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.
The Tour route
The 2015 tour can be divided into four phases. The first takes the riders from the start in Utrecht, across Belgium and Northern France to Brittany. The second consists of the Pyrenean stages. The third, a lumpy series of transition stages, crosses the Massif Central and the Rhône Valley to finish in Gap, in the foothills of the Alps. And the final phase is the most brutal – four alpine stages. There’s also the final stage into Paris, although this is traditionally a (very fast) procession and sprint, with the general classification already settled.
A classic opener
The opening week of the Tour used to consist of a prologue, a series of flat sprints, occasionally a team time trial and often a long, flat time trial. But since Christian Prudhomme and Thierry Gouvenou took over from Jean-Marie Leblanc and Jean-François Pescheux as the Tour’s president and route designer respectively, the race has sought more variety and unpredictability in the first week by using territory that is more traditionally associated with the classics – cobbles and short, sharp hills – together with uphill sprints.
These changes have made the opening week a compelling spectacle. In 2014, the best excitement of the tour was in these stages, while the mountain stages were more predictable and formulaic, albeit as televisual, brutal and beautiful as ever. The early stages arguably had more of an effect on the race, as well – Nibali won the race in the first week, and confirmed his superiority in the mountains. He was the strongest climber in the 2014 event, especially once Froome and Contador were out, but his performance in the first week meant that he didn’t need to be.
It’s difficult to stress how chaotic and varied the opening nine days of the 2015 tour are going to be. The race starts with a flat time trial in Utrecht, slightly longer than a normal tour prologue, although the gaps between the favourites should not be any more than 20 seconds. Stage 2 is also flat but if the wind is blowing, the bunch could be split into several pieces. Stage 3: a steep uphill finish at the Mur de Huy, along with a complicated run-in. And then come the cobbles, on stage 4 to Cambrai, with 13 kilometres of pavé in total, most of which come in the final 50 kilometres.
While the anticipation is obviously sky-high, there’s one problem with this new trend in Tour route design, and that is the prevalence of crashes. Crashes have always happened in the first week of the Tour, and the relationship between the recent inclusion of classics territory and crashes is not exactly causal. The pressure is higher every year at the Tour as the race gains in size and the stakes get higher, and that would translate into a nervous peloton whether riding over a series of hills or cobbled sectors, or on a flat, wide road into a sprint finish. After all, Bradley Wiggins crashed out of the 2011 tour on the most straightforward stage of the race up to that point, a flat run to Châteauroux, having survived several uphill finishes.
Brit Mark Cavendish crashed out in the first stage of last year’s Tour
However, there’s another recent trend: the GC teams are riding at the front of the race deep into the final kilometres
of the opening stages, until the safety net of 3km to go marker, after which riders affected by crashes receive the same time as the group they were in. This tactic was spearheaded by BMC, protecting Cadel Evans, during the 2011 Tour, and it was very effective. So effective, in fact, that a lot of teams have started doing it. Sky picked up the tactic in 2012 and at the recent Giro d’Italia the Tinkoff, Astana and Sky trains were all riding in front of, and in among the sprinters’ trains on some of the flat stages, especially in the opening week.
With 3km to go, they would melt back into the peloton, their job done, but it’s disruptive to the sprinters’ teams. On top of this, the sprinters’ teams are not riding as they were even five years ago. Up to around 2010, a single team tended to dominate and control the final 10 kilometres but now sprinters’ teams are co-ordinated to attack at different points over the final five kilometres to try to usurp whichever team is currently leading. In short, it’s absolute chaos at the front of the peloton these days, and the classics-style territory is just one more disrupting factor among many.
Following the cobbles, things calm down a little bit. A trio of flat stages, to Amiens, Le Havre and Fougères will see the sprinters’ teams assume control again. Amiens and Fougères should be straightforward. Not so Le Havre, where the road rises from sea level to 75 metres in the run-up to the line.
