Cycling is unique in that the climax of its season comes not at the end of the season but dead center in the heart of the calendar. It isn’t the Tour Down Under in January or the Giro di Lombardia in October that the top riders of the road dream about. No, it is the sunflowers dotting French countryside in July that captivates the imagination, the high Alpine and Pyrenean passes that separate the contenders from the pretenders.
It is a rite that has survived since 1903. Neither world war nor the war on doping could taint the appeal that the maillot jaune holds on athlete and spectator alike. Through countless format changes and a malleable map that is manipulated annually to capture the essence of France itself, merely finishing the race has remained as the solitary item that every rider has written on his bucket list of accomplishments.
It is a tradition over a century old. And this race, borne of the vision of a couple of newspaper men trying to create a spectacle that would sell copy, brings even casual sports fans to ask questions about the men covered in dust and road grime and Lycra-guided tan lines. So as the race gears up for the opening stage of its 98th edition this Saturday, now is the perfect time to discuss the big questions ahead of this year’s Tour.
1. Can Contador Pull the Double?
Alberto Contador is still biding his time, waiting to find out if all this success he continues to amass is going to be nullified when his clenbuterol case finally comes to a conclusion at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. In the meantime, he has been taking to the roads across Europe taking out his vengeance on the stage-race opportunities at his disposal. After winning the overall at the Vuelta a Murcia and the Volta a Catalunya in March, he dominated the Giro d’Italia field to take his second maglia rosa. Now, with the CAS decision being postponed until August, Contador is clear to try for what would ultimately be either a third consecutive maillot jaune in France and a fourth career Tour title… or a second consecutive vacated crown if the CAS should side with the UCI and WADA in their appeal of the Spanish federation’s exoneration.
Can Alberto Contador become the first man to win the Giro and the Tour in the same season since Marco Pantani in 1998?
No rider has turned the Giro-Tour double in the same year since “Il Pirata” did it thirteen years ago during the scandal-scarred 1998 Tour. Marco Pantani had come to France that year as the Giro champion, expected to be a contender but hardly the favorite. Then the Festina team of Richard Virenque was booted out of the race when a team car filled with EPO and other doping substances was stopped at the border, and the road opened up for Pantani to capture the double. Since then a trend of race-specific specialization — as exemplified by Lance Armstrong’s seven consecutive Tour victories without a single win in either the Giro or Vuelta a Espana — has led to fewer riders that target both grand tours in their season goals.
Contador has already broken the trend, but it is as much due to uncertainty surrounding his career as it is out of any desire to return the sport to the all-around rider tradition of yesteryear. His first Giro victory came as a result of the Tour de France excluding the Astana team he headlined from starting the 2008 race. He was only on the line in Italy this year for the race he’d ultimately win because he feared not being able to start this year’s Tour. It will be hard to bet against Contador, despite having switched teams. If anything, he now has stronger support under team director Bjarne Riis… and as the winner of every one of the past six grand tours he has started, the smart money says he will end the 13-year Giro/Tour double drought on the Champs-Élysées in Paris on July 24.
2. Did Schleck Make the Smart Decision by Switching Sides?
When two-time runner-up Andy Schleck left with his brother Frank to start the new Leopard-Trek team in their native Luxembourg, they departed the Riis braintrust under which both riders had flourished throughout their careers. It was a huge risk for the 26-year-old rider, who flourished in the CSC/Saxo Bank system yet felt the need to strike out on his own to get over the final hurdle.
Will the defection of (R-L) Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck and Fabian Cancellara from Saxo Bank to Leopard-Trek yield a maillot jaune for the new team?
The gamble came when Contador, finally finished with his Astana days, signed up with Saxo Bank in the offseason. Now partnered with the guy who knows Schleck’s strengths and weaknesses better than any other team director, Contador has a tactical advantage that might be able to expose the gap that was decreasing in last year’s race. Schleck, under Riis’ tutelage, was just 39 seconds behind the Spaniard — reducing the gap between himself and Contador by three and a half minutes in a year between the 2009 and 2010 editions.
Of course, that was the amount of time that Schleck lost on the Port de Balès when his chain slipped on the climb during Stage 15. Some would argue that Schleck erred in deserting the man who was guiding him ever closer to dominance just as the results were about to be plucked; others would say that now his rival must deal with the question marks about equipment that afflicted Schleck last year.
The switch to a new team hasn’t as yet affected the results. Schleck by all measures has had a solid early start to his season that shows him peaking at the right time. The recent King of the Mountains at the Tour de Suisse, he was also a podium finisher at Liège-Bastogne-Liège with a personal-best 3rd place behind Philippe Gilbert and his brother. The switch has, if anything, only seemed to refocus his desire to succeed. We’ll see in a few weeks if the gamble will yield the jackpot.
