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A TOUR FOR THE AGES—OR NOT

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June 26, 2015 – Everyone agrees that the 102nd Tour de France, starting in the Netherlands on July 4, has a powerful list of favorites. Alberto Contador of Tinkoff-Saxo, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali of Team Astana are all recent winners of the Tour de France; Nairo Quintana of Movistar has finished second at the Tour (behind Froome) and won the Giro d’Italia; and let’s not forget that the field also contains three more grand tour winners in Ivan Basso (now one of Contador’s top teammates at Tinkoff), Ryder Hesjedal (team leader of Cannondale-Garmin) and Alejandro Valverde (Quintana’s co-leader at Movistar). That’s a formidable lineup, but is it the strongest lineup a modern Tour has yet seen?

Written by John Wilcockson/Photos by Yuzuru Sunada

Remember, the media were writing similar stories a year ago, when Contador, Froome, Nibali and Valverde were all at the start in Yorkshire, England (Quintana was resting after his Giro victory). But by the first rest day, Froome and Contador were both out of the race following crashes, and Valverde was already some three minutes behind race leader Nibali—who kept on winning mountain stages to end the Tour more than seven minutes ahead of runner-up Jean-Christophe Péraud.

Assuming that crashes don’t eliminate any of the favorites in this year’s challenging first week and the race does develop into the humdinger we’d all like to see, can it be stated that this is the Tour’s strongest starting lineup since World War II? On paper, the Tour field in 2009 was stronger, featuring four former winners: Contador, Lance Armstrong (returning four years after his retirement), Óscar Pereiro (default 2006 winner after Floyd Landis was DQ’d) and defending champion Carlos Sastre.

But Sastre and Pereiro proved to be non-factors, while Contador and Armstrong waged their own internecine feud for leadership at Team Astana, and Contador came out on top a week before the finish, eventually taking the title by four minutes over Andy Schleck.

Looking ahead to this year’s race, none of the four top favorites is expected to be a non-factor. They’re all strong leaders of strong teams and they all look like being on their best form in July. So have there been any other modern Tours as potentially competitive, dramatic and exciting as this one?

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In the Armstrong years, only the 2000 Tour saw three former winners at the start. But after the very first mountaintop finish (stage 10), Armstrong was already four minutes ahead of 1997 winner Jan Ullrich, and 10 minutes up on ’98 winner Marco Pantani. No drama there. Armstrong ended that Tour six minutes ahead of Ullrich, with third finisher Joseba Beloki more than 10 minutes back.

In the earlier winning streak of Miguel Induráin, only the 1991 Tour featured a truly exceptional lineup, with four former winners: Greg LeMond, Pedro Delgado, Stephen Roche and Laurent Fignon. But the expected fireworks didn’t take place. Roche missed the start of the second day’s team time trial (he was in a portable toilet), rode the course alone and was eliminated on time. Delgado devoted himself to helping teammate Induráin.

Fignon was a last-minute starter and had to race for his younger teammate Luc Leblanc (who came in fifth). And LeMond, after wearing the yellow jersey on five stages, showed the first signs of the mitochondrial myopathy that would put an end to his racing career. Induráin won the race by almost four minutes over Gianni Bugno.

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Ten years earlier, during the Bernard Hinault years of dominance, the 1981 Tour featured three Tour winners, Hinault, defending champion Joop Zoetemelk and 1976 winner Lucien Van Impe. Only newcomer Phil Anderson (initially) challenged Hinault before the Frenchman raced to his biggest margin of victory, 14 minutes 34 seconds, with Van Impe second and Zoetemelk in fourth.

A similar scenario evolved in 1969, the first year of Eddy Merckx’s Tour reign. On the start line, besides race debutant Merckx, there were three former winners: Felice Gimondi, Jan Janssen and Roger Pingeon. But Merckx, already winner of a Giro d’Italia, was untouchable in the high mountains and long time trials and won the Tour by almost 18 minutes over Pingeon.

We have to go back to 1954 to find the only other postwar Tour that began with four former winners. They were defending champion Louison Bobet, 1951 Winner Hugo Koblet, ’52 winner Ferdi Kübler and ’47 champ Jean Robic. Both Robic and Koblet crashed out of that Tour, and Bobet beat runner-up Kübler by more than 15 minutes. Again, no drama there.

So what can we conclude from this seven-decade journey through Tour de France history? The one conclusion is that a field replete with former winners doesn’t guarantee a memorable Tour. In fact, all seven Tours reviewed here ended in blow-out victories. But that doesn’t mean history will repeat itself.

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Eight postwar Tours have ended with margins of victory of less than one minute: Jacques Anquetil by 55 seconds over Raymond Poulidor in 1964; Janssen by 38 seconds over Herman Van Springel in 1968; Bernard Thévenet by 48 seconds over Hennie Kuiper in 1977; Roche by 40 seconds over Delgado in 1987; LeMond by eight seconds over Fignon in 1989; Pereiro by 32 seconds over Andreas Klöden in 2006; Contador by 23 seconds over Cadel Evans in 2007; and Sastre by 58 seconds over Evans in 2008.

It’s safe to say that four of those Tours were among the most exciting ones ever held: the duels of Anquetil-Poulidor, Roche-Delgado, LeMond-Fignon and Contador-Evans. A commonality in each of those four races was a surprise element.

In 1964, Poulidor did far better in the time trials than expected against Anquetil, who had emerged somewhat tired from a winning Giro campaign. In 1987, Roche had also won the Giro and wasn’t expected to accommodate the most grueling Tour in 20 years (a total of 25 stages and 115 hours of racing!) against fresher rivals Delgado and Jean-François Bernard. In 1989, both Fignon and LeMond finished the Giro beforehand (Fignon won easily, while LeMond struggled in the mountains), and the world was shocked when the American emerged from two years of struggles after his near-fatal hunting accident. And, like 1989, the 2007 Tour result was in suspense until the final time trial, when Contador just held off Evans and Levi Leipheimer in a three-way showdown.

There’s only one individual time trial in this year’s Tour (on the opening day), so the battle for final victory could be contested on the last of the mountaintop finishes, at L’Alpe d’Huez, the day before the July 26 finish in Paris. And with so many potential winners, we can only hope that the race comes down to a four-way, three-way, or at least a two-way battle between the strongest men. If they survive the challenges of the Tour’s first half, the strongmen in the Alps should include Contador, Froome, Nibali and Quintana. But maybe there’ll be another surprise in store….

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You can follow John on twitter @johnwilcockson