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95th Tour de France - King of the Mountains Contenders
By Andy McGrath
Date: 7/6/2008
95th Tour de France - King of the Mountains Contenders

The Daily Peloton takes a look at the mountain men gunning for the polka-dot jersey in Paris.

Juan Mauricio Soler (Team Barloworld)
Best finish - 1st 2007
Watch Juan Mauricio Soler climbing – it sure ain’t pretty. His bike position is ungainly, his climbing style ugly as he wrestles the bike up steep mountain roads; and Soler himself isn’t exactly the Adonis of the professional peloton. However, his employers won’t care a jot, as long as he keeps laying waste to some of the world’s best in the high mountains of the Tour de France. It’s fair to say that Soler was the revelation of last year’s race. After a decent year with Acqua & Sapone, the rangy bird-like climber hit the big-time in fine fashion on Stage 9 to Briancon. After overhauling the breakaway, he led over the mighty Galibier before descending coolly to Briancon for victory. His performances drew comparisons to countrymen Lucho Herrera and Santiago Botero, who have been similarly prodigiously talented in the mountains. Rather than fading away, the twenty-five year continued to battle Michael Rasmussen for King of the Mountain points, finishing third on Plateau de Beille and fifth on the Col d’Aubisque summit finishes to make sure of an impressive polka-dot triumph. Even post-Tour, the “Colombian Coppi” went and won the Tour of Burgos.

Soler-powered: The Barloworld man on the Galibier.
Photo © Fotoreporter Sirotti

However, as we’ve seen so often, repeating the same level of high performance is difficult. Firstly, Soler is no longer a surprise package. Even discounting the possibility of a drop in form, he has also met with his fair share of bad luck this spring. Having trained specifically for the Giro d’Italia – even reconnoitring several key climbs – he was unfortunate enough to go down in one of the opening week’s many crashes, sustaining a microfracture in his wrist. Despite coping with the pain for almost a week, the gutsy South American climbed off on Stage 11. Since then, he has been back in Columbia, healing and training at high altitude (his home town is at 2,200m), so form and race fitness are somewhat of a mystery. However, if he has recovered from his setbacks, Soler has to be the favourite to take a second King of the Mountains title. Moreover, considering the lack of time-trialing kilometres this year, he may never have a better opportunity of making the top-ten overall.

David de la Fuente (Saunier Duval)
Best finish - 3rd 2006
Spaniard de la Fuente has carved a niche out for himself as one of the peloton’s most attacking riders. Although yet to win a Grand Tour stage or King of the Mountains competition, his spectator-friendly racing style cannot be faulted. The reason that this perennial aggressor may never win the polka-dot jersey in Paris could be down to the lack of top-level quality he possesses to score points on summit finishes. Whereas Michael Rasmussen could consistently combine leading over Hors-Cat mountains with finishing highly later on in the race, de la Fuente often falls away on the last mountain. That said, alternatively, he just needs to find a soft break on the right day to hoover up KOM points…

Christophe Moreau (Agritubel)
Best finish - 4th 2005
Over the course of his long career, this man must have caught more insects than a Venus fly-trap. Now 37, the old warhorse battles on, as perhaps the last of the old guard of French racers (Jalabert, Virenque, Rous, Brochard); his fourth place in 2000 is still the best finish from a home rider in recent years. As happened last year (though the crash and subsequent distancing on flat Stage 15 was dire luck), it is distinctly possible that Moreau’s Tour campaign will take the same trajectory as a child’s energy levels after a dozen pixie sticks. That means frenetic, wasteful attacking on Superbesse and in the Pyrenees, leading to column inches galore in L’Equipe, before a predictably massive comedown and burnout in the Alps.

Alternatively, Moreau could just do a Virenque and make no secret of targetting the King of the Mountains: he’s been in the top-five several times before. In doing so, he could kill two birds with one stone by taking a coveted Tour stage win - it’s been seven years since his prologue triumph in Dunkirk - while up the road as a non-threat. Despite his age, the mountain legs are still there. Second in the Route du Sud and a Volta a Catalunya mountains competition win also show that the competitive instinct still burns hard. As to GC aspirations, though eighth overall in 2006, a top-10 finish is surely beyond Moreau’s station this year.

Cunego races Schleck up the last stretches of Alpe d’Huez in the 2006 Tour     Photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti

Damiano Cunego (Lampre)
Best finish - 7th 2006
If things go down the drain in the Pyrenees, Cunego could potentially turn his overall challenge into an assault on the polka-dot jersey. Undoubtedly, even post-mononucleosis, the maillot blanc winner is one of the best pure climbers in the race. However, the Amstel Gold Race winner would have to be at least 10 minutes down on the contenders to be allowed any room to manoeuvre.

Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Epargne)
Best finish - 2nd 2005
Incidentally, he finished second in this competition in 2005 after making the breakaways in two consecutive Pyrenean mountain stages – not second place in the year that he "won". However, Pereiro hasn’t been able to top that form, and could be used as a super-domestique for Alejandro Valverde this year.

Leonardo Piepoli (Saunier Duval-Scott)
On the other side of the coin to the fresh-faced youth in cycling, we have Piepoli. Belying his 36 years, the featherweight Italian is still a man to be feared when the going gets steep. Although he has enjoyed success at the Giro and Vuelta, the Tour de France has been an altogether more difficult nut to crack for Piepoli. If he makes no imprints on the King of the Mountains competition, Saunier Duval could yet do well with the likes of afore-mentioned de la Fuente, Juan Jose Cobo or even Ricardo Ricco.

Rémy di Gregorio (Francaise des Jeux)
Best finish - n/a
Rémy di Gregorio is still touted as the great white F(dj)rench hope for cycling. Let’s not go crazy though: the boy is good, but hasn’t tasted the Tour mountains before. He’s impressed on the attack in races like the Dauphiné and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but this is a whole different ball-game. Di Gregorio may clip off the front once or twice, but this Tour should still be a formative experience for him. It'll be a few more years before French housewives are screaming his name in the streets, but spells in the white or polka-dot jerseys are distinctly possible.

Here's three names to throw into the ring: Tadej Valjavec (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Bernard Kohl (Gerolsteiner) and Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel-Euskadi). They have all proven their mountain pedigree in either Grand Tours or tough week-long stage races. After thirteenth at the Giro, the pressure is reduced on Valjavec. As for Kohl, he badly needs a good performance this July to show that his 2006 Dauphiné was no flash in the pan. And Astarloza? After last year's surprise top-ten, the man previously most famous for a surprise Tour Down Under win may be allowed to attack, providing Samuel Sanchez and Haimar Zubeldia are up to the task of sperheading the Basque challenge. After all, it's been a few years since we saw an Orange Man going for it in the breaks in the high mountains.

The race winner
This is the potentially worst-case, boring-as-hell scenario, where no one rider gets a stranglehold on the polka-dot jersey, leading to the race winner also taking the King of the Mountains. This would be by dint of just finishing highly on the summit finishes and over Hors-Cat climbs. Of course, if the race winner illuminates the Tour with attacks of Merckxian ilk, then it would be all the more agreeable. Either way, the yellow jersey holder in Paris invariably finishes inside the top-three.

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