On Saturday, the 99th Tour de France begins, as the world's best cyclists kick off three days in Belgium. That start will lead into to a 2,100-mile ordeal that will take them through the Pyrenees and Alps before concluding, for one man, with a triumphant ride along the Champs Élysées in Paris on July 22nd.
Last year that triumph belonged to Australian Cadel Evans.
After years of the Tour being dominated by talk of who may or may not be doping, stricter monitoring of cheaters has turned the conversation to who best has a shot at unseating the defending champion.
32-year-old Bradley Wiggins is widely considered the leading contender to dethrone Evans and one of the favorites in this year's race. Wiggins will be trying to redeem a disappointing 2011 Tour, where he was forced to withdraw after breaking his collarbone after a nasty spill. He will also be trying to make Tour de France history by becoming the first rider from the UK to win cycling's most prestigious race.
Wiggins has enjoyed a very successful 2012 so far, winning the Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine races. However, none of those achievements would come close to comparing to winning the Tour de France, and Wiggins recently told the BBC that he and the rest of Team Sky are ready for their run at glory.
"I'm really proud to be part of such a strong unit going into the Tour de France," he said. "The team's preparation has been perfectly managed and our form this season gives us a great chance of being successful. I've been waiting for this moment for a long time and I'll do everything I can to win the Tour de France."
Wiggins is the cornerstone of a very strong team that also includes Mark Cavendish, a winner of 20 Tour stages over the past four years. Wiggins has strong support behind him, and the ability to be equally dangerous in both time trials and climbing stages. If he can avoid a repeat of last year's mishap then it appears that Great Britain's drought at the Tour de France may well end this year.
I'm sure the French would love that. Hey, old grudges die hard. Especially 1,000 year-old ones.
The 26-year-old "Condor of Varsseveld” is already the winner of the Tour de Nicknames. Like Wiggins, the 2011 Tour de France was not kind to Gesink, as an early wreck led to injuries that hampered the Dutchman for much of the race and resulted in a disappointing 32nd-place finish.
Gesink is riding (so to speak) a wave of momentum into the Tour de France after winning the Tour of California in May. That victory included a win in the seventh stage of that race, with a climb up 10,068-foot Mount Baldy (don't look at me, I didn't name it). That should aid Gesink's confidence in the Tour's numerous grueling mountain stages.
However, Gesink has been known to struggle in time trials, although he has been working on improving in that area. With this year's Tour featuring three such stages that favor speedsters over climbers, Gesink will certainly have his work cut out for him if he is to don the yellow jersey in Paris. Gesnick's team director, Erik Breukink, recently conceded that point to Velo News.
“For sure, Robert is not one of the top favorites for victory. That would be (Cadel) Evans and (Bradley) Wiggins. And behind them there is a big group who can fight for top places, so we have to see how it goes,” Breukink said.
As if leading team Rabobank (tell me that doesn't sound like an 80-foot tall ATM that smashes cars) into the Tour de France wasn't enough, Gesink decided to add more to his plate. After first declining, Gesink has since reconsidered and will join the Dutch cycling team in London for the 2012 Olympics.
I applaud his courage, but that's a lot of pedaling.