Saturday's Tour de France kickoff, a 6.4km prologue around the stately Wallonian city of Liege, will represent more than the usual "let's get this party started" moment in cycling. In most years, when there's a proper prologue (as opposed to the occasional "Grand Depart" in the form of a regular road stage or a team time trial), the biggest names in cycling proceed with caution. Lance Armstrong, ever the intimidator, might try to put a few seconds into his rivals, but usually a few seconds is hardly worth the risk of overcooking a turn and crashing yourself into some battered state, or out of the race entirely.
In past years, Spain's Alberto Contador has emerged as the dominant force of his generation, seizing the mantle from his former teammate Armstrong and winning three Tours, two Giri d'Italia, and plenty of other races along the way. [Yes, he had a Giro and a Tour taken away much later, but I'm talking about the moment.] Riders at the prologue were mostly doing their best, trying to maybe gauge themselves a bit against Contador, but otherwise leaving the stage to the prologue specialists. [Who do exist. At the Tour, there is a specialist for everything.]
This year things are quite different. For one, Contador is not eligible to race, having been booted for Steakgate until next month, leaving something of a vacuum at the top. Yes, defending champion Cadel Evans is back, but we'll get to him in a moment. He's solid. But one win doesn't make you the Patron.
Then there's the whole time trial thing. Over 100km against the watch at this year's Tour has prompted almost everyone to identify that discipline as where the race will be won. Maybe, maybe not, but if you can't ride in the aero position, that will surely be where the race is lost.
So a prologue to kick off an "open" race that favors time triallists. Is this a time when the prologue is more than just a prologue? Will we see a pecking order emerge? Will riders want to send an early message? If we do, and they do, and the prologue predicts the final order in Paris, here are the five names you definitely need to know.
Bradley Wiggins, Team Sky
Resume: Finished fourth once; generally killing it this year with wins in Paris-Nice (March), Tour de Romandie (May), and Criterium du Dauphine (June), all decent predictors of Tour success.
What to expect: A dominant team, potential dominance in the time trials, and potential (but hardly certain) weakness on the long climbs. At his best three years ago Wiggins was adept at limiting losses on the climbs to a minute. The 2010 Tour was a mysterious disaster, possibly from overtraining, and he crashed out in 2011, so 2009 is the most relevant Tour data point from which to judge Wiggo. More recently his team was able to put him in perfect position throughout the Dauphine, where he matched wheels on the climbs. The Dauphine, the race that launched a thousand bad Tour assumptions...
Prediction: Bah, he probably wins, but it'll be close.
Cadel Evans, BMC
Resume: Reigning Tour de France champion. 2012 season has been conspicuously quiet, though. One win, Criterium International. Third at the Dauphine.
What to expect: Once upon a time, Evans was the guy who needed to survive the climbs and win in the time trial, so it's funny to think of him being on the receiving end of his own strategy. Evans is a solid cronoman, but Wiggins is better. Can Cadel turn himself into Andy Schleck and press his advantage on the climbs?
Not sure, but he does have a couple other cards to play. For one, he's a brilliant in-race tactician, with excellent instincts about how to steal a little bit of time here and there. Wiggins is far less experienced and nobody has called him crafty. The Tour will suit Evans in this way, with some short uphill finishes in the less notorious middle mountain stages. So as he cobbles together a strategy, it might resemble the one he rode to victory last year - in dribs and drabs.
Evans also has a fantastic team behind him. Say what you will about BMC not meeting the lofty expectations set by its offseason spending spree, but their Tour squad is mature, focused, and talented. They alone know how to deliver a Tour win form experience. Sky have to hope their lessons learned are the right ones.
Prediction: Close second. See-saw battle heads into the last time trial.
Robert Gesink, Rabobank
Resume: Fifth in 2010 Tour, his only healthy run. Won the Tour of California this year, and looked solid in the Tour de Suisse.
What to expect: Endless predictions of him getting completely killed in the time trial, which don't turn out to be quite true. Gesink got labeled a liability against the watch in 2010, when two consecutive catastrophic efforts cost him the Tour de Suisse and, well, he held his position in the Tour but it didn't look good. Since then he's been quite solid in the discipline. And he's the best climber of the favorites, by a lot. They don't call him the Condor of Varsseveld for his long neck.
The three factors against him are the course (sorta), his history of bad bike handling which has cost him some crashes, and an offseason broken leg that diminished his all-important winter training. That last bit is my pick to cost him the win. His team is something of a wild card, stacked with talent, focused on the climbs, but dogged by a history of unmet expectations. I think they have it in them as a group, but getting it out is the key.
Prediction: third. Competence in the crono won't be enough against true aces.
Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin-Sharp
Resume: Sixth in the 2010 Tour, 17th last year. Won the Giro d'Italia, and was on the form of his life, a month ago.
What to expect: The Evans approach, aggressively pursuing bits of time, hanging tough in the big stages. But while it's hard to deny his spectacular form, to the point where you wonder if there's anything he can't do, the head says no. The Giro - Tour double is nearly impossible these days, and there's nothing Hesjedal does that Evans doesn't do just a touch better. Frankly, if he challenges for the podium, that alone will be remarkable and exciting.
Prediction: Fourth, distant.
Vincenzo Nibali, Liquigas
Resume: Seventh and 18th in his two Tours, from 2008-09, followed by two seasons focusing more on the Giro. Won Tirreno-Adriatico this year, but only 28th in the Dauphine.
What to expect: Sheesh... I thought this would be his year. Nibali has been progressing as a cyclist, developing a dashing style and a solid reputation on the biggest climbs, to go along with a decent time trial. But that Dauphine... you don't have to win it to be a Tour favorite, but you shouldn't generally look like crap.
There is hope, however. Maybe his form is on the verge, and will peak just in time. Maybe this is all a deep sandbagging effort. Sandbagging is an art in cycling, saying "oh, I'm no good" just before drilling it to your rivals. Guarding your form a month before the Tour is an ancient practice. If Nibali is on his game, he could really shake things up. Me... I have doubt.
Prediction: hangs on for fifth.
Don't sleep on: Denis Menchov, Samuel Sanchez, Levi Leipheimer, Tejay Van Garderen. Lots of others. There's always others.