Tour De France 2012: 5 Dark Horses for an Overall Victory
As the Grand Depart of the 2012 Tour De France rapidly approaches, we are faced with a race robbed of two of the favourites for overall victory.
With Alberto Contador still serving his suspension and Andy Schleck out following an injury suffered in the Dauphiné, we have been left with two other clear favourites for the race, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans.
With Wiggins in dominant form this year, he has been installed as the bookies' favourite to be wearing the yellow jersey in Paris. Reigning champion Cadel Evans is the other frontrunner following his victory last year, but has not been nearly as impressive as Wiggins this season.
Both men come into the Tour with extremely strong teams backing them, which will only serve to put them further ahead of their rivals.
In a race as long and grueling as the Tour, nothing can be taken for granted. Only last year, Wiggins saw his chances blown by a broken collarbone suffered on stage seven.
If Wiggins and Evans don't live up to the expectations put on them then who will be the riders that may challenge for the victory?
Here are the top-five riders who have an outside chance of challenging for victory on the Champs Elysees.
5) Frank Schleck
Frank was expected to be the chief lieutenant to his brother Andy when the race reached the mountains. However, after Andy's withdrawal the team looks set to put their efforts behind putting Frank as close to the top as possible.
The biggest hurdle for Frank will be the time that he is sure to lose in the time trials to Wiggins and Evans.
In last year's Tour, Schleck lost over two-and-a-half minutes to Evans on the stage 20 time trial. To compensate for this, Frank will have to cause the field to blow apart in the mountain stages.
After already racing in this year's Giro, from which he had to withdraw with injury, does Schleck have the legs to do this?
4) Jurgen Van Den Broeck
With Schleck and Contador both missing, the best pure climber in this year's race could be Lotto-Belisol's Jurgen Van Den Broeck.
The Belgian finds himself in a very similar position to Frank Schleck with his only chance for an overall victory needing to come with stunning performances in the mountains. Unlike Schleck however, Van Den Broeck has the weakest team of the potential winners. If he is going to win the race, he will need to do it virtually alone.
However, if Schleck and others are in the mood to attack the favourites, then it could play into the hands of a rider like Van Den Broeck. He can latch onto attacks from others to form a duo that will be extremely tough to recapture. Or, he could use any failed attacks to counter-attack and get away.
3) Vincenzo Nibali
The wild-card of this year's race could well be the 2010 Vuelta winner Vincenzo Nibali. The Italian is coming off of some excellent form in the spring, and could pose some real problems for the favourites.
The overall win at Tirreno–Adriatico coupled with podium finishes at Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège earlier this year will surely have Nibali full of confidence coming into the race.
The 27-year-old has not participated in the Tour for the past two years, concentrating instead on the Giro and Vuelta. The decision has brought him three podium finishes as well as an overall victory, but this year he has his sights firmly set on Paris.
As the Liquigas team looks to get the most out of Nibali before he leaves them at the end of the season, they have assembled a very strong squad, including Ivan Basso, to help him as the roads go uphill.
With everything looking in place, Nibali could be the surprise package that this Tour really needs.
2) Denis Menchov
The most well-rounded challenger to Evans and Wiggins is veteran Denis Menchov.
The 34-year-old definitely has the experience needed to win the race, with three Grand Tour victories under his belt as well as two podiums in the Tour. However, Menchov has not been at his best over the last few years and has had a very quiet season up to this point.
His time trials are not at the level of Wiggins or Evans, but he is accomplished against the clock. His most significant result of the season so far came when he won his National Time Trial Championships.
Much like the favourites, Menchov does not traditionally attack in the mountains, preferring to stay in the wheel instead. If he is to force his way into a winning position though, attacks will surely have to be made at some point.
Menchov is coming towards the end of a distinguished career, and without Contador or Schleck there will be no better opportunity to finish off the hat trick of Grand Tour wins.
1) Samuel Sanchez
The man with the best chance of beating Evans and Wiggins could be Euskaltel-Euskadi's Samuel Sanchez.
Menchov and Nibali may have problems losing the favourites in the mountains, but Sanchez can accelerate away from pretty much anyone in the business.
The 34-year old has never tasted victory in a Grand Tour but he does have seven top-ten finishes to his name. He comes into the race in good stage-race form, having won this year's Tour of the Basque Country.
While Sanchez is not renowned for his abilities against the clock, he is a far better individual rider than both Schleck and Van Den Broeck. In last years stage 20, Sanchez lost 1:30 to Evans on his way to seventh place in the stage. He also won the time trial in this year's Tour of the Basque Country so his form in the discipline is good.
If Sanchez can unsettle the favourites in the mountains, then he may have a chance of limiting the damage done in the time trials and taking the maillot jaune back with him to the Basque country.