PARIS (AFP) — The prospect of the ‘fantastic four’ lining up to contest what could be the most exciting Tour de France in years has whet the appetites of cycling fans since Vincenzo Nibali’s (Astana) dominant victory last year.
That too was supposed to produce a battle royale between three strong pretenders.
But Nibali’s tour de force on the cobbles to take the Tour by the scruff of the neck, coupled with crashes that deprived the Grand Boucle of its two biggest stars, Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), resulted in a race that was devoid of suspense long before the Italian rode into Paris in yellow.
Twelve months ago, Nibali was considered more of a strong outsider than an absolute favorite.
But the nature of his victory, and some of the tactical acumen he’s shown this season, suggest that there is no reason to consider him anything other than on equal footing with his peers.
Froome, due to the dominance of his Team Sky in 2012, when Bradley Wiggins won, and his own 2013 triumph, is perhaps always going to be seen as a slight notch ahead of his rivals.
His victories in summit finishes at Ax 3 Domaines and Mont Ventoux, where he rode away from the opposition in his ungainly and un-aerodynamic style, with elbows and knees seemingly dancing around outside the line of his bike as if being tugged by a puppeteer, left many stunned.
On his day, Froome, 30, is considered unbeatable, but he showed weakness last year, not least in his slow recovery from crashes.
The cobbles are back this year, and Froome had climbed off his bike even before reaching them 12 months ago.
He was nervous about them then, and his nerves may not have calmed in the intervening period.
Yet, even though Froome has a slight aura more than the others, there can be no doubt that Contador is the most-decorated contender.
Twice a former Tour winner, he won his second Giro d’Italia last month and back in September of last year, he took his third Vuelta a España crown after a thrilling battle with Froome.
Contador’s lolling style allows him to accelerate quicker than Froome, and it was by stealing a march on the Briton in the final kilometer of a pair of Vuelta stages, having grimly hung on to Froome’s initial attack lower down the slopes, that the Spaniard managed to make the race-winning difference.
Froome’s major advantage has always been the time trials, but there is only a 13.8km, stage 1 TT this time around in which to put some time into his rivals.
The Tour will likely be won in the mountains, where the fourth member of the elite club, Nairo Quintana (Movistar), is perhaps the strongest — going up at least.
Nibali, 30, and 32-year-old Contador are far better descenders, and they will have their chances to attack on fast downhill sections, but the waif that is Quintana is imperious when the gradients increase.
Second on the Tour two years ago and Giro winner last year, this is Quintana’s chance to prove that he is ready to win the most prestigious prize of all.
He’s also made a habit of starting slowly in the first week of grand tours before coming on strong in the last seven days.
And with four mountains stages in the final five days, Quintana will likely be coming into peak condition right when the Tour is being won and lost.