Blazin' Saddles

Roche joins Kelly in support of Contador

Blazin' Saddles

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Contador's all smiles ahead of the Tour

A week after this blog EXCLUSIVELY revealed that Sean Kelly was backing Alberto Contador over Chris Froome for Tour de France glory, Blazin' Saddles can now bring you another EXCLUSIVE titbit: namely, that Kelly's compatriot and fellow Eurosport pundit Stephen Roche thinks exactly the same thing.

Speaking to Saddles after the first stage of the 2013 Hot Chillee London to Paris event in a motorway service station car park in Folkstone, south east England, Roche said that Spanish two-time Tour winner Contador would be "the man to watch" when the Tour gets under way, probably not in a motorway service station, in Porto-Vecchio, south east Corsica.

Hot Chillee ambassador Roche made his brave claim hours after the Sky team of Froome confirmed their nine-man army to take on Contador's strong Saxo-Tinkoff outfit over the roads of Metropolitan France this summer for the 100th edition of the Tour.

"Saxo Bank's squad is very strong," said Roche, whose son, 28-year-old Nicholas, will make his first Grand Tour appearance for Bjarne Riis's team since making the switch from Ag2R-La Mondiale last winter.

"Sky's team is also very strong. There's not much separating them. Both [Roman] Kreuziger and [Richie] Porte would be team leaders elsewhere.

"But I feel Contador has the edge over Froome. He's done it all before and will come to the Tour in the best condition," Roche said before boarding a coach destined for France via the Eurostar sub-sea high-speed train.

Interestingly, Roche – like Kelly – seemed to have endorsed Contador's bid for a third Tour victory having previously publicly backed Froome for glory.

On the eve of the 10th anniversary edition of the London to Paris – which Roche rides this week for the sixth consecutive year – the Irish legend told Press Association Sport that he had "no doubt" that "Froome can cope with anything that's thrown at him".

But a day can make a lot of difference.

First up, Saxo-Tinkoff named their squad for the Tour, which sees Contador supported by his faithful Spanish climbing lieutenants Benjamin Noval and Jesus Hernandez, Australian veteran Michael Rogers – who so ably supported Bradley Wiggins in his successful podium bid last year – Italians Matteo Tosatto and Daniele Bennati – key engines for the TTT in Nice – as well as Portugal's Sergio Paulinho, Czech all-rounder Roman Kreuziger and, of course, Roche junior, Nicholas.

Secondly, Stephen had had an undulating 168km from London to Folkstone during which to reassess his predictions ahead of the Tour. And there's nothing like wet potholed roads in Kent, the garden of England, to make you switch allegiances from an in-form Kenyan-born talent to a Spaniard who's done it all before.

Quizzed about his son's prospects, the 1987 triple crown winner said that 2013 would present fresh challenges for the man who finished last year's Tour with a career best 12th place.

"Nicholas will have a totally different role this year," Roche told Saddles moments after your faithful cycling scribe finished the opening stage of the London to Paris event without causing too many Roberto Ferrari-style pile-ups.

"He will be riding in support of Alberto but you never know – he may get a chance to go for a stage win. It all depends on the circumstances of the race."

One rider whom Roche has tipped to make quite an impact is his nephew Dan Martin, the 26-year-old Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Volta a Catalunya winner.

Martin finished 35th in a testing crash-strewn debut in last year's Tour but his success this season – plus Garmin-Sharp's lack of an out-and-out GC contender – will give the Irish talent a chance to shine. Roche Sr's sister, however, must beware of her son's appetite for blood.

"Dan will have more of a free role than Nicholas during the race. He'll attack and he'll definitely win a stage," said Roche.

"Nothing holds Dan back, the way he rides. He'd kill his own mother to be in the break."

In hindsight, Saddles probably should have led this blog with news that Stephen Roche was tipping his nephew to slay his mother over the roads of France.

Sensationalist headlines such as 'Martin to kill mother during Tour, says former Tour-winning uncle' or 'Roche tips Martin for matricide and stage win' would perhaps have generated more hits than another Contador vs Froome jolly.

But Saddles knows a joke (not to mention an old expression) when he hears one and it would have been grossly misrepresentative to misquote a former cycling legend in a cynical ploy to generate interest and get some re-tweets. Besides, Saddles has been promised a further interview with Roche – and you readers would much prefer to read that next week than another regular Tour preview, surely?

Leaving it at that, Roche and Saddles parted company: Roche onwards to France with 400 other riders for Friday's scenic second stage of London to Paris, from Calais to Amiens; and Saddles aboard a bus back to the Big Smoke for the 20-odd people (including ITV's Ned Boulting – sadly absent from the bus, mind) who could only hack one day in the saddle.

Organised by Hot Chillee – the media, marketing and events company behind Alpine Challenge and Cape Rouleur – the London to Paris has fast become one of the world's top sporting participation events. The waiting list is as long as Pierrick Fedrigo's nose – and Saddles was honoured to get one of the few press invites to join the likes of Roche and 1988 world champion Maurizio Fondriest on the road.

Needless to say, for Saddles, the required "months of hard training, dedication and commitment" came down to a daily commute on a single speed across London to Putney during coverage of the Giro d'Italia.

But his recent cameo in the Time Megeve sportive in the French Alps served BS well over some of the stage's short and snappy climbs, which were all carried out – in a display of bring-it-on bravura – in the big ring. Next year, BS may ride all the way to Paris in one of the top groups as opposed to taking it easy at an average speed of 27kmh in the fourth of six ranked groups.

On the bus home, there was time to read up on Eurosport and ruminate upon Sky's confirmed team selection. Eight of the nine riders recently rode together in the Dauphine, with the team only containing four riders from last year's victorious Tour team.

Britons Ian Stannard and Peter Kennaugh make Tour debuts in the Sky engine room; Geraint Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen may have chances of their own to nab a stage; Belarussian duo Kanstantin Siutou and Vasil Kiryienka are there for tireless hard graft; Spaniard David Lopez will be ever present at the start of the big climbs; while Australian Richie Porte, second in the Dauphine, will play the Froome role, so to speak, as close friend Froome's chief lieutenant.

It's a nice mix of youth, experience and flair. Wiggins's absence may make it a more cohesive unit but his power and experience will be missed. Also, the defection of Rogers to arch-rivals Saxo Bank may sway the balance in the favour of Contador's team.

So, perhaps Sean and Stephen are right after all: despite all the hype, Contador – and not Froome – could well be the most likely candidate to stand atop the podium in Paris in four weeks' time.

One thing is certain: with Wiggo absent and Contador present, the race will be a darn lot more exciting than in 2012. Especially with Dan Martin chomping at the bit. Just keep him away from his mother, Roche's sister...

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