Tour de France
Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali finished together in...

The dud of 2016 Tour: Intra-squad rivalries fall short of hype

Multiple teams came to the Tour de France with more than one GC option, but potential conflicts have fizzled out.

ANDORRA (VN) — Polemics. It’s one of the great games of cycling. In a team sport where the individual wins, cycling’s history is full of treachery, betrayals, and intrigue. It’s a facet of cycling that makes it such an interesting spectator sport.

The 2016 Tour de France had all the trappings of being a polemics delight. Several teams brought squads laden with potential splits between loyalties, individual interests, and compromised allegiances.

Sky’s all-for-one strategy is rare among the top GC contenders this July. While Sky is backing Chris Froome 100 percent, many of the other major teams came with two cards to play, setting up a dynamic that potentially could fly off the rails.

Remember Alberto Contador hijacking Lance Armstrong’s 2009 comeback at Astana? The 2012 Tour saw fractures between eventual winner Bradley Wiggins and a rising Froome. Perhaps the best Tour ever — the 1986 race — was fueled by the intrigue between Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault.

Despite the promising storylines, so far this Tour has seen its polemic potential fall flat. While there is still a lot of racing to come, most of the intrigue has already been settled. Such a shame for those who love a bit of backstage conniving to add another layer to the day’s racing action.

Aru-Nibali: ‘The Shark’ was defanged early

Of all the major squads in this Tour, Astana seemed to have the right conditions for an old-fashioned Italian polemica. Vincenzo Nibali not only won the Giro d’Italia in May (setting up the tantalizing possibility of a Giro-Tour double), he is all but out the door, heading to the new Bahrain team. On top of that, Nibali and heir apparent Fabio Aru reportedly are not close. Conspiracy theorists hoping for betrayal were soon disappointed. Nibali sat up during Wednesday’s climbing stage into the Massif Central, easing gas out of the conspiracy bubble at the first moment. And when he did ride into a breakaway Saturday, he didn’t have the legs to finish it off. On Sunday, Nibali proved his loyalty and helped pace a suffering Aru to the line.

REAX: “I had a bad day, and it would have been even worse if it were not for Vincenzo,” said a thankful Aru. “I am here to learn from Nibali on how to race the Tour.”

Pre-race polemics potential: 5 out of 5
Everyone was expecting Nibali to stay in the GC hunt and then betray Aru deep in the third week.

Mid-race polemics readjustment: 2 out of 5
Nibali still might win a stage during this Tour, perhaps abandoning Aru in some key moments to do it, be he won’t be attacking his rear-guard.

Quintana-Valverde: Accepting the obvious

It’s rare in cycling to see a rider who finished on the podium the previous year completely throw his GC chances out the window. Valverde’s case is unique. Not only did he race to the Giro podium behind Nibali and Esteban Chaves in May, he’s also heading to the Olympics in August. And with Nairo Quintana emerging as the most dangerous threat to Froome, Valverde knows the Colombian has a better chance of winning yellow than he does.

REAX: “I am here to help Nairo win the Tour,” Valverde said emphatically Saturday. “Nairo is our best hope to win the Tour.”

Pre-race polemics potential: 2 out of 5
Everyone expected Valverde to live up to his word. So far, he has.

Mid-race polemics readjustment: 1 out of 5
Movistar is keeping Valverde close in GC in order to put pressure on Sky later in the race, but no one expects Valverde to try to torpedo team tactics. To do that, he’d have to drop Quintana, and Valverde knows how hard that is. More likely is Valverde not having the legs to deliver for Quintana in the key moments.

Porte-van Garderen: Too many cooks in the kitchen

After giving Tejay van Garderen two runs at sole leadership at the Tour, BMC Racing signed Richie Porte over the winter to give the team a second GC card in the Tour. That set up the “big one” in terms of pre-Tour hype, and the dual approach remains the most interesting in terms of dynamics and potential blowups. Porte’s puncture in stage 2 seemingly deflated the potential for flare-ups, but there he was Sunday, attacking hard at the front to recoup lost ground and dropping van Garderen in the process. Curiously enough, both seem to downplay the potential for conflict. Each will race their own race, and may the strongest man win. Since neither are likely to win the Tour, so why not?

REAX: “Richie is free to attack and follow the moves,” van Garderen said. “Now, it’s more like doubling down on having a GC guy. If one of us ends up losing 30 minutes, we have another one.”

Pre-race polemics potential: 5 out of 5
Two leaders on one team is the classic recipe for disaster. Both Porte and van Garderen still have to prove they can win the Tour, so magnanimity was not going to be part of the script.

Mid-race polemics readjustment: 3 out of 5
Porte’s puncture puts him on the defensive, so that means he will need to be on the offensive to move up. The pair seems ready to accept that the strongest rider will have freedom to attack. It’s a shame they’re not Italians.

Contador-Kreuziger: Riding for next season

On paper, it appeared that Alberto Contador brought one of the strongest teams to this Tour de France. Yet with Oleg Tinkov turning off the financial faucet at the end of the season, everyone is clearly riding for themselves. Two crashes in the first two days only further exposed the team’s collective self-interest. When Contador was abandoned in the Massif Central, it was plain to see.

REAX: “It was obvious that Alberto was struggling after his crashes,” said Tinkoff sport director Sean Yates. “We’ll never know what Alberto could have done in this Tour. Now others will have their chances. There’s nothing holding them back now.”

Pre-race polemics potential: 4 out of 5
Few picked up on the growing tension inside the Tinkoff bus. Perhaps Contador’s crashes were simply the conduit to reveal how thinly sewn together were Tinkov’s troops. Captains inspire loyalty, but only when they’re riding well. And with riders desperate for contracts, pre-race doubts were quickly confirmed, setting the stage for the Tour’s most serious polemic so far.

Mid-race polemics readjustment: 3 out of 5
Contador’s exit means that Kreuziger will have the green light to ride for GC, but he won’t count on much help from Rafal Majka or others, who are all looking for results to secure contracts for 2017. It’s every man for himself as the ship is taking on water.