Blazin' Saddles

Thoughts on the 2014 Tour de France

Blazin' Saddles

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With the 'grand departure' in Yorkshire less than a fortnight away, it's time to look ahead at various issues bubbling away ahead of the 2014 Tour de France.

While Team Sky will not make an announcement as to which eight riders will support defending champion Chris Froome until Wednesday, many squads have submitted their teams ahead of the season's most prestigious race.

A lot can happen between now and Leeds - not least the small matter of numerous national road championships - but already it's possible to address some of the key scenarios that look likely to make the headlines in July.

Our cycling blogger Blazin' Saddles scrawls down a few observation as D-Day fast approaches...

Expect heavy rain in Yorkshire

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It's been a balmy summer so far in the UK with even Wimbledon (an annual strawberry-eating festival that involves a bit of tennis on the side) starting this week under bright sun and blue skies. But with Glastonbury around the corner and the arrival of the world's biggest bike race a week later, there's no chance that Gary Verity, Christian Prudhomme and the fans lining the streets from Leeds to London will stay dry - just ask the people of Belfast.

Remember the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Boat Pageant on the Thames in 2012? Of course you can't - that's because there was so much rain and mist the global TV audiences couldn't see a thing, let alone the thousands of boats in procession.

In a two-horse race Froome starts with a handicap

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You can tell the Tour's approaching when the French press start to publish stories questioning the ethics of the Anglo-Saxon defending champion and his seemingly less-than-transparent team - not to mention the UCI itself. In terms of tactics - this is hardly a new thing. Let's just hope the ultimate results are very much different than when it involved parties from the other side of the Atlantic.

Anyway, all this finger pointing will clearly be piling the pressure on the slim shoulders of Christ Froome - even if Sky make a point to train in places where there's no WIFI.

From the actual racing aspect of last week's Criterium du Dauphine, spectators are in for a real treat when the Tour finally gets under way. Before his heavy fall, Froome looked in commanding form - although, tellingly, Alberto Contador was the only rider he could not shed.

With Contador displaying the form of old - Tinkoff-Saxo manager Bjarne Riis said this week that the Spaniard looks the "strongest I've seen him" - then it's hard to see anyone else posing a threat to Froome. We could be in for a ding-dong two-way battle for yellow.

Talansky curveball adds further excitement

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Froome's crash and Contador's final stage miscalculation make have combined to provide Andrew Talansky with the ingredients for his Dauphine victory - but the young American still had to put everything together and cook up a storm.

Not only was the Garmin-Sharp rider strong in the mountains, he showed tactical acumen hitherto lacking in his armoury - and on this showing, Talansky could be the surprise package to give Movistar's Alejandro Valverde a run for his money in the battle for third place.

That, of course, is discounting Vincenzo Nibali, who still has time to turn things round ahead of his principal focus of the season. The Italian from Astana showed glimpses of the rider who won the Giro last year - but struggled to have any real bearing on the outcome of the Dauphine. Still, he was far more impressive than BMC's Tejay Van Garderen, who finished five minutes behind his compatriot Talansky.

More impressive was Jurgen van den Broeck - although how the Belgian will fare on the cobbles of northern France, or in the high mountains in a team built around sprinter Andre Greipel, is anyone's guess. Rui Costa has done what we've come to expect of him and won the Tour de Suisse, but the jury is still out on his ability to feature highly in a race as demanding as the Tour. Despite Chris 'Papi' Horner in support, Costa may be reduced to chasing stages wins for Lampre-Merida rather than featuring high on GC.

As for Joaquim Rodriguez, well, it's been a season to forget for the man who lost out to Costa in Florence. His principal focus will be on his home tour in Spain and so expect the Katusha man to be on stage hunting duties rather than mixing it with the big boys.

With no Barguil or Bouhanni, French hopes lie with Bardet, Pinot and Demare

It's perhaps not surprising that Giant-Shimano have chosen to structure their team around German speed kings Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb - but it has denied the French public the chance to see the great hope Warren Barguil in action.

Still only 22, Barguil has been told to focus on riding for the GC in the Vuelta, the race where he made his professional debut with a two-stage salvo last autumn. His absence means youngsters Romain Bardet (Ag2R) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) will carry the torch for the French - a far cry from the days the locals cheered on Messrs Fignon and Hinault.

With Colombian Carlos Betancur seemingly experiencing something of a meltdown, experienced Ag2R pair Jean-Christophe Peraud and Christophe Riblon will be expected to raise their game, while Sylvain Chavanel will look to repay ASO for IAM's wildcard invitation with requisite lashings of panache.

No doubt shanked after his tilt at the Giro d'Italia podium, Europcar's Pierre Rolland will probably structure his race around stage wins rather than a top ten - and the race could well be the better for it.

In the sprints, a victory for diminutive debutant Bryan Coquard (Europcar) may be too much to hope for - but Arnaud Demare will look to notch his first Tour scalp now he's got the nod over FDJ team-mate Nacer Bouhanni, whose contract talks could well break down following the snub from Marc Madiot.

