Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Climbers to watch at this year's Tour de France

Thomas Voeckler facial expression (cropped).jpg
Everybody loves -- or loves to hate --
 Voeckler

The polka dot jersey can be such a tease. The maillot gaudy is supposed to go to the best climber in the Tour de France. Last year's winner: Thomas Voeckler.

Voeckler: What a joke.

But, he was just the most recent rider to exploit a scoring system that awards the opportunists and marginalizes the ability to climb over three weeks. Among the recent winners are Anthony Charteau -- Remember him? It's OK. Nobody does -- and Sammy Sanchez, who excels at the Olympics and hilly classics but isn't the best at sustaining his climbing prowess.

In 2008 and 2009, Bernhard Kohl and Franco Pellizotti, respectively, took the jersey but were stripped after doping suspensions.

Here's the winning formula: The organizers classify climbs on the route. The higher the classification, the more points are available. So, riders will pinpoint a stage or two with tons of categorized lumps, get in a breakaway and scoop up points. Repeat the procedure on multiple stages and you build an insurmountable lead.

The tactic was perfected by confessed dopers, five-time winner Laurent Jalabert and seven-timer Richard Virenque. Neither had any chance of winning the overall title, but at least they managed a stage win or two.

So, what the jersey needs is a pure young climber to restore some sparkle to the competition, and the peloton has a couple of worthy candidates.

First is Nairo Quintana of Team Movistar, a 23-year-old  from Colombia. Last year, Quintana won the overall title in the hilly Vuelta a Murcia and the Route de  Sud, as well as a stage of the  Criterium du Dauphine. He was especially impressive in winning this year's Tour of the Basque Country. Movistar has crowned Alejandro Valverde as its leader, meaning Quintana and Rui Costa, who won the last two Tour de Suisses, will ride in support. It's kind of hard to take Valverde seriously as a threat for the yellow jersey, so the team could switch gears later in the Tour and allow Quintana to fly.

The second is fellow Colombian Carlos Betancur of Ag2r. He was the best young rider of the Giro d'Italia, finished third at Fleche Wallone and fourth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Ag2r will play opportunists from the get-go, so this would be a great way for a French team to grab some publicity. Fatigue from the Giro could hurt his chances, though.

Garmin has a bevy of climbers, but only Ryder Hesjedal seems to have the chops to contend for the podium. If he hasn't recovered from the illness that sidelined his defense of the jury or the injuries he suffered at the Tour de Suisse, the team could switch tactics and go for stage wins in the mountains, which could translate to a polka dot jersey. The top candidates: young climbers Dan Martin, who won Liege and the Volta a Catalnuya, and Andrew Talansky, who finished second this year in Paris-Nice. Then there's Tom Danielson, who could be let go if he's got the legs and the youngsters wilt.

Vaughters has many cards to play and looks for any reason to throw out the playbook.

And we can't forget Voeckler, as much as we'd like to. The French have adored him since he spent 10 days in the yellow jersey in 2004. He held it for 10 days again in 2011, then won a pair of stages enroute to last year's polka dots. He knows the drill. He may be held in check, though, if his young teammate, Pierre Rolland, is on form and has a serious shot at the podium.

Or maybe he'll just do his own thing and contort his face through the Pyrenees and Alps and up the Ventoux, much to the delight of the French.