With the 99th edition of the Tour de France just two months away, two riders look to be the favorites to take victory in Paris on July 22 - Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans, the defending champion. If it comes down to these two riders, they could give bicycle racing a brilliant show, one of those Tours that's fought till the very end and remembered for years to come.
But while Wiggins has had a near-perfect season so far, Evans has struggled, and he has work to do if he wants to defend his yellow jersey.
What makes these two riders intriguing favorites is not so much how they're different but how they're similar. Both ride for two of the biggest teams, Wiggins for Sky and Evans for BMC. They're English-speaking; Wiggins is from England, Evans from Australia. Both are in their 30s-Wiggins is 32 and Evans 35. And both are true all-rounders. In stage races, they normally time trial better than the rest and climb well in the high mountains (with Evans the more proven climber of the two).
Then there's this year's Tour de France course. On paper it favors riders with exceptional time-trialing ability, as there are over 100 kilometers of racing against the clock, more than in any recent Tour. While that's bad news for mountain goats such as Andy Schleck, it bodes well for Wiggins and Evans, who while not pure climbers are among the best in the individual time trial-or as the French call it, the race of truth.
But theirs is not a high-profile showdown-nothing approaching the dramatic Schleck-Contador battles of recent years-or at least it isn't just yet. Both Wiggins' and Evans' personalities are on the quiet side, they're unassuming, and they've had their share of bad luck in their long careers-near misses, heartbreaking second places, infamous mechanicals, race-ending crashes, and broken bones.
How have they fared so far this season? These two riders' performances have offered sharp contrast, and Wiggins couldn't be having a better build-up to the Tour. He enjoyed a relaxed off-season, and once racing began results came quickly. He took third in February's Tour of the Algarve, in which he won the concluding individual time trial. His target for spring was March's weeklong Paris-Nice, which he won handily, showing good climbing legs and excellent time-trialing form (he won the last stage, an uphill time trial). In last week's prestigious Tour of Romandie-which for many riders is an important tune-up before May's Tour of Italy-he won two stages, one of them a time trial, on his way to taking overall victory.
Key to Wiggins' success has been his Sky team, which has given him a first-class ride, keeping him fresh for when it matters-on key climbs and in decisive time trials. If all continues to go well, Wiggins will be looking to take his first Grand Tour victory and put his Tour-ending crash of last year behind him.
Evans, however, has been having a tough year. After becoming the first Australian to win the Tour de France in 2011, his off-season was busy with interviews, appearances, and travel, all of which must have taken a toll on his training. He made the long trip to Australia from his home in Switzerland, and he and his wife also traveled to Africa to adopt their first child.
But in his defense, with his sights set on July's Tour de France and August's Olympic Games in London, Evans underlined that it was important to delay his start to the season. Not surprisingly, his early form was lacking. After taking his lone win this season at the Criterium International in March, he admitted his form was not as good as it was this time last year. "The old engine was taking a while to warm up," Evans said after winning the Criterium, "but it's a good sign of things to come."
Unfortunately, though, it really wasn't.
Unlike last year, when by this time he'd won Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of Romandie, he's won almost nothing. Whatever winning spark he showed at Criterium International was quickly put out by illness, and later he canceled his program for the Ardennes Classics-Amstel Gold, Flche-Wallonne, and Lige-Bastogne-Lige-big races he normally targets and has done well at in the past. In last week's Tour of Romandie, Evans finished in an anonymous 40th place in the time trial and 29th overall, over 2 minutes behind race winner Wiggins.
Few racing experts would write off Evans, though. For one, he won the Tour de France last year. And with numerous top-10 results in Grand Tours on his rsum (including two second places at the Tour), the former world champion knows how to bring up his form as well as professional rider. After his gutsy riding in last year's Tour-coupled with his tenacity and motivation-it'd be foolish to say he can't turn things around in time to defend his yellow jersey all the way to the finish in Paris. But it won't be easy.
If Wiggins stays healthy going into the Tour, he'll start the race with a lot less stress than Evans, thanks to his impressive victories this spring. Compare the performances of Sky and BMC, and it's clear that the former is in much better shape to help its leader win the world's toughest bicycle race.
Of course one potential snag in Team Sky's plan is a certain sprinter named Mark Cavendish. The current world road champion said he wants to win another points jersey, and to do that he'll need real support. Will that spread the team too thin? The British squad will have to come up with a heroic effort to deliver both Wiggins in yellow and Cavendish in green on the Champs-lyses. It could be a conflict that benefits Evans and BMC tactically.
If not much changes between now and June 30, the struggling BMC team will arrive for the start of the Tour in Lige, Belgium, with all the pressure in the world to save its season.
But bicycle racing can be unpredictable. Come Tour time, Wiggins might have already peaked, and Evans might be just hitting his top form. If Evans and BMC can right themselves in time, they might pull off what would be pro cycling's coup of the year and win the Tour de France for the second time in a row. Either way, it should be a superb duel.