Simon Yates (Orica-GreenEDGE)
“My parents just drove round the corner and dropped me off at the start of the Tour de France – as you do,” Simon Yates recalls, smiling in disbelief.
With no one from God’s Own Country selected for the Tour, Bury boy Yates is easily the most local rider to the Grand Depart. That’s one small victory for the Tour host county’s noisy neighbours, at least.
Yates got the phone call-up from the Orica-GreenEdge management after the British national championships. “Bit of a random one: if anything I thought it’d be talking about when I was going to the Tour of Poland.”
“My initial reaction was shock. From the start of the season, I wasn’t even reserve for the Tour de France. To come to the year’s biggest race, especially in England, is a huge opportunity… I’ve come here prepared legs-wise, but not mentally.”
It may have been a bolt from the blue but, beaming and talking to the British press after the team presentation, Yates looked in his element.
He said he was here to help Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews on the grippy, medium-mountain days. What about his own chances? “Not at the minute, day by day, if the opportunity’s there, take it.”
But with Matthews out of the race on its eve after a training crash, a chance might present itself.
21-year-old Yates is himself just back to full fitness after breaking his collarbone in a fall at the Tour of Turkey. “The injury was a blessing in disguise. I’ve arrived here fresh, so if I can make it through the three weeks, i should just get better and better,” he says.
We were reminded just how young he is: when asked for his first Tour memories, he cast his mind back all the way to… 2007.
“One of the stages that always sticks out – not necessarily, the first – was when Contador was attacking Rasmussen. The way it was just being raced, I love that explosive style.”
Yates, a purveyor of a similar kind of unperturbed, bold racing, could take the first step to stardom in the next three weeks.
Danny Van Poppel (Trek Factory Racing)
To his left, he had Fabian Cancellara and Andy Schleck; to his right, Frank Schleck and Jens Voigt. No wonder the young Dutchman in the middle at the Trek Factory Racing press conference looked shy.
Nevertheless, Danny Van Poppel belongs in that company. His good results, winning stages at the Tour of Luxembourg and Three Days of West Flanders, have helped to get him selected for another Tour de France.
For a second year running, he lines up as the youngest rider at the race, coincidentally on the same team as the Tour’s oldest, 42-year-old Jens Voigt.
Age is a mere detail. At last year’s race, then-teenager Van Poppel sprinted to third on the opening stage to Bastia. He abandoned before stage 16, annoying then-employers Vacansoleil.
“After the Tour, they said all the time ‘why didn’t you finish?’ That made me a little bit angry because I was third and wore the white jersey.”
The youngest son of Jean-Paul van Poppel, not 21 till the penultimate day of the Tour, feels stronger now. “It’s different. I’ve been to the Tour, I know how tough it is… last year, I was tired and out of power at the finishes; now I feel I’m ready for it. I’m a step better than last year. I’ll try to finish [the race] this year too.”
A speedy finisher just like his father, does he think he can challenge Kittel, Greipel and Cavendish? “No, because they are too fast,” he says, adding later: “A place behind those guys would be like a victory.”
Van Poppel is realistic: without a lead-out man on the climber-heavy Trek Factory Racing Team, he will be fending for himself, jumping on rivals’ sprint trains.
With future ambitions of winning a Classic, he’s got the best possible roommate to give him the secrets of success this month too: Fabian Cancellara.
Rudy Molard (Cofidis)
Just behind the likes of vanguard-leading Demares and Bardets, Rudy Molard is part of the promising young French generation roaring to the fore. What are the reasons for the recent glut of talent from L’Hexagone?
“It’s the good structures already in place among the youth, juniors and U23 in France, which are very well led. We have coaches who have done good careers themselves and have structured plans, and it pays off.”
Molard’s route to the top was more unorthodox. “I was junior world champion of triathlon de neige [that’s cross-country skiing, mountain biking and running, all on snow – Ed]. It was a tough call, but I went for cycling in the end.”
A puncheur-grimpeur, Molard has already had top-20 finishes in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne, but is yet to quite break into the top level. His aim for the Tour is clear: win a stage and to hell with the GC.
First, he’s got some homework to do. “I haven’t opened the road book yet, it’s too big,” Molard says with a smile.
At least the 24-year-old knows what kind of challenge to expect after his debut Tour in 2013. “That was some three weeks. I learned you have to be focused, I realised you have good and bad days. You learn to manage the workload, to handle recovery at the hotel.”
“Arriving like that on the Champs-Élysées was a dream I’d had since I was a kid. I had goose bumps.”
Cofidis are in need of a good Tour; Molard might just be the man to deliver a season-making success. “If I could take my first win ever as a professional at the Tour de France… not bad, eh?”