Kittel and Cavendish rivalry may be the best since Cipo and Abdou

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From the outset we should be treated to something special on the flat stages as Mark Cavendish looks to take a maiden yellow jersey in the home town of his mother. In Harrogate, it'll be the man who denied him this - as well as three other stages, including Cav's habitual scalp on the Champs Elysees - last year, Marcel Kittel, who will probably prove his biggest rival.

As Cavendish enters a new phase of his career - one in which he can no longer genuinely claim to be the fastest man on two wheels - he will need to use all his experience, bravery and know-how if he wants to keep the more explosive Kittel at bay. The modern era has seen individual sprinters - Erik Zabel, Robbie McEwen, Cavendish - dominate the sport; this could be the rivalry by which both Kittel and Cavendish are best remembered for.

The mind games have already begun

"Sky can of course do whatever they can, but I strongly feel that it is a huge mistake if they do not have Wiggins," Bjarne Riis told Danish media over the weekend. Of course, who's to know if the Dane was bluffing - knowing full well, perhaps, that adding Wiggins to the pot will further destabilise the most fragile looking Sky squad in quite some time.

Quite awkwardly, Sky may actually be forced to pick Wiggins

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Just days after Froome's grip on the Dauphine disappeared, Sky's fall continued when Sergio Henao broke his kneecap in a collision with a car while training ahead of the Tour de Suisse ITT on Friday. The injury has ruled the Colombian out of the Tour as well as the Vuelta. Having missed the first half of the season due to questions about his blood levels, Henao is not wrong in his assertion that it's been "a year to forget".

With Peter Kennaugh later abandoning the race through illness, there remains the slim possibility that Bradley Wiggins will be asked to fill the void at Sky - in spite of his own fitness concerns and his hasty announcement with the BBC a fortnight ago, in which the 2012 Tour winner effectively confirmed his non-selection. Wouldn't it be something if we saw Wiggo after all...

It's the UCI's word against the JDD

On Sunday, French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche continued its expose over Froome's controversial therapeutic use exemption (TUE) in the Tour of Romandie earlier in the season. The paper claimed that there is no special committee of experts at the UCI - as specified in WADA's guidelines on TUEs - just one certain trigger-happy Dr Mario Zorzoli.

To summarise, it's turned into a battle of who's telling the truth - the UCI or JDD. The UCI says they already have such a committee, but JDD says they don't. The question now if whether the UCI will name their committee or if, as many suspect, they'll have to hastily create one and back-date it.

Some are saying that there's already a special medical commission in place - but not one solely dedicated to TUEs. If that's the case then we have a grey area, with neither side emerging from the bout entirely 'victorious'. Expect this one to rumble on.

The biggest concern is how Froome's TUE got leaked

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Let's get a one thing straight: by procuring a TUE Froome didn't dope to win the Tour of Romandie. His illness was deemed acute enough to need a TUE - in this case, a corticosteroid - to compete; but he took the medicine to get well, not to give him the edge over his rivals. Sure, it's one hell of a grey area that will be addressed in the next section, but anyone who says this is evidence of Sky and the UCI doping a protected rider to win a race has clearly lost their marbles.

The truth is that we shouldn't even be discussing this because TUEs should be confidential. That we are discussing it suggests that some people believe that riders and teams are exploiting the system. But the bottom line is that there are rules - and Sky have followed those rules. It goes without saying that none of us mere mortals would want our private health issues made public - and the disclosure of Froome's TUE is a violation of a person's just right to confidentiality.

Sky should not be requesting TUEs in the first place

Dave Brailsford's team have always prided themselves on being stringently anti-doping - to the extent that they once went down the road of not seeking TUEs for riders in competition. While a Sky spokesman reiterated this week that "it was safe for Chris to ride at Romandie and he was given the appropriate treatment," the fact remains that, really, if you need a TUE to get over an illness, you shouldn't really be riding competitively in the first place.

It's the whole Tramadol argument all over again: by dulling your senses with an industrial painkiller, you are effectively enhancing your performance while putting you and your fellow riders at greater risk. Why do it?

We all know that the journalist David Walsh gave Sky a clear bill of health in 2013 when he was embedded within the team. His book, Inside Team Sky, stressed his views that there was no doping culture within the Sky set-up. To many, however, his book read very much like a press release on Sky-embossed paper.

This time round, you get the sense that Walsh feels personally let down by the emergence of the story of Froome's TUE - especially with it coming so soon after the public use of the inhaler that apparently was not once mentioned to Walsh during the research of his biography on Froome, The Climb.

Sky "talk the talk of high ethical standards but do not walk the walk," Walsh wrote in his column in the Sunday Times. "Team Sky like to portray themselves as the most ethical team in the peloton. The evidence says otherwise," he concluded.

Walsh's point is clear: given Sky's raison-etre and purported stance, requesting a TUE for such a high-profile rider should be out of the question.

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