The 99th Tour de France starts Saturday in Liège, Belgium. It’s kind of like our Super Bowl — both because it’s cycling’s biggest prize and because it attracts the interest and viewership of a larger audience than the rest of the season combined. I know some of you will find this hard to believe, but not everyone circles the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on the calendar.
No, every July our traffic here at VeloNews.com explodes as fans from around the world tune into La Grand Boucle. If you’re one of those who tunes in mostly during the Tour, welcome back … and boy, are you going to be confused.
You see, much has changed since Cadel Evans stepped off the podium with his fancy new fruit bowl back in 2011. Up is down. Day is night. Mark Cavendish can climb. It’s a whole new world.
Luckily, I’m here to bring you up to speed.
So who’s racing? Well, not Alberto Contador. El Pistolero is still banned until August 5 for having tested positive for clenbuterol on the second rest day of 2010. Contador — who has spent his suspension alternately training and shilling mattresses — continues to maintain his innocence and plans a return just in time to contest the Vuelta a Espana.
Contador’s archrival, Andy Schleck, has meanwhile been busting his ass. And no, I don’t mean he’s finally committed to improving his time trialing. After abandoning scores of early season races, Schleck fractured his sacrum in a wind-induced TT crash at the Critérium du Dauphiné. So Andy’s out too — which may be a blessing in disguise. With more than 100km of time trialing built into the course, the 2012 Tour wasn’t going to end well for the newly named 2010 champion.
And what of Thor Hushovd, who held the maillot jaune from stage 2 through 9 in 2011? You might have better luck finding him on a milk carton. The Norwegian, whose recent form has suffered due to a viral infection (contracted while counting his BMC money) withdrew from the Giro d’Italia in May and plans to ride in July’s second most prestigious race, the, um … Tour of Poland.
Also missing will be Radio Shack-Nissan manager Johan Bruyneel, whose empire appears to be crumbling beneath his feet.
Bruyneel’s squad has had a difficult 2012 with Fabian Cancellara breaking his collarbone during the Tour of Flanders, an array of public squabbles between riders and management, complaints over late salary payments, and Bruyneel’s initial exclusion of American Chris Horner from his Tour squad.
In an odd twist of fate, Horner will be in France but Bruyneel won’t. The Belgian has been named as one of several subjects in a potential U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation of alleged Lance Armstrong-era transgressions and is sitting out the Tour to avoid unnecessary distractions (like having his team thrown out by race organizers).
Reigning champion Cadel Evans will be back with most of his 2011 squad, though his BMC “super team” — which now includes Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert — has had a surprisingly quiet season, with Evans’ own win at the Critérium International as its most high-profile victory. Cadel appears to be in relatively good form, which would be good news for the Australian were it not for the amazing recent success of Sky’s Bradley Wiggins.
Wiggo is on a career-defining tear, having won Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné in rapid succession. Indeed, the only thing that threatened to prevent Wiggins from dominating the Tour was the presence of new teammate Mark Cavendish.
Can Sky simultaneously support the GC and green-jersey ambitions of its star riders? As it turns out, they may not be planning to. The reigning world champion, Cavendish — widely regarded as the sport’s fastest sprinter — has his eyes set on a completely different goal in 2012: Olympic gold in London.
To prepare himself for the challenge of repeated climbs of Surrey’s Box Hill, Cavendish appears to be reshaping himself into a classics rider of sorts. He stuck it out through the (entire) Giro d’Italia, has shed 10 pounds and took the first GC of his career at this month’s Ster ZLM Toer. Tellingly, he won not a single sprint in the process, ceding stages to likely green-jersey contenders Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol).
Though it’s unwise to discount Cavendish in a sprint, he’ll lack an HTC-style lead-out train and may have sacrificed some top-end speed in preparation for the Olympic challenge. You may even see him working a bit for Wiggins, who now stands as the undisputed favorite for yellow in Paris.
But three weeks is a long time. Anything can happen — including the potential for a Giro-Tour double from Garmin-Sharp team leader Ryder Hesjedal, who brings strong form and an amazing team along for the ride. Regardless, it’ll be fun to watch.
And now that you’re up to speed, go grab that calendar. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is scheduled for February 23, 2013. There’s amazing racing all year, so you’ll probably want to get to circling dates.
Dan Wuori is the author of Velo Magazine’s monthly column “At the Back.” For more of his Tour de France humor and commentary, follow him on Twitter at @dwuori.