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Could this be a history-making year?
There’s a lot of buzz in Naples that Bradley Wiggins (Sky) could make a credible run at becoming the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to win the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the same season.
Almost inevitably, there always seems to be hype gravitating around someone shooting for the elusive Giro-Tour double. And just about every year, someone falls flat on their face trying. Sometimes literally.
Yet the quest for the maglia rosa and the maillot jaune remains one of the elusive feats in all of cycling.
Wiggins isn’t hiding that he’s interested in the Tour, but he also knows first things come first.
“The main thing is to win the Giro,” Wiggins said this week. “That’s the first hurdle.”
And what a hurdle it is. And then there’s Tour.
It takes a lot to win one grand tour, let alone two. The stars have to align pull off the double. A rider must negotiate the hazards of three weeks of racing, avoiding crashes, bonks, and attacks from rivals, then do it all again.
Only seven riders have completed the double for a total of 12 times, with Fausto Coppi the first to achieve it in 1949.
The Italian legend did it again in 1952. Jacques Anquetil (1964), Stephen Roche (1987), and Pantani all did it once. Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain each won twice, in 1982 and 1985, and 1992-93, respectively. Eddy Merckx, the standard-bearer of any cycling statistic, is the only one to complete three doubles, in 1970, 1972, and 1974.
There are other “doubles,” such as the Tour-Vuelta a España, or the Giro-Vuelta combos. Anquetil (1963) and Hinault (1978) both achieved the Vuelta-Tour double while Alberto Contador (2008), Merckx (1973) and Giovanni Battaglin (1981) pulled off the Vuelta-Giro double. That latter two are even more remarkable considering the Vuelta used to be run in April until 1995, meaning they raced and won two grand tours nearly back-to-back, non-stop.
The Giro-Tour combo, however, holds the most prestige and allure.
As the two hardest and most demanding grand tours, winning them in succession is the high-water mark of cycling achievement.
Racing two grand tours in one season certainly isn’t anything new. Sprinters, domestiques, and stage-hunters regularly put in the miles to complete two, and sometimes three, grand tours in one campaign. Finishing is something else.
In fact, only 32 riders in more than a century of grand tours have managed to finish all three in one season. Adam Hansen (Lotto-Belisol) rode and finished all three last year, and he’s back in Naples with the intention of doing it again.
For most GC contenders, hitting their peak to challenge for just one grand tour a season is challenge enough. Few even seriously consider taking on two.
The center of gravity remains the Tour. The French grand tour is the central focus of most top GC contenders, and that’s been true for decades. The internationalization of cycling has brought more equity among three grand tours, but the Giro remains very much an Italian race, and the same goes for the Vuelta being considered a Spanish race.
The allure of making history has drawn out the big names.
Merckx, for example, only raced one Vuelta, in his prime in 1973, which he promptly won in a classic showdown against Luis Ocaña in order to join Felice Gimondi and Anquetil (and later Hinault and Contador) as the only riders who’ve won all three grand tours. He later won the Giro, in part to make his new sponsor, Moltini, happy, and skipped the Tour that year, perhaps passing on the only realistic chance of one rider to win all three grand tours in one year.
At its heart, the Giro remains very much an Italian affair. In fact, the first non-Italian winner didn’t come until Hugo Koblet of Switzerland in 1950. Before then, the Italians rarely raced in France, and the French rarely crossed the Alps to race the Giro.
That started to change in dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, with Merckx hitting his zenith to win seemingly at will during his reign.
Roche’s magical 1987 campaign, during which he also won the world title to complete the “triple crown,” was a once-in-a-lifetime season for the oft-injured Irishman. He never won another grand tour.
The Italians almost always won the Giro, but they had a hell of a time in the Tour. In 1965, Gimondi became the last Italian to win the Tour all the way until Pantani, who is the last.
Italians such as Gianni Bugno, Giuseppe Saronni, and Franco Moser would raise Italian hopes, only to fail in France.
In 1989, a healthy Laurent Fignon blew through the Giro and looked to have the Tour sewn up, until the final-day time trial duel with Greg LeMond.
LeMond ushered in a new era when the Tour became paramount. Though he raced seven Giros, which included a third-place result in 1985, the closest he came to the double was with fourth in 1986 before his first of three maillot jaunes in the now-famous showdown with Hinault in that year’s Tour.
Indurain won back-to-back Giros in 1992-93 as part of his five-year Tour domination in the go-go 1990s, but in 1994 he collapsed against Evgeni Berzin, who was riding by the notorious Gewiss team, fueled by the now-banned Dr. Michele Ferrari.
Tony Rominger won the 1995 Giro, but ran into a superior Indurain at that year’s Tour, the last for giant Spaniard.
The Lance Armstrong era was marked by the Texan’s domination of the Tour and the obliteration of anyone who came out of the Giro with pretensions of targeting yellow. Fueled by Dr. Ferrari, Armstrong beat Giro winners such as Gilberto Simoni and Paolo Savoldelli, only to see his seven Tour wins taken away for doping.
Over the past few years, Contador seemed to be the lone rider capable of achieving the double, but he never seemed too interested in the challenge. He won the 2008 Giro after his then-Astana team was kept out of the Tour. In 2011, he roared through the Giro, but fell flat in the Tour to finish fifth. Both of those results were erased as part of his two-year ban dating back to his 2010 positive test for clenbuterol.
The idea of performing at a high level across two grand tours seems more feasible as the sport has slowly cleaned up its act.
Last year, Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) entered the Tour with what he claimed were “better sensations” than he felt in Italy. No one will ever know what could have happened because he crashed out in the first week.
This year’s mountainous Tour favors Hesjedal’s chance in July much more than last year.
Like Wiggins said, first comes the Giro. That’s anything but assured.