition. On Saturday the 2nd of July, the Grand Depart will take place in Mont-Saint-Michel and 219 of the world’s best bike riders will be expected to entertain us for the next three weeks. We all know that it will be Chris Froome vs Nairo Quintana vs Alberto Contador in the mountains and that Kittel will probably sweep up the flat stages from Mark Cavendish and Andre Griepel. Yet, this piece is going to explore the riders who will really make the race. The underdogs who will spend day after day in the break or even grab a stage win for their pro-continental team. Below are five riders that I think you should watch at this year’s tour and if you feel brave even make a bet for a stage win or two.
Rider 1 – Julian Alaphillippe
Much of France pins its hopes on Roman Bardet and Thibeau Pinot come July but the real gem is young Julian Alaphillippe from Belgian outfit Ettix–Quickstep. After bursting on to the scene in last year’s Ardennes Classics taking two second places behind Alejandro Valverde, the Frenchman has picked up some impressive results as of late. Overall victory and a stage of the Tour of California, best young rider and 6th overall at the Criterium du Dauphine and second in this year’s Fleche Wallone. I find it hard to believe in his debut tour, the youngster will not go up the road hunting a stage and you would be naïve to bet against him being successful. The French tend to always notch a stage win or two each tour and with Pinot and Bardet concentrating on GC aspirations and Bryan Coquard and Arnaud Demare being sub-standard sprinters, it looks like all hopes will lay in the hands of the 24-year-old.
Rider 2- Steve Cummings
Monsieur Breakaway is my name for this twighlighting Brit. When did he realise he had the ability to hold off whole pelotons with only a few kilometres to go to win stages of major races? If he had realised this earlier, it could be said that Steve Cummings would have a much more decorated palmares. The Dimension Data team will be looking after superstar sprinter Mark Cavendish on the sprint stages but when the road get lumpy, it is likely the team will have free rein to hunt stage wins and in Cummings they have their best hope. His victory on Stage 14 of last year’s Tour was one of the best moments of the race and I certainly would not put it past him to repeat this feat.
Rider 3- Ilnur Zakarin
The gangly Russian was on course for a high placed finish in this year’s Giro D’Italia until he crashed, in spectacular fashion, descending the Colle dell’Agnello. He now comes into the Tour with plenty of climbing miles in his legs and less pressure to perform in the General Classification. A tilt at a top 5 finish maybe too much for the twenty-six year old but if found in a reduced bunch, his turn of speed surpasses most other climbers. Zakarin is still somewhat of an unknown quantity. After serving a drugs ban, the Russian has been very hit and miss in stage races. Overall success in the Tour De Romandie has been coupled with inconsistency at the Giro D’Italia, and although there is clearly some talent, slight naivety still creeps into his riding (See Stage 9 of the Giro this year). However, this could be the race that breaks Zakarin into the big time.
Rider 4- Greg Van Avermaet
I could not help but get emotional when the 31-year old crashed at the Tour of Flanders this year. After what had been probably his best start to a season, winning Tirreno-Adriatico and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, it looked like the year that GVA was going to win a big monument. Yet a crash in his home race left the Belgian in tears at the side of the road. Having interviewed Van Avermaet personally at the beginning of the season, I know that he will be ready to fight again in search of a second career stage win at Le Tour. Stage 2 ends with a punchy finish into Cherbourg which would certainly suit his riding style. If he can get the better of World Champion Peter Sagan, which he has done quite often, do not be surprised to see the BMC man dawning the yellow jersey.
Rider 5 – Dylan Groenewegen
You may have noted earlier that I claimed the sprint stages would be a full gone conclusion ending with victory for Marcel Kittel. Yet, this year’s youngest rider is starting to pave a name for himself when it comes to being quick. The 23-year-old Dutchman, Groenewegen, has taken some impressive victories this year including his national championships and the Rund um Koln, beating seasoned sprinter Andre Griepal. It will be difficult to compete with the established sprint trains of Lotto-Soudal and Etixx Quick-Step, but if the end gets messy, and it usually does, Groenewegen could find himself in the right place at the right time. Now, I am not claiming he will take any victories, but a podium could definitely be on the cards.