The 2014 Tour de France gets underway in less than 24 hours. By now even the casual fans are starting to pick-up on what looks to be a Chris Froome vs. Alberto Contador showdown, whereas in the sprints it seems to be a 3-way competition between Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan, and Marcel Kittel.
Over the course of the next three weeks we are destined to see the favorites shine, dark horse contenders emerge, and cyclists come out of nowhere to gain national recognition.
Here are 10 of the more interesting, unique, compelling cyclists in the peloton during this year’s Tour to cheer on.
Ji Cheng at the 2013 Milan-Sanremo.
China – Age 26 – Helper
Ji Cheng makes the list as he is making history as the first Chinese rider to ever compete in the Tour de France. Beyond that he isn’t going to have much impact on the race overall as he is riding as a domestique for Team Giant-Shimano. He is likely going to be one of the early lead-out men for their sprinters John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel.
Belkin Pro Cycling
Belgium – Age 25 – Cobblestone Specialist
Sep Vanmarcke has his sights set on key cobbled stage 5. The question remains is whether he gets the chance for revenge after his other cobbled classic results so far this season (Paris-Roubaix 4th, Ronde van Vlaanderen 3rd, Gent-Wevelgem 4th, and E3 Harelbeke 5th) or have to set back and pace the team’s overall contender Bauke Mollema. The second option is more likely, but we can all cross our fingers for a Vanmarcke vs. Fabian Cancellara showdown on the “battlefield” of the famous nine cobbled sectors.
Omega Pharma – Quick-Step
Poland – Age 24 – Dark Horse GC Contender
Michal Kwiatkowki is stuck between a rock and a hard place. While he arguable is poised and ready to win the white jersey for the best under 25 year old cyclist in the race, he is clearly lacking the needed support to make it happen. Omega Pharma – Quick-Step is built around one of the best sprinters the Tour de France has even seen in Mark Cavendish.
It’s fairly obvious that the team is looking to win as many flat stages with Cavendish and ultimately target the green jersey. Leaving Kwiatkowski with less helpers and it’s safe to say that a majority of the time he is going to have to fend for himself in the mountains.
United States – Age 25 – Dark Horse GC Contender
Andrew Talansky is on the other side of the spectrum. Garmin-Sharp has to feel confident that they’re on the verge of another grand tour victory following Talansky’s surprise overall victory at the 2014 Criterium du Dauphine. The heavily analyzed prep-race attracts a vast majority of the overall Tour de France contenders looking to get into good shape heading into July. Talansky when up against the best (Froome, Contador, Nibali, Van den Broeck, Van Garderen, the list goes on) and came out victorious.
The pressure is now on to prove the result wasn’t just a fluke.
France – Age 28 – Attacker
Brice Feillu is the first Frenchman and Pro Continental cyclist on the list. Feillu, along with his more accomplished older brother Romain, will be all over the roads in their home country. Being chosen to take part as a wildcard team means Bretagne-Seche Environnememnt has to prove to the race organizers why they made the right decision by picking them over the other possible candidates.
In previous editions of the Tour the Feillu brothers have always targeted stage wins and the king of the mountains competition. There isn’t really any reason for them to be different this year because a Frenchman winning anything in the Tour is always special, especially from the team’s perspective if he is wearing their jersey. Brice Feillu picked up his only Pro Tour victory during stage 7 of the 2009 Tour de France. Can he repeat history this season?
Japan – Age 29 – Sprinter
Yukiya Arashiro often gets over looked at the Tour de France because he rides for one of top French cycling teams in the world. The more noteworthy French attacking stars of Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland get all the headlines, but I have always found Arashiro rather fascinating. This will be his 7th grand tour and 5th Tour de France; both feats are by far the most for any Japanese cyclist.
His best stage finish at the Tour de France came in his attempt where he finished 5th on stage 2 behind Cavendish, Farrar, Romain Feillu, and the legend that is the “God of Thunder,” Thor Hushovd who is retiring at the end of this season. Arashiro probably won’t get many chances of his own in the sprints with Alexandre Pichot on the team, but if he does… It’s a no-brainer to cheer on Yukiya trying to win the first ever Tour de France stage for Japan.
France – Age 35 – Attacker
Sylvain Chavanel is the 2014 French National Time Trial Champion and a Tour de France veteran. However, at 35 years old, the clock is ticking on how many more years he has left to give to the sport. Chavanel has competed in every Tour de France since 2001, but has only racking up 3 stage wins.
It’s his gutsy attacks that make Chavanel stick out from the crowd. He won the award of most aggressive rider at the Tour twice (2008 and 2010) and, like the Feillu brothers, is on one of the wildcard teams. It’s not a question of if Sylvain gets some television, it’s more like when and where is he going to launch one of his signature attack to go for all the glory.
Czech Republic – Age 26 – Dark Horse GC Contender
Leopold Konig has the legs to make strong moves as shown by winning stage 7 of the 2013 Amgen Tour of California and finishing 9th overall in last year’s Vuelta a Espana. This will be Konig’s 1st Tour de France so it’s going to be interesting to see how he fairs. The goal for him should be a top 10 overall finish but this is Tour; anything can happen, good or bad.
Konig makes my list because I think he has the potential to stir things. The ability to make the favorites think about their tactics when he decides to attack, or for some reason he experiences a few setbacks then he would be a strong candidate to win a few stages and/or the king of the mountains competition.
France – Age 24 – Dark Horse GC Contender
Thibaut Pinot has been the French prodigy to win the Tour de France for years now. France hasn’t won the Tour since Bernard Hinault claimed his record-tying 5th Tour win back in 1985. While the nearly 3 decade drought has put a lot of pressure on Pinot’s shoulders, it’s the results that speak for themselves. In his first Tour in 2012 he placed 10th overall, due in large part to his win on stage 8 which will always be linked to Marc Madiot’s “encouragement”.
In his second Tour in 2013, he abandoned the race on stage 16. However, the disappointing finish sparked him to finish 7th at the Vuelta a Espana a month later.
So, which Thibaut Pinot will we see this year?
Trek Factory Racing
Germany – Age 42 – Legendary Helper
Jens Voigt never quits. This will be his 20th grand tour and 17th Tour de France. He ties Stuart O’Grady and George Hincapie for most all-time appearances at the Tour. Voigt will also get the honor of being the oldest cyclist in the Tour peloton once again. Yet, the way he rides it looks like he is 25. Power, aggression, and articulate style makes one of the most likable and courageous riders in the history of cycling.
Still missing on his resume is that one final celebratory result: the elusive 3rd Tour de France stage win. He has been trying since 2007 and continues to fall just short. Perhaps this is the year. Well, it has to be this year because he has already announced his long awaited retirement when the season finishes.
It’s the end of the road for one of the more beloved figures in cycling. A stage win in his final Tour de France would be a perfect way to go out.
You can follow me on Twitter @AEisen13 to stay up-to-date on future Tour de France articles I’ll be publishing for @isportsweb.
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