SOME sports have had their “Big Four” for years, but it is a new phenomenon at the Tour de France, which begins in Utrech today. For there to be as many as four outstanding and, on paper at least, equally matched favourites is unprecedented.
Utrecht, host city of this year’s Grand Depart, is buzzing with anticipation, while seasoned observers search and struggle to find anything at all between cycling’s fab four of Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana.
A strong case can be made for each. Froome, the 2013 winner, is in decent form having won the recent Criterium du Dauphine. Nibali, the defending champion, has had a similar build-up to last year, which augurs well. Contador won the recent Giro d’Italia and is trying to do a double last done by Marco Pantani in 1998. Quintana won the Giro last year and was second in his debut Tour in 2013. It seems a safe assumption that the 25-year-old Colombian, whose talent lies in the high mountains, will win the Tour. The question is when.
Much is likely to depend on the next nine days, before they even reach the mountains. After this afternoon’s opening time trial in Utrecht, the race heads west, through Belgium and northern France with the prospect of crosswinds and cobbles. Tuesday’s fourth stage over the notorious pavé is a repeat of last year’s fifth, which caused carnage. It was where Nibali laid the foundations for his victory, Contador lost time and Froome crashed out.
When he met the media in Utrecht yesterday, Froome was ebullient. He believes his form is comparable with 2013. “I guess we’ll never know how I would have got on last year,” he said, but admitted that he was unsure of his condition after crashing heavily at the 2014 Dauphine.
He now also admitted that, in 2013 when he won: “I was hanging on in the final week.” The final week of this year’s race is perhaps even harder with four days in the Alps and a penultimate stage that finishes at the summit of l’Alpe d’Huez.
We’re here now [and] I’m surrounded by what I think is the strongest team in the raceChris Froome
“From a personal point of view I’ve got to the start of this race in perfect condition,” said Froome. “The journey for me started a year ago when I crashed out. I was already then processing, thinking about the best ways of getting back to this year’s Tour de France in the best shape possible. We’re here now [and] I’m surrounded by what I think is the strongest team in the race.”
Team Sky looks well balanced, with a core of Classics specialists to guide Froome through the difficult opening week, and a crop of “mountain goats,” as Froome called them, to help in the Pyrenees and Alps. But how much guidance Froome will need could be a moot point.
Although it is a fact that he crashed out of the race during last year’s cobbled stage, he wanted to get something off his chest. “I’d like to just set the record straight,” he said. “It wasn’t the cobbles that put me out of the race – I didn’t even see a cobble in last year’s Tour. I didn’t make it that far.”
Having grown up mountain biking in Kenya, he is not worried about his ability on the rough stuff: “We’ve been out there, we’ve looked at the cobbles. I’m quite happy riding them. I’m actually quite looking forward to that stage.”
Froome’s team also has a strong British flavour. In their sixth Tour Team Sky have the highest home contingent – five British riders, with Froome joined by Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Peter Kennaugh and Luke Rowe. Yet they only account for half the Brits in the race. Ten will start, the highest number since 1955, when a British national team was invited to race as “England” (though it contained a Scotsman, Ian Steel).
Taking the start in Utrecht, the experienced Steve Cummings rides for the African debutants MTN-Qhubeka; Alex Dowsett makes his first appearance alongside Quintana in the Spanish Movistar team; Mark Cavend ish will be hunting for stage wins, to add to his career tally of 25, with the Belgian Etixx-QuickStep squad; and the Yates twins, Simon and Adam, ride for Orica-GreenEdge of Australia.
Sky team principal Dave Brailsford might well be kicking himself after missing out on the Yates brothers from Bury. Although Simon Yates was reportedly offered a contract by Sky for 2014, Adam was not. Orica then swooped, signing both. Still only 22, they emerged last year as two of the most promising riders in the world. And, like the four favourites for the Tour, they are difficult to separate in terms of talent.
They are climbers, with typical climbers’ builds – small and wiry – and temperament. Both are taciturn, in a way reminiscent of the best pure climber ever to come from these shores, Scotland’s Robert Millar. Indeed, when Simon joined the British programme in 2013 Adam opted instead for France, joining a club in Troyes where he was mentored by Jack Andre, who also mentored Millar in the 1980s.
It was Adam who made the initial splash as a professional, winning the Tour of Turkey last year. A story from that race speaks volumes for his focus and determination.
When Simon crashed and broke his collarbone the news was relayed to Adam by his sports director. Adam turned to look at him and said: “Keep your mind on the race.” He was second on the stage.
After his gruelling early season, Adam was kept out of last year’s Tour, where Simon, having recovered from his broken collarbone, was given a start. He didn’t finish – something that still rankles, even if 21-year-olds are not really expected to finish the Tour – but featured in breaks on two of the hardest stages.
The goals this year for the brothers are to finish and to try and win a stage. “It would be irresponsible of us to expect them to ride for GC [general classification],” said Matt White, their sports director. But it is surely where they are headed. Simon finished fifth at the recent Dauphine, only a minute and a half behind Froome and ahead of Nibali. He also beat Romain Bardet, fifth in last year’s Tour, to win the white jersey for best young rider.
No question, the Yates brothers are the real deal, with the ability to win stages in the mountains. As with Quintana and his bid for the yellow jersey, the question seems only to be when rather than if.