Tour de France 2015: the route, the contenders and Tinkov’s challenge

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(Jeff Pachoud / AFP)

“The grandest Grand Départ ever”. These are the words of Tour de France general director Christian Prudhomme, describing how he thought Yorkshire had done in playing host to the start of the world’s most famous bike race. The unprecedented images of crowds packed onto climbs such as Holme Moss definitively proved the popularity of cycling in the UK, and Yorkshire set new standards for how a Grand Départ should be organised and delivered.

It is undoubtedly correct that we should revel in the success of Le Tour’s visit to these shores but attentions must now be turned to next year, following the recent announcement of the route for the 2015 edition of the race. The Grand Départ will take place in the Dutch city of Utrecht next time around, kicking things off with a very short, very flat individual time trial that may favour specialists of the discipline such as Fabian Cancellara or possibly Tony Martin.

The opening week of the 2015 Tour takes in many features that are now synonymous with the first third of the race. The stages are mostly flat, bar the odd minor climb, so will be targeted by the sprinters teams. After crashing out early on in this year’s race, Mark Cavendish will be hoping to quickly get some points on the board in the green jersey competition on these flat stages.

Stage 4 could prove significant, as it includes seven sections of pavé (cobbles) for the riders to negotiate. On his way to clinching the yellow jersey this year, Vincenzo Nibali gained huge time over his main rivals on the cobbled stages. However, you would expect the main contenders for the overall race lead to keep each other in close order on this stage, which could lead to some interesting tactical riding.

After flying southwards for the first rest day in Pau, the race then turns towards the looming Pyrenees, where major time gaps will start to appear in the general classification. Stage 11 looks set to be a barnstormer, taking in the legendary climbs of the Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet and Cauterets. This will be the hunting ground for climbers such as Thibaut Pinot or Joaquin Rodriguez to launch attacks.

With a couple of transition stages en route to a gruelling final week in the high Alps, teams going for the overall win will have the chance to regroup before this big final test. The race could potentially be won or lost on the penultimate stage of the tour, as the peloton returns to Alpe d’Huez for the 29th occasion, with its notorious switchback hairpins. Finally, we have the customary procession into Paris, preceding a dogfight between the sprinters on the Champs Elysee.

With regards to the contenders for the general classification in 2015, the natural names we look to are Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali.

Froome now seems to be the designated leader of Team Sky, having succeeded Sir Bradley Wiggins in that sense. He was disappointed to have to withdraw from the 2014 edition, so will be hungry to return and show that he is still capable of recapturing some of the form that saw him win the 2013 Tour de France.

Alberto Contador is back in cracking form and having just won his third Vuelta a Espana, he can never be discounted. With a route that includes seven mountain stages, he will surely be one to watch.

Quintana is still very young, but proved his natural all-round ability by winning this year’s Giro d’Italia, his maiden Grand Tour victory. Perhaps 2015 will be the year when he fully steps out of the shadow of his Movistar team mate Alejandro Valverde.

Vincenzo Nibali would be an outside bet to retain his Tour de France title, but will have to work hard in facing renewed competition. In 2014, once Froome and Contador had crashed out, he had no real rivals on a relatively easy passage to triumphing in Paris.

What has added significant fuel to the fire surrounding the 2015 Tour is the prospective offer made by Saxo-Tinkoff team owner Oleg Tinkov in his ‘Grand Treble’ idea. He is offering a €1m prize fund to Contador, Froome, Nibali and Quintana if they choose to compete in all three of 2015’s Grand Tours. This move has been criticised by many as a shameless publicity stunt, but Tinkov insists that he is serious and will go ahead with his idea if the riders are willing.

The 2015 Tour de France promises to be another three weeks of fantastic racing, with numerous contenders going for the title. Tinkov’s plan is a fascinating concept and if taken up by the rider’s involved, will surely raise the growing profile of cycling even more.