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Will the ‘new cycling’ produce multiple grand tour winners?

Once dominated by a series of powerful, charismatic athletes, pro cycling has in recent years been producing one-off grand tour winners

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Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) came tantalizingly close this season to doing something that hasn’t been done in a long time: winning two grand tours in the same year.

After barnstorming to victory in the Giro d’Italia, Nibali ran into a brick wall at the Vuelta a España in the form of 42-year-old Chris Horner, who became the oldest grand-tour winner in cycling history and relegated Nibali to runner-up status.

Winning two grand tours in one season is among cycling’s most elusive aspirations, a pinnacle that’s only been climbed 12 times in the sport’s history. The last to do it was Alberto Contador, who won the Giro and Vuelta a España in 2008, the year organizers prevented his then-Astana team from starting the Tour.

Though he fell short of the double this year, Nibali is rewriting the history books in another, more intriguing way. The 29-year-old Italian’s already done something that is unique to the “new cycling” era — he is the first to have won more than one grand tour.

It’s a slippery slope, trying to define when and where cycling’s newer, cleaner reality begins. Elements of the biological passport, the no-needle policy, the whereabouts program, and increased out-of-competition testing date back to 2008.

In 2007, there were signs that the peloton was lurching toward a cleaner, more credible place, but it took several seasons, and a lot more doping scandals, to transform the peloton. And that’s a paradigm shift that is far from over.

One place to draw a clean line across the tarmac is 2010, straight through the middle of Contador’s clenbuterol positive in that year’s Tour.

Contador’s clenbuterol case, which remains highly controversial for a variety of reasons, is one place where cycling could try to designate a “before and after.”

“Before” includes a sport mired in controversy, doping scandals, and a peloton that would win at any cost. “After” is represented by today’s new-look cycling, which is built on more credible performances.

While it’s inherently unfair to claim that riders before 2010 didn’t race or win clean, and equally naive to suggest that all of today’s riders are racing on bread and water, 2010 does serve as an interesting watershed for the sport.

Since Contador’s 2010 clenbuterol case, the performances are undeniably more believable. While some of today’s veteran stars still have some issues about their collective pasts, the performances over the past three seasons have been relatively scandal-free.

There are exceptions, of course, including Ezequiel Mosquera’s doping positive while second behind Nibali in the 2010 Vuelta, and Fränk Schleck’s doping case in the 2012 Tour a year after sharing the Tour podium with his brother, Andy.

If we dare to believe what we see and what the doping controls are telling us, however, it’s not a stretch to say that cycling today is the cleanest it’s been in decades, and perhaps even in the entire history of the sport.

For the most part, 2010 can serve as a place to reset the odometer to zero.

In the context of a cleaner peloton, there’s an interesting plot line that will play out over the next several seasons: Will “new cycling” see the emergence of another singular Tour rider?

Over the past half decade, the peloton has seen a series of charismatic, dominant riders who were the reference of their generation. From Jacques Anquetil to Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault, continuing with Miguel Indurain and the scandal-marred Lance Armstrong, the sport has been dominated by a series of larger-than-life captains who conquered their respective era.

Since Contador’s clenbuterol case, the sport has been in transition at many levels. One of the most interesting facets is that there has yet to emerge a dominant rider characteristic of the sport since the 1960s.

The demands of modern, cleaner cycling require months and months of discipline, sacrifice, and hard work, something that’s harder to maintain and reproduce without the benefit of pharmaceutical assistance.

In the EPO era, riders such as Armstrong were fueled by EPO, blood transfusions, testosterone patches, and perhaps a few well-placed bribes along the way, allowing him to rip through seven consecutive Tours like butter.

Flash forward to 2010, and things are suddenly quite different.

In sharp contrast, the demands of today’s clean(er) racing seems to completely wipe out riders after winning the Tour. In fact, Nibali is the only one who’s managed to win more than one grand tour since 2010.

What’s sure is that the sport is enjoying a string of one-off grand-tour winners not seen since the mid-1990s.

Part of the power void stems from a generational change at the top of the peloton. Cadel Evans won the Tour at 34 in 2011, while Bradley Wiggins won last year’s Tour at 32. Both flamed out in their respective Tour defenses, and likely will never again challenge for a yellow jersey.

A few older riders, such as Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodríguez, are still knocking at the door. Horner broke records at the Vuelta, but might never race another grand tour again if he cannot find a contract. Managing one more grand tour for them would be a huge success.

Crashes and health issues can cripple anyone’s aspirations at any moment; that much hasn’t changed. Andy Schleck, a four-time grand-tour runner-up, is still struggling with injury and form since his 2012 crash.

It took Nibali more than two years before he could win the Giro following his 2010 Vuelta victory. And success at the Giro and Vuelta is always considered a step below the Tour both in terms of physical and psychological demands.

Juanjo Cobo, the rider who beat Chris Froome at the 2011 Vuelta, is a rider with a long history of occasional brilliance underscored by lapses of mental fortitude. He was so out of shape, Movistar didn’t even bring him to the Vuelta this year, and he doesn’t have a contract for 2014.

Contador, on the other hand, is a unique case. By far the most prolific and successful grand-tour rider of the post-Armstrong era, the Spaniard seemed destined to challenge Merckx’s record of 11 grand-tour victories.

Though Contador had two grand tours stripped away, with the 2010 Tour and the 2011 Giro, he still has five on his palmares, and ranks as the most successful active rider.

His 2012 Vuelta victory was as electrifying as any in recent cycling history, but the “Pistolero” was firing blanks this summer and seemed a shadow of his former explosive self during this year’s Tour.

And it remains to be seen whether Contador, who will turn 32 later this week, can once again become the lethal grand-tour rider he once was.

Stepping boldly into this vacuum is Froome, who could well emerge as the first multiple Tour winner in the post-EPO era.

He’s already shown consistency and determination over the past few seasons, riding to second at the 2011 Vuelta and again at the 2012 Tour, two races he very well could have won if he had not been held back to help Wiggins.

With Team Sky well ahead of its rivals on many levels, Froome’s ascendance seems assured.

By all accounts, the 28-year-old Froome has the maturity and character to match the strength of his legs. There’s every indication that the Sky captain will not pull a “Wiggins” and fly off the rails, but nothing in cycling can ever be taken for granted.

He’ll face a formidable challenge in Nibali, far and away his most dangerous rival. There is also Nairo Quintana, the sensation of the 2013 Tour, but the young Colombian needs to confirm that his superb performance this summer was no fluke.

While Quintana’s climbing pedigree is unquestioned, his handicap against the clock might prevent him from ever winning a Tour, especially if Froome and Nibali, two superior time trialists, are at the top of their game.

Cycling’s always had big champions, yet as the sport readjusts to cleaner racing, it will be interesting to see if history repeats itself.

Are we seeing the beginning of the Froome era? Or are the demands of winning the Tour clean so high that the human body can meet its demands only occasionally?

Will “new cycling” see every grand tour so wildly unpredictable and wide open that any one of a dozen or so candidates could emerge the victor, only to fade away, and see someone else step forward?

The 2014 Tour will be interesting in more ways than one.