TOULOUSE, France (VN) — If being on the back foot following two hard crashes in the first week and intra-squad intrigue weren’t enough, Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador faces a daunting task to recapture the yellow jersey.
History shows that once a rider loses the Tour de France, it’s very difficult to win it again (see below). Precedent aside, Tinkoff knows this weekend’s trio of climbing stages in the Pyrénées will prove decisive to Contador’s Tour aspirations.
“It’s far from ideal,” Tinkoff sport director Sean Yates said. “If Alberto says he’s hurting and cannot pedal, then that shows you just how bad it must be, because there is no one tougher than Alberto.”
As the Tour swings into three decisive stages, Contador has characterized the first week of the 2016 Tour as “the worst Tour start of my entire career.”
The two-time Tour winner is right on that score. He crashed heavily in stage 1, injuring his right shoulder. A mid-race pileup in stage 2 created more problems. “My left leg isn’t working properly,” Contador said. “It hurts to climb out of the saddle.”
After getting through Thursday’s relatively mild sprint stage a day after his team left him isolated in the Massif Central, Contador enters the Tour’s first major climbs 1:21 behind the GC favorites. “The Pistolero” knows that if he loses more time in this weekend’s Pyrenean trifecta, he will have to reassess his goals for this Tour.
Recaptured jerseys hard to come by
Now let’s go back to that precedent.
A quick glance at the Tour record book reveals that it’s particularly difficult for a rider to reclaim the yellow jersey after a rival has beaten him soundly on the road.
To put it this way: discounting the injuries, illnesses, crashes, or even politics that might sideline a champion, once a big Tour rider is beaten straight up, he rarely comes back to the top podium step in Paris ever again.
Only a handful of top Tour riders have gone out on top. Miguel Indurain won five straight, lost the 1996 Tour to Bjarne Riis, and said adios. In 1986, Bernard Hinault lived up to his promise to retire despite battling teammate Greg LeMond all the way to Paris. “The Badger” didn’t hang around longer than he wanted to.
Some top riders will keep chasing the yellow jersey dream, only to never win the Tour again.
Look at LeMond. After his historic 1986 Tour, injuries and mishaps soon hampered his career. A near-fatal hunting accident sidelined him in the 1987 and 1988 races across France, and then he won back-to-back Tours in 1989-90 in an incredible comeback. But once he was he beaten on the road — in 1991 by Indurain — he never won another Tour and retired in 1994.
It’s a similar story for Laurent Fignon, who won two in a row (1983-84) before injuries took their collective toll. After struggling each July, including the eight-second heartbreak to LeMond in 1989, he never came close to another yellow jersey, retiring in 1993.
Jan Ulrich won the 1997 Tour, and many expected him to reel off four more in a row, but he was thrashed by Marco Pantani in 1998, missed the 1999 Tour, and was beaten a few more times by Lance Armstrong before he retired in the wake of the Puerto doping scandal in 2006.
Cadel Evans was among many one-time winners who never challenged for the Tour again. After knocking on the Tour door, he won in 2011, but was out-gunned by Sky for two seasons before retiring in 2014.
Even the great Eddy Merckx succumbed to the law of the road. After winning five out of six Tours (he chose not to race the 1973 Tour), Bernard Thévenet took it to him in 1975, and “the Cannibal” finally retired in 1978 without winning a sixth Tour title.
Strong riders on a hot streak have long dominated the Tour. With three Tours in four years (his team was not invited to race the 2008 Tour and his 2010 Tour win was disqualified), Contador looked to be that rider, but fate would turn on him.
Following a string of one-off winners, it’s been Froome who has emerged as the Tour’s new rider of reference, winning two out of the past three Tours. The Sky captain is going for his third Tour title, and since his rise, he has yet to be beaten on the road. He crashed out of the 2014 Tour without ever getting to the mountains, but has otherwise avoided serious injuries. At 31, he could be around a few more years.
“We see riders who emerge to win many Tours, and right now, the best Tour rider now is Froome,” Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué said. “In 2011, he was already strong enough to win the Tour, so how much longer will he stay on top?”
Contador’s limited options
Now 33, Contador is facing an uphill battle to win yellow again. Not only is he facing Froome and the powerful Sky organization, the peloton is witnessing the arrival of riders like Movistar’s Quintana, Fabio Aru (Astana), and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) — all young, brash stars with ambitions and freshness to usher in a new generation of Tour riders.
With his rough start in 2016, Contador’s uneven, almost tumultuous relationship with the Tour seems destined to continue.
A quick review: After he was stripped of his 2010 Tour title, Contador has struggled in his quest for another yellow jersey. In 2011, he was off top form after winning the Giro d’Italia (both results were stripped). After missing 2012 as part of his clenbuterol ban, he was soundly beaten by Froome in 2013. He crashed out in 2014, and last year was beaten again as he rode to fifth in Paris after going deeper than he would have liked to win the Giro.
It’s a shame that Contador crashed early in this Tour, because he was coming into this Tour on good form, highlighted by a victory at the Vuelta al País Vasco in April, so we’ll never know how far he could have gotten against Froome and Quintana this year.
As Yates put it, Contador will keep pushing until his body won’t let him anymore.
“If anyone can do it, Alberto can,” Yates said. “He’s a fighter. I’ve never seen a rider with as much drive and determination as Alberto.”
Promising to race two more seasons, Contador might never win another yellow jersey. If he does, he will rewrite the history books and cement his place among the Tour greats. The next three days in the Pyrénées will tell the story, at least for this year.