Great Britain has started to become a force on the road in particular two areas, Sprinting and Time Trails. This year the British riders have brought two from each discipline, and one really consistent all rounder. David Millar and Bradley Wiggins are both great under the clock, both with super aero positions and the power to punch out a good result on short to medium courses. Unfortunately for them, unlike in previous years, this year’s Tour has no Prologue for Time Trialists to try to bag an early Yellow Jersey. Out of the two riders the SKY Team is probably best placed to propel Brad into the Yellow Jersey on stage two. But wait a minute; let’s not forget the Manx Missile, Mr Mark Cavendish. Not only is he one of the greatest sprinters ever, he’s a mighty fine TT rider and the HTC squad packs some real Powerhouses. Mark Cavendish has 15 Tour de France stages (and 25 Grand Tour wins in total) which places him leagues ahead on any other Brit racing today or in the past. He’s talked about going for 5 this year and I’d be amazed if he doesn’t get at least four of them.
British cycling on the road really has become great over the last 5 years. No longer are lone ambassadors left to represent the nation in smaller Teams but we have some of the worlds finest on some of the biggest Teams. Traditionally we tend to produce good tough rouleurs (Sean Yates, Barry Holban), fantastic riders under the clock (Chris Boardman) and not many great climbers (except Robert Miller), but Bradley Wiggins managed a great trick when he turned himself from being the greatest Pursuiter in the World to a rider that was able to finish 4th in 2009. Many claimed that it was a flash in the pan and many felt vindicated by the lack luster performance of 2010 that they were right. Brad seems to thrive on the ‘you can’t do it’ claims that others throw at him and proved them all wrong by winning this year’s Duaphine. To lose between 8-10kg and still keep that power and the metronome pedal stroke is indeed a thing of both sheer determination and beauty.
David Millar is the reformed bad boy of British cycling. I think Millar’s role will be of a road captain. I’d expect him to take off on a loan crazy suicide mission to achieve glory, only to be pipped at the post again. Millar’s greatest chance to bag a victory will be in a TT, but I think that the days of him being able to take on the world’s best are long gone.
Ben Swift will make his TdF debut on Saturday, but is he there to support Flecha or is he the one that’ll be getting supported? He’s had a great year with some quality wins against some pretty fast sprinters. Could he be a match for Cav, maybe as he brims with confidence and is equally fearless in the sprint? He reminds me a lot of a young Robbie McEwen the way he can find a way through the peloton.
Geraint Thomas is probably the biggest rough diamond of them all. Great under the clock, strong, tough and probably the only chink in his armour is that he doesn’t climb as well as he possibly could – well, yet anyhow. G, as he’s known, held the White Jersey in last year’s Tour and made many people stand up and take notice of this likeable Welshman. I’m sure that this year you’ll see him support Bradley as much as he can and I wouldn’t be too surprised if you see him turn up in a lead out train if Ben Swift is feeling pretty good on that day.
With Ireland’s sole representative being Nicolas Roche of AG2R, the nation’s hopes are pinned firmly on the shoulders of the son of the great Steven Roche. However, Roche crashed earlier this year in the Critérium du Dauphiné and abandoned a race that should have been a big portion of his preparation for the Tour. Despite this, Roche still claims that his crash has not set him back in terms of fitness and he is not far off from where he should be with the hope of peaking his form in time for the Tour.
The Irishman was hoping to be able to win the Irish National Championships, entitling him to 12 months in the champion’s jersey and the opportunity to once again display it at the Tour. All did not go as planned, as the jersey was won by Matthew Brammeier of HTC-Columbia, who is not competing in the Tour.
Roche’s chances for overall GC contention are slim, with his team having some other strong (possibly stronger) riders such as Jean-Christophe Peraud and Maxime Bouet, who will be eager to get results. Roche should aim for breakaway success and try and net an elusive stage win to be able to call this 2011 Tour de France a success. If his hopes lie with the Malliot Jaune, he best hope not to puncture on the slopes of Alpe-d’Huez with only John Gadret as company. The pair suffered a dispute at last year’s Tour de France, where Roche punctured and asked Gadret for his wheel, but the Frenchman replied ‘non’. The young Irishman is still trying to find his footing as a possible GC contender, I certainly hope that if he does, the 2011 Tour de France will be the time.
Man of the Hour: This has to go to Mark Cavendish. The build up this year from every race he’s taken part in from Paris Roubaix to the Giro d’Italia has all been about one thing, the Green Jersey. Cav has been open about his tactics 5 stage wins, plus limiting his loses on the intermediate sprints. With Eric Zabel as his mentor, who’d bet against him that this will be the year he gets it right?
On the Hot Seat: Bradley Wiggins. After a stellar 4th place in 2009, Wiggins looks to be in great form coming into this year’s Tour. The SKY team looks to have riders which should be able to protect him on the flat and in the mountains. The big question on many lips is who will come second or third. For Brad to better his 2009 performance it will require dedication and focus. Will he do it? Well, you don’t get multiple Gold medals on the Track for being a quitter. What I do know that is he’ll give it his best shot.
Up and ComerBoth still young and with lots to prove (and win) it’s a difficult choice to choose between Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift. The SKY team mates have talent in abundance, yet if I have to place my hat on anyone I’ll go for Ben Swift as his ability to cope under pressure around some of the faster riders in the world has helped no doubt to secure him his place in the Tour this year. The best he can hope for is to bag one, maybe two stages. I can’t wait to see him and Cav go head to head.