The Tour de France begins on Saturday and my pick to win the general classification is Alberto Contador. But if I am right, I will have to be patient: I don’t think Contador will take the maillot jaune until Stage 13 at the earliest. The beginning of this year’s Tour simply isn’t hard enough to create separation in the GC battle. Contador’s team, Tinkoff-Saxo, may even wait until Stage 16 or 17 to seize control. The leader’s team has to pull back every significant breakaway, and that’s a burden Tinkoff-Saxo might not want for more than a few days.
Contador beat a struggling Chris Froome, the defending Tour champion, by nearly four minutes in last month’s Critérium du Dauphiné. But no one should overlook Froome as the Tour begins; he’s still a serious threat with a very strong team. America’s best GC hope, Andrew Talansky, won the Dauphiné and could make the Tour de France podium, but I think his prospects for overall victory are slim. Another American, Tejay van Garderen, sacrificed his Tour ambitions last year in the service of his team leader, Cadel Evans. This year Tejay is BMC’s team leader, but he has not looked like a true Tour contender. Rui Costa, Vincenzo Nibali and Alejandro Valverde should be in the GC hunt until the end. Joaquim Rodriguez would need a huge lead coming out of the mountains: the GC battle will conclude with a long individual time trial in which he will lose a big chunk of time to Contador and Froome.
Wauwatosa’s Matthew Busche, the 2011 US road racing champion, will make his first appearance in the Tour de France. On a Trek Factory Racing team whose best GC prospect is Haimar Zubeldia, Busche might be free to go stage hunting.
NBC Sports Network will broadcast the Tour again this year. It’s the one race for which the network pulls out all the stops. Live coverage begins at 5 a.m. CDT on Saturday.