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Five reasons the Giro-Tour double is cycling’s hardest mountain

Nairo Quintana will attempt the elusive Giro-Tour double in 2017. Here's why it is so difficult to win two grand tours in a row.

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ALGHERO, Italy (VN) — Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is teeing up for cycling’s hardest challenge, the Giro d’Italia-Tour de France double.

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The much-vaunted Giro-Tour double is one of the sport’s most elusive achievements. Only seven riders have pulled it off, all of them among the legends of the sport. The Colombian is audacious enough to believe he can do it.

The last to do it was Marco Pantani in 1998, and a lot has changed since then. The Giro is more prestigious and more demanding, the peloton is cleaner than it used to be, and teams are betting more on the Giro than ever before. And the narrow window between the two races remains like a chopping block. Winning the Giro and the Tour back-to-back should remain one of cycling’s most elusive feats for a long time.

Can Quintana do it? It’s a big ask by any measure. Recent double attempts have stalled. Alberto Contador put down the most recent attempt, winning the 2015 Giro, but the Pistolero ran out of bullets during the Tour, finishing fifth. Contador is also the most recent double winner, completing the Giro-Vuelta double in 2008. Despite other recent attempts, the Tour-Vuelta double remains unattainable since the Spanish tour moved to late summer in 1995.

So why is the Giro-Tour double so elusive? Here are five reasons:

1. Giro harder than it used to be

The Giro ain’t what it used to be. One of the top reasons the double is more difficult is that the Giro d’Italia is now a much harder race, both physically and mentally. Back in the day, the first hour or so of the Giro was raced, as the Italians call it, “tutto piano,” at a much slower pace compared to the Tour. Two decades ago, the depth of the field typically was a step below the Tour, when all the teams saved their aces to race in July. That’s changed. The speed and quality of field across the Giro has increased at the same time as the Giro’s prestige has grown. More riders are targeting the Giro (this year’s GC field is more varied than the Tour’s), and sponsorship pressure is greater for big results. What hasn’t changed is that the Giro is always hard in the mountains (some say harder than the Tour), but it’s the rest of the Giro that leaves most GC riders spent after an intense, full-on effort in May. To win the Giro requires a full mental and physical effort, on par with what it takes to win the Tour.

2. Not enough recovery time

Another major obstacle is the limited recovery period. At best, there are four weeks between the Giro’s stage 21 and the Tour’s first day (not counting victory laps for the winner). Most recent riders who rode well in the Giro have found they were spent coming into the Tour. The Giro’s intense effort, doubled with the quick turnaround for the Tour, means that riders simply are not at 100 percent in July. Add a warm-up race, like Slovenia or the Route du Sud, and there isn’t much time between going full-gas at the end of the Giro, and cranking the motor back up for the Tour. In today’s highly calibrated peloton, when riders spend months prepping for the Tour, there is no room for error.

3. Tour de France peak

The highest hurdle for riders taking on the double is facing off against rivals who didn’t race the Giro. Even if a rider comes out of May with relative ease, the physical and mental toll of racing the Giro will be costly in July. That puts any rider who raced three weeks up and down Italy’s boot on the back foot against riders fresh for the Tour de France. The Giro’s demands have only intensified over the past decade or so as race speeds have increased and more teams prioritize the Giro. Most top riders finish the Giro wiped out and only return to racing later in the summer, long after the Tour is underway or over. In today’s peloton built on tapered training peaks, holding fitness from early May to late July is a big ask.

4. Peloton is cleaner

Perhaps there’s no coincidence that the last Giro-Tour winner came in the go-go 1990s. Things have changed since then. Some riders have been busted, others confessed (and in some cases, both), and some riders got away with it, so it’s a slippery slope to start guessing who was doing what. But there’s no question that the peloton is cleaner as a new tests have come online over the past decade. From EPO tests to out-of-competition controls to the ADAMs program, and even a culture shift inside the peloton as a new generation takes the helm, racing today is more transparent than it used to be. Can a rider do a grand tour double today? A few have come close, including Chris Froome (second in the Vuelta a España after winning last year’s Tour). However, the hard effort of the Giro, followed quickly by the Tour is like climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.

5. Giro is equal to Tour

For a long time, the Giro was an “Italian race,” while the Tour was the absolute zenith of the sport. That’s not to say that international riders never targeted the Giro; in fact, most of the double winners were among the peloton’s elite, but the Giro was long considered a race to cherry-pick at least once for the top stars before refocusing on the Tour. That’s slowly changed over the past 10 years. The Giro has invested heavily in making the race a much more international event. As the race’s prestige has grown, the teams have responded. The Giro no longer plays second fiddle to the Tour. Most teams build specific programs for their Giro-bound riders, meaning that their season peak will come in May. It’s rare to see even the top domestiques to do both. These days, riders have their seasons mapped out by late winter, targeting either the Giro or the Tour.

So can Quintana do it? Some say he’s the right type of rider. He might have an easier time on the climbs, but the flats and time trials will take their toll. Even if he cannot do it, it’s hard to argue against trying.