Nairo Quintana. Photo: Tino Pohlmann

07/16/2018, Tour de France


Katusha-Alpecin and Movistar aim to animate the race this month in France.

With the Tour de France now underway, we no longer have to anticipate the romance, the drama, the pomp and the suffering that comes with the Grand Boucle. Every morning for the next few weeks, it is upon us.

With Team Movistar and Katusha-Alpecin Cycling Teams in the fold, Canyon has its share of heavy hitters, capable of punching a hole through the field for a sprint stage finish, claiming a mountain stage win, even scoring wearing the coveted malliot jaune. Among them, four stand at the fore. We look at their prospects, and what they ride.

Each year the Tour de France produces storylines and sub-plots worthy of a soap opera. One of the most gripping developments from last year’s race was the saga between Mikel Landa and his then leader, Chris Froome. Clearly the strongest climber in the pack, Landa was visibly having to hold himself back from tearing the race to pieces in the mountains. Yet he remained loyal to Froome till the end and finished the race just seconds off the podium. 

An off-season return to his native Spain with Movistar Team came with the promise of freedom and support at the biggest races to pursue his own success. Finally, the Tour de France is upon us and it’s time to see if that promise holds true.

There’s only one conundrum holding Landa back: the two other leaders on his team. As part of a three-pronged attack, Landa—along with Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde—could dominate the race from the moment it hits the Alps. Focus too much on the politics, however and the Movistar Team campaign could prove problematic. The road will decide the eventual hierarchy, after which point the Indians must commit to one chief.

Landa has put his exceptional climbing talents to successful use already this season. Second overall at his home race, Tour of the Basque Country, followed a stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico, while he most recently played a crucial support role to Nairo Quintana in the mountains at the Tour de Suisse. For the biggest challenge on the calendar though, expect to see Landa hit another level. Having survived a crash during the nervous Roubaix stage in this year's tour and with eyes forward to the final two weeks of the race with lots of climbing on tap, the Basque enigma could well run away with the race in the mountains if the peloton’s gaze is fixed on Quintana and Valverde, but first, all the pieces have to fall into the right place.  

There are only a handful of riders in the peloton who fall into the bracket of “pure” sprinters. Within that group, Marcel Kittel is perhaps the purest of them all: 181 pounds of muscle standing 6’2. It’s no secret that his stature holds the keys to the excessive number of watts he can push through the pedals… numbers he keeps close to vest. Put Kittel in an out-and-out drag race with any other rider in the world and chances are high that the big German will come out on top thanks to raw power alone.

Now 30, Kittel is no longer the freshest name on the scene as he once was as the first time he took a stage win and the maillot jaune in 2013. But that doesn’t mean anyone should ever rule him out. Last year, he silenced his doubters to take five stage victories in the Tour de France, more than any other rider on the race.

So far this season (and in the opening days of Le Tour), his win tally hasn’t matched those of previous years. But the world’s biggest bike race brings out a different side in proven winners—especially when backed into a corner. Kittel’s reliance on a strong lead-out train means it's takes time for all the components to click in a new team. Katusha-Alpecin head into the 2018 Tour committed to balancing Kittel’s sprint ambitions with Ilnur Zakarin’s overall aspirations. The German’s first chance to shine will come right on stage one with a sprint royale expected in the Vendée and the race’s first yellow jersey up for grabs.

Don’t be surprised to see Kittel punching a hole at the front of the pack on the Aeroad CF SLX come July the 7th. Having spent two days in yellow in his career so far, he’ll be hungry for a third. All good things come in threes.   

The time is right for Nairo Quintana. Out of all 176 starters at the 2018 Tour de France, only two other riders join him in the exclusive ranks of having won more than one Grand Tour. What the Colombian has to his advantage over fellow club members, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome, is youth. Still only 28, Quintana has his peak years as an endurance athlete ahead of him. Another ace up his sleeve is an insatiable hunger to finally add a Maillot Jaune to his collection, and in the process make history as Colombia’s first winner of the Tour de France.    

Quintana has finished on the podium in Paris three times in his relatively young career, twice as runner-up. Those successes were built his characteristics as a natural climber at home in the high mountains, in addition to a Movistar Team with strength in depth to support him wherever needed.  

For the 2018 race the Spanish team is bolstered by an in-form Alejandro Valverde, the arrival of Mikel Landa, as well as the emergence of young prospect and Paris-Nice winner, Marc Soler. Combine this with a route that includes the most explosive mountain stages in years, then fireworks are all but guaranteed.

Having foregone the Giro d’Italia this spring, Quintana arrives at the start line fresher than last year. His last outing at the Tour de Suisse shed light on the form he’s in; taking an emphatic solo victory on the queen stage before finishing third overall. Time will tell as to how this translates onto French roads in July, but so far, the signs are good. 2018 could well be Quintana’s year.   

Alejandro Valverde made his professional debut in 2002. Let that sink in for a second. 16 years later, he's still one of the most potent attacking forces in the pack, and has proven as much with a few top-five finishes . Age has not slowed him down a bit. If anything, it's made him more successful. Valverde's wins aren't the result of brute force alone, but a tactical sense to be in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. That is a skill born from experience. And Valverde has it. 
The Spaniard's don-like status at Movistar Team means he rides the 2018 Tour de France as a protected leader alongside Nairo Quintana and Mikel Landa. What happens out on the road will determine the hierarchy for the rest of the race. Valverde's long history at the Tour de France peaked in 2015 when he achieved his life goal of making it onto the final podium in Paris with a third place finish. Approaching the twilight of a career that has truly seen it all, what will the 2018 edition hold in store for "Bala"?

To make it back to the top level is almost a victory in itself following the horrific crash he suffered on the opening stage of last year's race on the slick Düsseldorf streets. The shattered knee cap he sustained may have broken some riders, but Valverde's hunger fueled the full recovery, his journey back to winning ways was completed at the start of this season. 
When it comes to pure racing, Valverde always delivers. Not one to sit back and defend a high ranking, you can guarantee Valverde will put his exceptional talents to good use throughout the race, whether for himself or in the service of his teammates.

Movistar Team have a hand packed with aces to play in this year's race and the peloton will be eyeing them closely to see which they back. Whatever the outcome, Valverde will have a leading role.