Battle of the big four gearing up to make memorable Tour
The planets have aligned to bring a race that may be one for the history books
Cycling history is now as much a matter of interpretation as of fact, but that cannot hide the fact that a Tour de France is beckoning which has a once-in-a-generation look to it. It is almost a quarter of a century since a Tour boasted four favourites of the stature of Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali.
Each has won at least one major Tour in convincing style and challenged strongly in others while Nibali and Contador are among the minority to have won all three major Tours. There is little that puts any one of them in front of the others and, most strikingly, each appears to be approaching the race in close to his best form.
Scanning the history books for parallels, one would be the 1991 race, in which Greg LeMond, Gianni Bugno, Pedro Delgado and Laurent Fignon were among the favourites, although LeMond and Fignon were past their sell-by dates and the race eventually went to Miguel Indurain. Another would be 1989, with LeMond, Fignon and Delgado in the box seat. It is virtually impossible to compare, however, because the reality of the Tour is that in most years it has one clear favourite or at most two.
One reason the 2015 race is so finely poised is that in the post-Armstrong, post-biological passport era of cycling no one rider has managed to dominate the event. That has opened up the race.
There is also a collision of the generations: two mature athletes in Froome and Nibali coinciding with Contador contemplating retirement and the newcomer Quintana. It is also a continental clash, old cycling versus new: an Italian and a Spaniard versus a South American and a cyclist born in Kenya, albeit with a British racing licence.
The planets have aligned to bring the quartet together and they do so on a route which is almost perversely designed to throw random elements into the equation. On top of that there is a mouth-watering number of younger riders on an upward curve who can be expected to challenge the Big Four as Indurain shook LeMond et al. The American Tejay van Garderen and the Frenchmen Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet spearhead this generation.
The resurgence of French cycling - will it continue this year or stall again? - is one of the sub-plots within the main drama. The bigger story, however, is Alberto Contador's quest for one of cycling's most coveted prizes, the double of victories in the Giro d'Italia and Tour.
It was first achieved in 1949 by Fausto Coppi, who repeated it in 1952, emulated only by Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Indurain, Stephen Roche and the late Marco Pantani, who died tragically in 2004, six years after a controversial, drug-fuelled annus mirabilis in 1998.
Roche, who won both in 1987, and Hinault, who did it in 1982 and 1985, believe that Contador has a decent chance of joining them this July. Contador, for his part, knows it would seal his place in history, although some would question quite where in the pantheon that would leave the Spaniard, the dominant Grand Tour rider of his generation, but with a blot on his copybook in the form of a two-year ban for a clenbuterol offence.
A victory in his only race between the Giro and Tour, the Route du Sud, suggests the Spaniard has hit form. "C'est possible. There is no reason why he shouldn't do it," says Hinault. "He managed the Giro well. He let his rivals get on with it at times and put his foot down when he needed to go for it. He raced a bit like Nibali did in the 2014 Tour, without ever going beyond his limits. It's impressive how he has come out of the Giro; he has managed that without difficulty. Physically he is in the same condition as at the Giro."
"One to one, Quintana and Froome should be better than Contador, so on paper he will be up against it," said Roche, recalling the 2013 Tour when the Spaniard was out-climbed by both men. "With Contador you can never say: 'Oh, he's third or fourth or fifth and that's it, he's gone'. He will always look for an opportunity. If you leave a window open for him, he's in there."
Hinault and Roche are bemused that today's top stage racers so rarely contest both Giro and Tour. "I don't understand it," said Hinault, "particularly as there is an extra week's recovery time. For me it was a long-term objective, you prepared it properly and it was straightforward. If Eddy Merckx could do it, I don't see why the riders today can't. They are not obliged to keep their condition at a peak for three months, you can finish the Giro in good condition, kick back a little bit as Contador has done, then press on again as he has done."
"Contador's Giro win wasn't a surprise and it would be unfair to say that there weren't so many top riders there," said Roche. What concerns him, however, was that Contador showed his hand so soon after the Giro. "I was surprised that he put so much into the Route du Sud, to get rid of Quintana. I'd have been hiding, recovering. But if he had been quiet, he'd have been criticised for lacking panache. It's just a bit risky two weeks out from the Tour."
Between winning the Giro and starting the Tour, Roche simply went to ground. "It's partly different (for Contador) because there is a week extra between the two races. He clearly wanted to know how he was. At this stage it's all about recovery. That Giro will have put him under pressure physically - there was something going on every day, and he was leading for a long time. There is pressure there too, from the media, and now the pressure will be greater, with everyone saying it's impossible."
"There are two fundamental things," said Contador when asked about the double. "Staying focused for such an extended length of time and, of course, maintaining a good fitness level after the end of the Giro to get to the Tour and get to its finale with the certainty of being in good condition.
"The problem with the Tour is that it is the second race and there is a cumulative effort after the Giro. As for competitors, every race is different and someone strong always appears to make it hard, as happened in Italy with (Fabio) Aru and (Mikel) Landa. Perhaps Froome stands a little above the other two."
Contador is keen to quash one other rumour, that team owner, Oleg Tinkoff, wants him to go for a possible triple by starting the Tour of Spain on top of the other two Grand Tours. "The Vuelta is not in my plans, it is already challenging enough trying the double of Giro-Tour to consider continuing with the Tour of Spain."
But if the Tour de France delivers half of what it promises, that should be more than enough.
Sunday Indo Sport