One recurring theme in contemporary Tour de France coverage is the decline of French cycling. The story that’s written less often is the rise of Spanish riders in the pro ranks, led, of course, by SaxoBank-Sungard’s Alberto Contador, winner of last year’s Tour, this year’s Giro, and most of the other races he’s entered. Contador is, like Armstrong and Indurain before him, the dominant big tour rider of his generation. Unlike his American predecessor though, Contador races (and wins) smaller races throughout the year, so that by the age of 28, he has already established a palmares to rival the sport’s legends.
The small man with the big head (literally, his head is large in relation to his body) and toothy smile is, without doubt, the favorite to repeat as 2011 champion. He is the world’s top climber, despite what Andy Schleck believes he is capable of, and also one of the fastest against the clock. Though this year’s race is short on time trial kilometers, it’s all still up to Contador, as he is a notoriously aggressive racer. Schleck is more likely to respond to an attack. Contador’s standard operating procedure is to attack on the first significant climb of any race, establish dominance and a lead, and then hold that through to the end.
In the past, especially when he was dueling with Armstrong for leadership of Astana, this approach might have indicated insecurity. The sooner he could establish his superiority, the sooner he could rally the team around him. Now however, it appears that Contador simply can’t resist attacking on steep terrain. Having more than sealed the deal at the Giro this year, he continued to attack on the big climbs, turning the entire festival of suffering into a race for second place. If the Spaniard can regain the legs he had in Italy in time, look for this same scenario to play out in the Pyrenees and Alps.
Rallying around Contador at Saxo Bank is a small cadre of his compatriots, Jesus Hernandez, Daniel Navarro and Benjamin Noval. Navarro distinguished himself at the 2010 Grand Boucle as Contador’s chief lieutenant in the mountains, pacing Contador up and onto the slopes of the race’s big climbs. Noval is another extremely capable domestique, loyal to his boss and valuable in all phases of the race.
Of course, Contador and his boys aren’t the only Spanish show in town. The Basque climbers of Euskaltel-Euskadi will be ever present in the orange kits, and the Movistar squad (formerly Caisse d’Epargne) brings riders capable of stage wins, if not the overall.
Sammy Sanchez will be Euskaltel’s man for the general classification. Sanchez is an all-rounder who climbs well, but descends even better. When the road turns down there is no one, save for Vincenzo Nibali, who can harness gravity to such stunning effect. Sanchez’s supporting cast includes a couple of standout climbers in Egoi Martinez and Amets Txurruka. Martinez has a list of King of the Mountain’s jerseys to his credit, including the Vuelta, the Tour of the Basque Country, Tirreno-Adriatico and last year’s Dauphiné. In 2009, he finished second in the climber’s competition at the Tour, behind Franco Pellizotti, who was later disqualified for doping. Txurruka has no professional wins to his credit, but he is know for his combativity, attacking here, there and everywhere, narrowly missing out on Tour stages in the past.
Movistar’s Tour roster is a bit more balanced. They bring José Iván Gutiérrez as a strong all-rounder, JJ Rojas and Francisco Ventoso for the sprints, and David Arroyo for the steeper stages. Arroyo will be one to watch. As a de facto climber’s championship, the 2011 Tour holds plenty of opportunities for able ascenders. Arroyo could challenge for the polka dot jersey, and with the one-two punch of Rojas and Ventoso, Movistar could steal a sprint win from the more famous fast men, like Cavendish and Farrar.
Team Rabobank from Holland also has a tradition of hiring Spanish riders, and this year they’ll bring a trio of former Tour stage winners, Carlos Barredo, Juan Manuel Gárate and Luis León Sánchez to the party. Of the three, Gárate is mostly likely to feature, and like Arroyo from Movistar has hopes for the polka dot jersey. It will be interesting to see how Rabobank deploy León Sánchez, a strong rider who will support Rabobank’s Dutch GC man, Robert Gesink.
At Radio Shack we find Markel Irizar, Haimar Zubeldia and Sergio Paulinho, all capable climbers who will contribute to the Shack’s one-two-three-four GC effort behind Levi Leipheimer, Andreas Kloden, Janez Brajkovic and Chris Horner. With so many climbers in the race, the Shack, perhaps more than any other squad, has a chance at unsettling Contador. Irizar and Zubeldia will be key to that effort, likely driving the pace on steep roads, to thin out the lead group and set one of their big guns up for an attack. In some circles, Paulinho, who ruined 2010′s Bastille Day for the French, has even been bandied about as a potential Top-10 threat due to this year’s mountainous parcours.
Finally, there is Team Sky, who feature Juan Antonio Flecha and Xabier Zandio. Flecha, known as a classics specialist, took his first pro win at the Tour in 2003, and he is capable of turning any breakaway he enters into a contender. How Sky manager Dave Brailsford incorporates Flecha into their GC push behind Bradley Wiggins will be interesting.
Man of the Hour: Who could it be, but Contador? The swirl of doping controversy left over from last year’s Tour, his continued dominance of any race he chooses to win, the rivalry with Andy Schleck, all eyes are on the Spaniard with the annoying victory salute. If Contador has the same legs under him that he had in the Giro, this Tour is done and dusted.
On the Hot Seat: If Sammy Sanchez is going to stand on a Tour de France podium, it will be this one. A weak time-trialist, if Sanchez can hang in the high mountains he has a real shot at sneaking onto one of the lower steps. Consistency is key, as he is prone to show extremely well early in a race, only to see a bad day drop him down the standings.
Up-and-Comer: At 26 and 29 respectively, JJ Rojas and Francisco Ventoso represent the next generation of Spanish sprinters. The two Movistar fast men have seven race wins between them this year, and either rider has the ability to surprise the big boys at the line. It remains to be seen who will be the point of the spear for Movistar, Ventoso or Rojas, but they are two to watch in the flats the first week.