It’s July 1st, and if you’re seeing more bikers on the road wearing pro-team memorabilia, that’s probably because they’re experiencing Tour de France fever. Yes, it’s that time of the year again when the world’s best teams and riders meet in France to embark on the most grueling test in cycling: a 3-week stage race that takes riders through the valleys, vineyards and over the mountains of France. When all is said and done, the winner is anointed with the maillot journe (yellow jersey), and becomes immortalized in cycling lore.
Yesterday on Saturday, June 30, the 2012 Tour de France kicked off in Liége, Belgium (just north of France) – one might think this is an odd city in which to start the Tour de France, but in fact, Liege has been regularly visited by the Tour for the last 60 years or so. As in every Tour, the first stage, also known as the prologue, begins with a short individual time trial. The prologue serves two functions. Number one, short time trial specialists like Fabian Cancellera and Tony Martin look to get the stage win and some glory for themselves and their team. More importantly, any rider who is thinking about contending for the yellow jersey wants to make a statement in the Tour’s prologue with a good time. Riding a solid individual time trial is ultimately a statement that says, “Here I am, I’m in good form and I’m going to be a serious contender for the next three weeks.”
Well, that is exactly the statement that Great Britain’s Bradley Wiggins made yesterday. Although time-trial specialist Fabian Cancellera won Saturday’s prologue, Wiggins came in just seven seconds slower to take second place. Riding for Britain’s Team Sky, Wiggins has been the hottest rider so far this year, and is surely the favorite to win the yellow jersey. So far, in 2012, he has won three major pre-Tour stage races: Paris-Nice, Tour of Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné. In fact, he is the first rider to ever win the three races together in a single season (really in just a few month stretch – pretty unbelievable). After crashing out of the tour last year when he was also a favorite to win, Wiggins comes into the 2012 Tour hungrier than most.
The other major Tour favorite this year is undoubtedly Team BMC’s Cadel Evans, last year’s winner of the yellow jersey. Evans has shown good form in the run-up to this year’s Tour, winning the Critérium International and taking 3rd overall in the Critérium du Dauphiné. Evans has had a similar run-up to the Tour as he had last year, winning one or two well-fielded races, and placing high up in others. With fellow Team BMC riders like George Hincapie, the most seasoned Tour de France rider in the peloton, Cadel Evans certainly has the supporting riders around him to win the Tour if he has the legs.
Unlike the 2011 Tour de France, which featured numerous mountain stages through the Pyrenees and the Alps, this year’s Tour is less a pure climber’s delight and more of a test for the all-around rider. However, what will surely separate the contenders from the wannabes are the two lengthy individual time trials, stages 9 and 19. Totaling 95km worth of individual time trialing, (not to be mistaken with shorter time trials that play to the strengths of Cancellara and his ilk), the rider who can grit out a low combined time on the two long time trials will likely give him the advantage he needs to win the Tour. This further reinforces the battle between Wiggins and Evans, as they are the two best all-around riders who also excel in long time trials.
That said, there are other riders to watch. Look out for Levi Leipheimer, racing for Omega-Pharma Quick Step – he is a well-seasoned Tour de France contender (finishing as high as 3rd overall in 2007) and a strong time trial rider. Ryder Hesjedal of the Garmin-Sharp team, won this year’s Giro d’Italia, and has been a strong rider in the Tour de France for the last couple of years. And then there’s the Green Jersey competition to watch, the crown for the best sprinter in the Tour. Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish is certainly the man to beat for the stages that will end in a sprint finish. However, look out for riders like Lotto Belisol’s Andre Greipel who was a strong challenger to Cavandish in last year’s Tour, Movistar Team’s José Joaquín Rojas, Liquigas’s young Peter Sagan who has been racking up sprint wins this year like no other, and the American sprinter Tyler Farrar racing for the Garmin-Sharp Team.
There are a couple of options for watching the Tour de France live. The NBC Sports Network channel, which you will have access to based on your cable provider and your subscription, is the best place to see all-around coverage over the course of the three weeks. If you do not have access to the NBC Sports Network channel, you can buy a NBC Sports Network app for $15 available on iPhone, iPad and Android devices that will allow you to watch and follow the Tour in real-time. Either way, the three weeks will afford much to enjoy whether you’re watching it live, or after the fact. Enjoy!