PREDICTING THE UNPREDICTABLE IN 2015
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For all the speculation that follows the annual announcement of the following year’s Tour de France route, the predictions rarely come true. At least, that’s been the case for most of the past decade. Few pundits, if any, picked Óscar Pereiro (2006), Alberto Contador (2007), Carlos Sastre (2008), Andy Schleck (2010), Cadel Evans (2011) or Vincenzo Nibali (2014) as the eventual winners nine months before the race. Which leaves just Contador (2009), Brad Wiggins (2012) and Chris Froome (2013) as early favorites who proved the tipsters right.
John Wilcockson/Kare Dehlie Thorstad
So what can we expect from all the buzz that emanated from the Palais des Congrès in Paris last Wednesday (October 22) after race director Christian Prudhomme revealed the course details for the 2015 Tour? We learned that Contador is still hoping to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to do a winning Giro d’Italia-Tour de France double; that 2014 Giro champ Nairo Quintana is returning to the Tour determined to win after his second-place debut in 2013; that Nibali plans to defend his Tour title (and maybe ride the Giro beforehand); and that Froome, after crashing out this year, is not decided whether he’ll even start the 2015 Tour and, instead, may take a tilt at the Giro-Vuelta a España double that Contador achieved in 2008.
Because most teams live or die over their Tour performances, Team Sky will likely tell Froome that he has to be competitive at the Tour this year after the British squad’s dismal 2014 campaign. It doesn’t seem likely that Sky’s team directors would put all of its undoubted resources behind Froome’s lieutenant, Australian Richie Porte, or new signing Nicolas Roche, but they might favor a Froome-Porte or Froome-Roche combination at the Tour. There are also doubts about Nibali even being able to start the Tour because of his Astana team being hit by three doping positives in recent weeks and jeopardizing its UCI WorldTour license (which allows automatic entry into the grand tours and other WorldTour events).
Despite all those possibilities, the likelihood is that Contador, Froome, Nibali and Quintana will all be on the Tour start line in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on July 4 next year. And should they all be in goodhealth and on top form then the 102nd Tour should be a humdinger; and, in principle, one of those four riders should end up in the yellow jersey on the Champs-Élysées. But because of the glorious uncertainties that make bike racing such an enthralling sport, none of this may happen.
For example, who could have predicted in October 1988, for instance, that Greg LeMond, still suffering from the effects of his near-fatal gunshot wounds in an April 1987 hunting accident, would come back to win the 1989 Tour ahead of Laurent Fignon? And no one knew last October that Quintana wouldn’t start the Tour and that Froome and Contador would both crash out of the race before it reached the high mountains. So what can we say this October about the 2015 Tour (and the preceding Giro)?
What very few, if any, of the prognosticators has mentioned are the chances of other potential challengers. The French riders who finished on the podium this year, Jean-Christophe Péraud of AG2R La Mondiale and Thibaut Pinot of fdj.fr, and their young compatriots Romain Bardet and Warren Barguil, have been mentioned in passing, but the others have been virtually ignored. These men include BMC Racing’s Tejay van Garderen, the Garmin/Cannondale duo of Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky, and Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde—should teammate Quintana not survive the Tour’s demanding opening half.
The 2015 Tour de France begins with a fast, technical time trial, and the following eight days feature two flat stages likely to be hit by strong coastal winds, two ultra-steep uphill finishes, a cobbles stage with seven sections of pavé, and a team time trial with an uphill finish. And the Tour’s second half includes seven days in the high mountains (five with summit finishes) and three days in the hills of the Massif Central (with one more uphill finish)!
That close density of mountain stages is why the 2015 Tour will be one for the climbers; but why have the media not mentioned such strong climbers as the Colombians Esteban Chaves of Orica-GreenEdge and Rigoberto Urán of Omega-Quick Step, Dutchman Bauke Mollema of Lotto NL (who was on the podium two years ago), Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha (another podium finisher), Frenchman Pierre Rolland of Europcar (fourth in the ultra-mountainous 2014 Giro), and Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol (twice fourth at the Tour)?
Any of the dozen or so outsiders could spring a surprise, particularly those on strong teams, and leave egg on the faces of the pundits predicting a yellow jersey for Contador or Quintana. This year, for instance, both Contador and Froome put their focus on the Tour…and ended up fighting for a consolation victory at the Vuelta a España. That’s partly why Tinkoff-Saxo’s Contador is aiming first at next year’s Giro (with its seven uphill stage finishes) before tackling the Tour; and because Froome is attracted by the Giro’s 59.2-kilometer time trail, The Sky rider may end up fighting for the pink jersey before heading to the Tour.
