The Tour de France attracts interest like no other race and an unrivalled degree of coverage. If “hope dies last” then hype might be born first. Certainly the Tour can be over-promoted but the excitement is justified right now.
The Big Four of Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana have been talked up all year but now the talk turns to action. All four appear in good health and ready to challenge.
For the last few years the Tour de France has begun with a series of favourites nailed on to win. Too certain with hindsight but a year ago Chris Froome’s odds were priced at evens, the same story in 2013. Ditto 2012, only with Bradley Wiggins. Bookmakers don’t mean everything but the prices reflected a certain inevitability. Prior to each race the greater uncertainty concerned who would finish on the podium.
Now a big question is who won’t finish on the podium. Who among Nibali, Froome, Contador and Quintana is excluded? Doubt’s over Nibali’s form have been soothed with his win in the Italian championship. Someone could crash out and someone will be dropped in the mountains but for now that’s anyone’s guess. Run the scenarios in your mind and the only way to settle the four riders on the podium dilemma is to imagine Bernard Hinault giving one of them a shove.
Since the start of the season we’ve were promised a clash of the Big Four and denied it in Tirreno-Adriatico when Chris Froome fell ill and skipped the race; Nibali’s sluggish start to the season didn’t help either with no wins until last weekend and 22nd place in the early contest on Monte Terminillo. Now all four are on their way to Utrecht this week in good health and promising form. The contest we’ve been looking forward to is going to happen.
Better still it’s more than a four rider race. Tejay van Garderen has shown he can almost match Chris Froome on the climbs. Thibaut Pinot’s progress continues and L’Equipe place him alongside the Big Four, a commercial or nationalist touch but he is good and FDJ these days leave a lot less to chance. Meanwhile Romain Bardet is getting better too; new Spanish champion Alejandro Valverde’s cohabitation with Nairo Quintana is interesting; Joaquim Rodriguez gets what could be his last tilt at the Tour de France on a course that finally suits him. There’s a long list of others to explore in a proper preview.
The exception to this perfect anticipation comes in the sprints. Marcel Kittel was set to be the sprint king of 2015 only he’s not starting the Tour de France and apparently still fuming about Giant-Alpecin’s selection decision. Still, his season-long problems means his absence is perhaps easier to accept rather than a last minute injury depriving us of those sprint royales that only the Tour de France seems to deliver. Nacer Bouhanni’s crash in sight of the finish line of the French championships could have brought a greater shock, the latest is that he’s sore but there’s nothing broken so he’s trekking to Utrecht. All the other sprinters seem ready with Mark Cavendish able to drop the likes of Ian Stannard in the British championships.
The first week will be a lot more than a series of sprints. Gone is the ritual of repetitive sprint finishes as the team of Christian Prudhomme and Thierry Gouvenou have worked hard to ensure le spectacle happens every day, or at least to provide the necessary ingredients. We get a spicy opening week sprinkled with cobbles, uphill finishes and, weather permitting, exposed roads where crosswinds can shred the bunch. All this is promising but with an air of danger. The fear of a crash or losing time thanks to a split in the bunch creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where teams and riders try to fight their way to the front of the bunch and this contest provokes a crash, completing the vicious circle. We want the varied terrain to test the riders but not to break them.
There may have been other open editions of the Tour de France in recent years but they’ve often lacked depth. Take 2011 which was billed as a binary battle between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck. This isn’t to undermine Cadel Evans’ ultimate victory, rather we did not have as much to anticipate before the race. This time we have The Gotha of cycling royalty going to Utrecht.
Sport is an exercise in hierarchy and the Tour de France will impose an order on the Big Four and everyone else. For now there’s no obvious pick to win and that’s something to celebrate. We have four champions together, a top bill that’s been exciting for months but finally happening for real. The stars are aligned.