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The media hype machine is about to blow its top. This summer’s Tour de France is being sold, packaged, built up, and marketed to the hilt, billed as potentially one for the ages.
And rightly so. It’s rare in Tour history that four legitimate candidates toe up to the line with real chances for victory. Over the past half century, that’s hardly been the case, as the Tour inevitably was overshadowed by one dominant rider who set the tone for the better part of a decade, before the next big fish came along.
But in this new, no-one-really-knows-what’s-going-on cycling milieu, there is not one imperious king who rules the roost, but rather four legitimate pretenders to the throne.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Chris Froome (Sky), and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) are collectively known as the “Fab Four,” the “Fantastic Four,” or the “Amazing Rhythm Aces.” Take your pick, but catchy taglines aside, their convergence is truly something extraordinary.
Just consider the storylines that stack up in July, and you can understand why cycling hacks and cycling fans are foaming at the mouth. Contador is arguably the best grand tour rider of his generation, and he is audacious enough to take on the Giro-Tour double — a feat not equaled since Marco Pantani in 1998 — in what could be his last real chance to reclaim his crown as Tour king. In contrast, the calculating Froome desperately wants a second yellow jersey to confirm his status as the best Tour rider of today. The hard-to-gauge Nibali, meanwhile, will be saving everything for an all-out bid to win a second yellow jersey in a row, a feat unequaled since — ahem — Lance Armstrong. If one doesn’t count Armstrong (that’s entirely up to you, just like whether or not you believed him back when he was winning), no one’s defended their Tour title since Miguel Indurain, more than 20 years ago.
And finally there’s Quintana, who returns to the Tour after snagging the pink jersey at the Giro last year. This Tour course seems tailor-made by organizers for Quintana to deliver history’s first Latin American Tour de France winner. Greg LeMond called Quintana the best rider he’s seen since Eddy Merckx.
So there you have it, the best Tour ever. But wait, there are two things inexorably wrong with that pretty picture. First, that assumes all four will survive what looks to be an absolutely harrowing first eight days of the Tour with any hope of winning. It seems as if ASO wants to make every day in the first week this year as if it were a stand-alone, one-day classic. The problem with that is if you pull out of Gent-Wevelgem, you can still start and possibly win Paris-Roubaix. That’s obviously not the case in the Tour, and the way these stages are stacked up, it seems almost impossible that all members of the “Fab Four” will be pedaling into the Pyrénées in week two with their GC hopes fully intact.
And even more important, the presumption that these four riders will dominate the Tour rather arrogantly ignores the rest of the peloton. The peloton is a very big place, with another half-dozen second-tier GC riders trying to elbow their way to the top. Any one of them could well deliver a major surprise.
Topping that list is Tejay van Garderen. The BMC Racing captain is sometimes characterized as lacking the killer instinct, but even if that might have been true, it has certainly not been the case over the past two seasons. He gutted through a brutal Tour last year, marred by crashes and one bad day in the Pyrénées, to equal his career-best of fifth. He’s showing more panache than ever, and despite having Froome get the better of him at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, a tougher, more mature van Garderen could well be knocking at the podium door this year.
Those pesky French will be back. No one would have guessed that not one, but two French riders would reach the Tour podium last year. The stars aligned for eternal sufferer Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r La Mondiale) last year, and it’s likely the constellations will not be so friendly this year, but Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r) are as real as the stench of freshly cured fromage.
And then there’s “Purito.” In 2013, Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) was so far back after the time trials that no one even took notice of him. Then he started knocking at the door and before you knew it, he was on the podium. This year’s Tour has the fewest time trial miles since the time trial was invented, and that’s music to Rodríguez’s ears. For a rider who’s come so close to so many major wins in his career, he will be the darkest of the dark horses.
Cannondale-Garmin will be throwing darts at the dartboard to see what sticks, with Andrew Talansky, Daniel Martin, and Ryder Hesjedal all waiting in the wings to play spoiler.
And don’t look past Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). With everyone watching Quintana, Spain’s “Balaverde” could easily ride into a breakaway that could tip everything upside down.
And what about Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing), who’s being groomed as a major GC rider? Or Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), a pure climber if there ever was one? Or … or … or? The thing is, any one of these guys, and perhaps a few others, could surprise everyone. That’s the reality of today’s marginally gained, shaved-to-the-bone peloton. And with the Tour pouring it on, it makes it all but impossible to predict what will happen. Perhaps that’s the beauty of today’s peloton. The race isn’t a foregone conclusion before it starts.
This Tour is so hard — both at the front end packed with danger and at the back end packed with climbs — that almost anything could happen. All four of the “Fab Four” could end up being far from fabulous, opening the door for something truly magical to happen.
That’s hype and hyperbole at its finest, but come the Tour de France, you just gotta pour it on.