Only four riders have succeeded at the Giro-Tour double in the past 30 years: Bernard Hinault (in 1985), Stephen Roche (1987), Miguel Induráin (1992 and ’93) and Marco Pantani (1998). For the first three of those riders, they performed the double when there was only 18 days (just 16 days in 1987) between the end of the Giro and the start of the Tour. That barely gave them time to recover from racing three weeks in Italy before doing some light training and heading into the Tour.
What’s interesting is that Hinault, Roche and Induráin all came into the Tour on top form—a fact that was almost always the case in the 1980s and ’90s, when the ultra-long stages of grand tours (sometimes seven or eight hours’ long) gave riders their best fitness of the year, and a short, two-week break of rest and recovery enabled them to maximize that fitness. There were rarely any mid-season or high-altitude training camps back then.
As a result, in the first half of the 1985 Tour, Hinault won the prologue time trial, led his team to victory in the team time trial, won the longest individual TT (75 kilometers) and then gained another two minutes on the first mountain stage (in a long two-man breakaway with Colombian climber Lucho Herrera). Two years later, in the Tour’s opening half, Roche was third in the prologue (behind two specialists), led his team to victory in the TTT and also won the longest individual TT (87.5 kilometers!)—but he had to wait until stage 19 (which was six days from the finish) to first wear the yellow jersey. As for Induráin, the 1992 Tour had very few mountain stages and only two summit finishes, and the Spaniard established his dominance by winning the prologue and then the stage 9 TT (65 kilometers)—when he beat all the other contenders by four minutes or so! The following year, Induráin again won the prologue and the stage 9 time trial (59 kilometers) to take the yellow jersey, which he easily defended on the mountain stages (including three summit finishes).
When the Vuelta dates moved from spring to fall, the Giro was moved to an earlier date, giving 33 days between the end of the Italian grand tour and the start of the Tour de France. So when Pantani did his double 16 years ago, he’d virtually lost all the fitness benefit of riding the Giro when he showed up for the start of the Tour in Dublin, Ireland. He’d raced only once in his monthlong break and his lack of form showed by placing a distant 181st in the prologue! By stage 7’s long TT (58 kilometers), he had “improved” to 33rd, but conceded more than four minutes to race leader Jan Ullrich. And on reaching the first mountain stages, Pantani was in 47th overall, more than five minutes back of Ullrich. He clawed back a little time in the Pyrénées, but he had to wait until stage 15 for his top climbing form to return when his long breakaway over the Galibier to Les Deux-Alpes stunned Ullrich, who ended the day nine minutes behind Pantani to concede the yellow jersey.
For a decade after that, the Giro did not have a great international interest and it saw 10 consecutive Italian winners through 2007 and none of them went to the Tour as contenders. Non-Italians have taken greater interest since then, partly due to all UCI WorldTour teams being obliged to start the Giro; but few star riders have targeted the Giro and Tour the same year. Nibali rode the two grand tours early in his career, finishing 11th and 20th respectively in 2008; Contador tried the double in 2011, winning the Giro and struggling to fifth place at the Tour (before being disqualified from both due to his delayed Clenbuterol suspension); and neither Froome nor Quintana has ridden both races in the same year.
All this begs the question: Is the Giro-Tour double even possible in a world where riders have highly focused race calendars, and where grand tour organizers put more and more emphasis on steeper climbs and mountaintop stage finishes? In other words, can any modern racer take the risk of trying the double? It’s a difficult proposition, for sure, but at a time when coaches know more about a rider’s physical parameters and mental capabilities than ever before it can’t be ruled out. With a 33-day window between the two races, there’s time for a 10-day recovery period after the Giro, a targeted, two-week altitude camp and a weeklong build-up to the Tour.
At age 32 next year, Contador believes he’ll be at his peak as a pro cyclist and can succeed on two courses that favor his aggressive style of racing. But, should he win the Giro, there will be no margin for error at the Tour with its tricky first week. On such a climb-heavy course, the pundits have named the youthful Quintana as the top favorite, with Contador, Froome and Nibali also in the frame. But nine months from now, maybe none of them will pull on the final yellow jersey, and it will be the turn of a Pinot, van Garderen, Martin or Urán to confound us all. But that’s not a prediction….