The Big Four
Every now and again, you get a Tour de France in which a generation of champions are all in their prime. Think back to the contests of the mid-1970s, when Eddy Merckx, Luis Ocaña, Bernard Thévenet, Felice Gimondi and Joop Zoetemelk, all past or future yellow jerseys, went head to head. Or the late 1980s, when Greg Lemond, Laurent Fignon, Pedro Delgado and Stephen Roche contested a series of exciting and high quality races.
There’s a similar sense of anticipation about 2015. A quartet of Grand Tour winners have targeted the race and all four can realistically hope to win the final yellow jersey in Paris on 26th July. It’s hard to look past Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana for the eventual winner. The bookies agree – at the time of writing, you couldn’t find a better price than 5/1 on Nibali, the fourth favourite; the fifth favourite, Joaquim Rodríguez, was 25/1.
Between them, these four have won 12 Grand Tours. One or other of them has won seven of the last eight, and in the exception, the 2013 Vuelta, Nibali was second by only 37 seconds.
The exciting thing is that, assuming the big four all get a clear run to the race, any one of them could win. Chris Froome out-climbed both Contador and Quintana when he won the 2013 tour and at his best, physically he is probably the strongest Grand Tour rider in the world, but he is tactically vulnerable and prone to crashing.
Chris Froome at the Critérium du Dauphiné last month, which he won
Contador is consistent, strong and tactically sharp, and has been the dominant Grand Tour rider of the last eight years but he is 32 now and may have his July peak compromised by the fact he has already won a tough edition of the Giro d’Italia. Nibali might not be such a spectacular climber but he’s tactically the sharpest of the four, descends faster and copes much better with the demands of the opening week – not coincidentally, he’s the only one of the four with a strong Classics pedigree.
Quintana, the youngest of the four, came in between Froome and Contador in the 2013 Tour, and won the 2014 Giro. Two years ago, aged just 23, he climbed almost as well as Froome and he is now stronger but his inexperience may count against him.
What makes the 2015 Tour an even more tantalising clash of champions is that this will be the first time all four have been in the same stage race. In fact, all four have only lined up together three times: the Worlds in 2012 and 2013, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2013. Nibali finished first of the four each time, which is unsurprising given that he is by far the superior one-day racer.
As last year’s Tour showed, crashes and bad luck can play as big a part as strength and tactics. But there are a few areas in which we can anticipate a hierarchy.
2015 is a climber’s Tour. Four hard days in the Alps mean that the strongest climber here wins the yellow jersey. Judging by recent Tour form, Froome is the strongest climber on paper, although he won’t put minutes into these rivals as he did to his competitors in 2013 for two reasons: they’re climbing better and he’s been doing so with less zip. The climbing margins are tight – it may come down less to talent and class than getting the training and the timing of attacks right.
None of the big four has a weakness in their teams. Sky, Tinkoff, Astana and Movistar all have strength in depth, along with climbing domestiques who could lead any of the other 18 Tour teams. Sky and Astana will be all-in for their leaders; Movistar will have a deputy leader in Alejandro Valverde, fourth last year. He won’t out-climb Quintana but he will have the freedom to ride his own race. Only Tinkoff will have split goals but Sagan’s green jersey campaign shouldn’t detract from Contador’s bid for yellow.
With the big four so close to each other in their climbing form and team strength, it may come down to tactics. it’s here that Nibali, who’s a less showy climber than the others, has an advantage. He correctly identified the opening week of the 2014 race as territory to take time out of his rivals. When Contador and Froome crashed out they were already on the back foot, and the Italian will be relishing the prospect of crosswinds, cobbles and classics-style racing between Holland and Brittany. He’ll lack the element of surprise this time round but he should still thrive.
In terms of form, Nibali has shown the least so far this season, just as he did in 2014, with a steadily improving but unspectacular series of results. He was 20th in Oman, 16th in Tirreno-Adriatico, 13th in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and 10th in Romandie. But the others have all won at least one stage race – Quintana beat Nibali and Contador to win Tirreno-Adriatico, Contador won the Giro and Froome won the Ruta del Sol.
The 2015 tour looks like a generation-defining moment in the race’s history. Whatever happens, the quality of the main contenders is the highest in many years. Better still, it sets us up for the tantalising prospect of an ongoing rivalry between four genuine champions.