3. Can Cavendish Continue His Assault on History?
There are always races within the larger race for the overall victory. One of the largest is for the maillot vert, the green jersey bestowed to the leader of the points classification awarded to the best finishers by daily stage placings. And when it comes to stage victories, no rider has stirred up the waters more than Mark Cavendish in recent years. In just three starts, Cavendish already has fifteen stage victories to his name — one fewer than Jacques Anquetil, just ten fewer than Lance Armstrong, thirteen less than Bernard Hinault and within striking distance of Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34.
Cavendish continues to use the sprints of Le Tour to bolster his all-time credentials... but can he put it together into a green jersey?
Of course, those four men have 22 Tour titles between them; barring some mid-career chrysalis Cavendish will never don the maillot jaune into Paris. But he doesn’t have to win the overall to continue his quest to become the greatest stage winner in Tour history. Even just one stage win in this year’s race would tie the Manx Missile with Anquetil and three other riders who are tied at 9th all-time with 16 stages. At his three-year average of five stage wins a campaign, Cavendish could conceivably leapfrog his way past four or five of the riders ahead of him on the all-time list before they even reach Paris this year.
The 26-year-old still has many years of success awaiting him; just look at the longevity of sprinters over the past two decades of the sport, Mario Cipollini and Alessandro Petacchi and Robbie McEwen and Erik Zabel and Oscar Freire all proving that the bunch specialists can measure their careers in double digits if they remain healthy and in shape. So the assault continues on two fronts — not only is Cavendish attacking the Tour stage-wins record, but because we can reasonably expect another decade ahead of him in the peloton it is entirely possible that he’ll also challenge Merckx’s all-time grand tour stage wins record of 64 by the time his career is finished.
It all comes down to this race. The youngster for HTC-Highroad has let opportunities slip through his fingers before, yet already has 15 Tour stages and 25 total grand-tour stages. Entering what should be his prime, Cavendish has the talent to win green jerseys as well as stages. He captured his first points title at last year’s Vuelta; if he maintains his blistering pace of stage victories and stays focused throughout the three weeks of racing, we might see him take his first Tour points title in addition to vaulting further up the all-time charts.
4. Can a couple of Italian veterans make their mark in France?
When Ivan Basso refrained from defending his Giro d’Italia title, he made it clear that he was putting all his focus and training efforts into conquering the maillot jaune at this year’s Tour de France. Long viewed as the successor to Lance Armstrong, Basso’s prime post-Lance years were thwarted by his involvement with doping ring uncovered in the Operación Puerto sting just before the 2006 Tour. Basso did not race in France from 2006 to 2009, from age 28 to 31, missing four chances to earn that elusive yellow jersey that looked so inevitable in his future back when he was runner-up to Armstrong in 2005.
Will Alessandro Petacchi be able to hold off advancing time and a hard-charging group of kids to defend his green jersey?
Basso has won the Giro d’Italia twice, but last year’s 32nd-place finish at his first Tour de France back after a half-decade absence only hardened his resolve to conquer the last goal left in his career. The Liquigas team will bring a team that, while strong, nevertheless looks less formidable than the 2010 Giro team that led him to victory. If Basso is to finally claim this elusive crown, the 33-year-old will have to beat out both Contador and Schleck in the mountains.
Likewise in the green jersey race, another Italian veteran will be hoping that a sprinter’s longevity doesn’t fail him at 37 years old. Last year Alessandro Petacchi finally put together a full three weeks of successful riding to claim his first maillot vert at the Tour de France. After being forced to sit out a year after taking too many hits of his asthma inhaler and getting popped for elevated levels of salbutamol, Petacchi has returned to the sport and added six more grand-tour wins to his totals.
(If you include the five 2007 Giro victories stricken from the record, Petacchi is just four behind compatriot Mario Cipollini for second all-time in grand tour stage wins. If you keep them out of the record, he’s still third all-time with 48 victories. Either way, his legacy is secure despite the “doping violation”.)
For both these men, this could be their last best chance at making waves on the soil of their Gallic neighbor. With the rising wave of youngsters taking over the sprints and the general classification, watch for these two thirtysomethings to try to have the best swan song possible.
5. Who are the darkhorse candidates?
Every year somebody rises up unexpectedly to squirm his way into the top ten. Last year it was Robert Gesink and Jurgen Van Den Broeck; the year before Bradley Wiggins parlayed the element of surprise into a spot just off the podium. The usual suspects are more often than not the smart-money bet to claim the jerseys; but when you go further down the classifications, the potential for shockers and spoilers is heightened.
With that in mind, let’s finish by looking at my favorites to take each of the major jersey competitions:
KING OF THE MOUNTAINS