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Analysis: Hard to read tea leaves ahead of grand tour season

The early season has given away little about the condition of the 'fab four' GC kings who have shown equal parts brilliance and mediocrity

It’s been an odd spring in more ways than one.

As the peloton pedals into the grand tour season, it’s been difficult to read the tea leaves, making it a challenge to have a clear idea of what we can expect on the roads of Italy and France in the coming weeks and months.

A look at the “Fab Four” reveals just how uneven the opening months of the 2015 season have been. An unknown Russian beat Sky’s Chris Froome at the Tour de Romandie. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) looks to be playing rope-a-dope again before the Tour de France, with no notable results all season. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) has been hot and cold all spring as he won Tirreno-Adriatico but wasn’t a major factor at the Tour de Romandie. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) all but disappeared off the radar after an early-season stage win at Ruta del Sol, spending weeks training at altitude at Tenerife to prepare for his Giro-Tour double.

Except for Contador, who is raising the bar to try to become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to pull off the Giro-Tour double, what really counts for these guys is July.

So do the weeks and months ahead of the Tour count for much? That’s an interesting question that’s been a hotly debated issue over the past few decades.

Before the 1980s, cycling was fiefdom controlled by a few major champions who raced just about every event on the calendar, and divvied up the trophies between a relatively small cadre of riders. While there have always been riders who targeted specific races or types of racing, specialization started to creep into the peloton in the 1980s. Greg LeMond was among the first to prioritize the Tour above other major goals. That’s not to say the American didn’t take other races seriously, but as the peloton become more international, and the Tour exploded in terms of prestige and importance, LeMond was one of the first to realize big success in the Tour was more important than winning elsewhere at the expense of being in top form for July.

The Tour’s prominence continues to resonate across today’s peloton. Nibali resisted strong pressure from Italy to return to the Giro this year as defending Tour champion simply because he didn’t want to risk his chances to arrive as fresh as possible for the Tour to defend his title. Froome hasn’t raced the Giro since 2010, and likely won’t return, not at least until he wins another yellow jersey or two.

Quintana was dragged to the Giro last year at the insistence of Movistar team boss Eusebio Unzué, who was savvy enough to realize that Quintana wouldn’t win last year’s Tour, but could win the Giro. The Colombian phenomenon did just that, but he too resisted the allure of starting the Giro as defending champion and instead is going all-in for the Tour.

Contador is returning to the Giro for the first time since 2011 at his own insistence. As he rides near the end of his career, the Spaniard said he wanted a new challenge to maintain the level of intensity and dedication needed to be competitive at the top of the peloton.

So far this season, there hasn’t been clear dominance among any of the “Fab Four.” Bradley Wiggins in 2012, and Froome in 2013, were nearly flawless in their approach to that year’s respective Tour, winning just about every stage race they targeted on their march to yellow. In contrast, there’s been inconsistency and perhaps even troubling signs that the Tour favorites are not yet at their highest level this season.

That might be by design, with no one obviously wanting to peak too soon. But it also reflects a general trend that the rest of the peloton is catching up to Sky’s concept of “marginal gains” that helped them have an edge from 2011 to 2013. Today, just about every GC contender is spending weeks at altitude, hitting the rollers post-stage, and using every technical edge to their advantage. There is clearly a new parity at the top of the peloton, and it’s harder for one rider to dominate the pack. More riders are winning as the peloton pedals toward dates at the Giro and Tour.

Neither of the two strongest riders this spring — Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Richie Porte (Sky) — will be the leading captains on their respective Tour de France squads. Movistar is backing Quintana in an all-out push for yellow, while Sky is betting that Froome can avoid mishaps and win a second maillot jaune, giving Porte the Giro as his primary goal starting this weekend.

Both Valverde and Porte, however, have been nearly flawless across their targets in the opening months of the 2015 racing season. The Spaniard Valverde, 35, was sublime across the Ardennes, winning both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in magisterial dominance, while Porte has been on a tear, winning GC titles on the trot at Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya, and Giro del Trentino.

At the team level, Etixx-Quick-Step, Sky, Movistar, and Katusha have also been dominating the early-season stage races and spring classics. Etixx leads the UCI WorldTour standings with 835 points, with Katusha a close second, just seven points behind. Sky ranks third and Movistar is fourth, and the race for the WorldTour team title already looks to be shaping up between that quartet.

At the other end of the list, it’s been famine for teams at the bottom of the barrel. IAM Cycling, in its first year at the WorldTour level, is languishing near the bottom, along with LottoNL-Jumbo and last-place Cannondale-Garmin, which has a paltry 26 WorldTour points so far this season.

What does all of this mean for this year’s grand tours? Both the Giro and Tour should be wide-open, attack-laden affairs, assuming all the main contenders stay upright. Last year’s GC fight at the Tour was all but over when both Froome and Contador exited before the major climbs, opening the door for Nibali’s relatively uncontested road to Paris. The Italian is smart enough to know he won’t have it so easy this year, especially with Quintana returning to a Tour that’s tailor-made for the attacking Colombian.

The Giro won’t be a cakewalk for Contador, either, especially with Porte and Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step), twice a runner-up, looking to take major gains in the 59.2-kilometer time trial waiting in stage 14. Fabio Aru (Astana) and the inevitable Giro surprise will make the Italian race one of the most interesting in the last few years.

Grand tour racing is a different beast than anything else on the racing calendar. What happens on the approaches to the Giro and Tour rarely has a major impact on how the races play out. Much like the stock market, previous results do not necessarily guarantee future returns. Confidence and preparation count for a lot, but once the flag is dropped, it’s always a clean slate.

May the strongest, and luckiest, win.