10 Riders to Watch at the 2014 Tour de France
PARIS (AP) — Explosive sprinters, svelte climbers, powerful time trialists: the Tour de France is not just about the handful of all-rounders who will vie for the coveted yellow jersey when the race begins on Saturday in Leeds, England.
Team Sky's Chris Froome may be the favorite to repeat as champion, but he'll be tested by this year's 2,277-mile (3,364-kilomater) route, which was laid out with the aim of encouraging riders to take chances, with more short-but-treacherous mountain stages like those in the relatively little-used Vosges region.
Should Froome dominate the race as he did in 2013, however, there will be other storylines to keep fans interested: Will Mark Cavendish fight off the new generation of German and French sprinters aiming to claim the crown of Tour Sprint King? Who among the young American riders will emerge as the next great hope of U.S. cycling?
What's happened to Luxembourg's once-formidable Schleck brothers? And does aging veteran Jens Voigt still have one more thrilling breakaway victory left in him?
Here are 10 riders to watch in this year's Tour de France:
CHRIS FROOME: The defending champion has every chance of repeating his 2013 victory and giving Team Sky its third Tour victory in as many years. The 29-year-old Kenyan-born Brit was head and shoulders above the competition last year, grabbing the yellow jersey with a victory at Ax 3 Domaines in the Pyrenees mountains in Stage 8 and holding onto it for the rest of the race. His closest rival, Colombian sensation Nairo Quintana, finished over four minutes behind him, and is skipping this year's Tour to focus on the Spanish Vuelta in September. Froome also won't have to worry about managing his sometimes-fraught relationship with teammate Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 champion, who wasn't named to Sky's Tour squad this year.
MARK CAVENDISH: The 29-year-old 'Manx Missile' will again be a contender for the sprinter's green jersey in his second year riding for the Belgian squad Omega Pharma Quick-Step. Cavendish, who has the most Tour stage wins (25) of any active rider, also has a chance to wear the yellow jersey for the first time in his career after route planners decided to start the race with a sprint stage that just so happens to finish in his mother's hometown of Harrogate. A bout of bronchitis prevented the 2013 British road champion from defending his title in June, but Cavendish hopes to be back to full strength for the Tour.
ALBERTO CONTADOR: At 31, the Spaniard known as 'El Pistolero' is the most decorated stage racer of his generation, with five grand tours in his palmares, including two Tours de France. The Tinkoff-Saxo rider will be out to reclaim his position at the top of the sport after seeing his 2010 Tour victory stripped because of a doping violation and losing a podium spot in the 2013 Tour on the penultimate stage. His form has been good so far this season, with stage wins and overall victories in two important weeklong races (Tirreno-Adriatico in March and Tour of Basque Country in April), as well as a close second-place finish in June's Criterium du Dauphine. As a headline in French newspaper L'Equipe declared in March, "The King is Back."
MARCEL KITTEL: The 26-year-old German dethroned Cavendish last year as the fastest man on the Champs-Elysees, ending the Brit's four-year winning streak in the final stage finish. The Giant-Shimano rider has won stages in all three Grand Tours, including two stages at this year's Giro d'Italia, to add to his haul of four stages at last year's Tour — double Cavendish's take.
VINCENZO NIBALI: The 29-year-old Italian climber, known as 'The Shark,' won last year's Giro d'Italia and was runner-up at the Spanish Vuelta. The Astana rider's coach told the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport that Nibali has spent recent weeks in the Italian Dolomites preparing his attack, with the aim of hitting peak form just before the Tour starts. His recent victory at the Italian national championships suggests that's exactly what he's done.
JOAQUIM RODRIGUEZ: The Spaniard known as 'Purito' (Little Cigar) remains a legitimate threat for the Tour podium at age 35. The Team Katusha rider grabbed a third-place finish in last year's Tour thanks to a standout performance in the race's penultimate stage in the Alps, when only Quintana was able to out-climb him to the finish at Semnoz. This season, his best result has been a victory in the Volta a Catalunya in his hometown of Barcelona in March, where he beat Contador and Froome.
PETER SAGAN: The charismatic young Slovak is the favorite to win the sprinter's green jersey for a third year in a row. The 24-year-old Cannondale rider only won one stage in last year's Tour but was a constant threat, with four second-place and two third-place stage finishes. Known for his humorous finish-line salutes, as well as his bike-handling skills, which rivals call the best in the peloton, Sagan is consistently one of the most exciting riders to watch.
ANDREW TALANSKY: The 25-year-old Garmin-Sharp rider was the top-performing American rider in last year's Tour, finishing in 10th place. He also turned more than a few heads after winning June's Criterium du Dauphine, using wily tactics to defeat Contador, Froome and Nibali on the race's final summit finish in the Alps for the biggest victory of his career.
TEJAY VAN GARDEREN: The 2012 white jersey winner had a disappointing Tour last year, but his BMC Racing team believes in him enough to tap him as team leader over former yellow jersey winner Cadel Evans. The 25-year-old will be supported by a squad that's been largely revamped since 2013, with five new riders, including fellow American Peter Stetina.
ALEJANDRO VALVERDE: The 34-year-old Spaniard will lead Team Movistar in Quintana's absence. Valverde returned to cycling in 2012 after a two-year doping ban and has racked up some impressive performances since then, including a podium finish behind Froome and Sky teammate Richie Porte in last year's difficult Stage 8 summit finish at Ax 3 Domaines, and a fourth-place finish on Mont Semnoz. Valverde can also take hope from the hilly time trial in the Tour's penultimate stage: he only conceded 30 seconds to Froome in a similar stage last year.
(Story by: Greg Keller, The Associated Press)