The final two stages of the first phase of the race also have uphill finishes. The climb above the town of Mûr de Bretagne for stage 8 is a steep, two-kilometre haul. It’s longer than the Mur de Huy, where stage 3 finishes and it will likely see the GC riders contesting the stage win, as they did when the Tour finished here previously in 2011.
Stage 9 could also be crucial. It’s a short team time trial, just 28 kilometres long, but with a hard uphill finish. This is set to be different to any team time trial we’ve seen in the Tour in modern history. The TTT has traditionally taken place in the opening few days of the race, while teams are generally intact. However, for the 2015 test, it’s not out of the question that some of the teams riding the team time trial will be starting with seven or even fewer riders, a huge disadvantage. and that’s before taking into account the two mid-stage climbs and the final climb, the Côte de Cadoudal, which is just under two kilometres long, at an average gradient of 6.2 per cent. In 2011, the 23-kilometre team time trial saw four other teams within five seconds of Garmin’s winning time. That is not going to happen in 2015.
Following a rest day and a long transfer from Brittany to the far south of France, the riders will hit phase two of the race – three stages in the Pyrenees. there’s a triple whammy of Pyrenean stages in 2015 which would be worthy of a race finale even though we’re barely halfway through the race. Each finishes on a summit: the more straightforward third category climb of Cauterets on stage 11 is sandwiched by the hors catégorie giants of La Pierre St Martin and Plateau de Beille, which finish off stages 10 and 12 respectively.
The Pierre St Martin stage will hit the peloton hard. After a hard opening week, transfer and rest day, they have a rolling but largely unchallenging 140 kilometres to race on their first day back in the saddle, then the climb straight up La Pierre St Martin. Some riders don’t deal too well with the first day after a rest day. Still more riders don’t deal too well with a long, flat stage followed by a hors catégorie climb – this is known as a changement de rythme. This stage could offer us the result that is least consistent with the others.
The Cauterets stage will take the riders over the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet, the highest pass in the Pyrenees, making it another crucial day, but the third Pyrenean stage, to Plateau de Beille, is yet harder. Plateau de Beille is one of the three or four toughest summit finishes regularly used by the Tour – it’s two kilometres longer than Alpe d’Huez but has a similar average gradient.
Plateau de Beille
Time for a break
Phase three of the race, across the Massif central to Gap, will probably mainly be contested by breakaways, but there are still likely to be GC skirmishes, especially on the steep climb to Mende in the finale of stage 14, and on the tricky descent of the Col de Manse into gap.
The fourth phase is ludicrously hard, with a quartet of hard alpine stages, including three summit finishes. Stage 17 celebrates the 40th anniversary of Bernard Thévenet beating Eddy Merckx in the 1975 tour by reprising the stage to Pra-Loup where the Belgian rider cracked. The cat 1 Col d’Allos is hard, as is the cat 2 finishing climb, but the Allos descent is narrow, twisting and hard work. The next stage crosses the hors catégorie Col du Glandon and second category Lacets de Montvernier climb, just before the finish in St Jean de Maurienne.
The final two mountain stages also demonstrate a recent trend in Tour route planning: the abbreviated mountain stage. Stage 19, over the Col de la Croix de Fer to the summit finish at la Toussuire, is only 138km, while the penultimate stage, to Alpe d’Huez over the Col du Galibier covers 110km.
It could be argued that the 2015 Tour is too hard. In total, there are 26 climbs of second category and above this year. That compares with 24 in 2014 and 27 in 2013, so there’s no significant difference in the number of climbs. However, the route is heavily skewed towards summit finishes this year. The Giro and Vuelta have each experimented with multiple summit finishes in the last few years, and while there are a number of factors in play, in general the mountain stages merely reinforce what has gone before, with the strongest climbers dominating. This year’s tour has nine uphill finishes, not including the team time trial. Three of these are only third category climbs but they are still hard enough that the strongest climbers can snuff out any more nuanced tactics by their rivals.
The logical conclusion is that the 2015 tour will be won by a climber, even with the chaotic, tactical opening nine days to take into account. This is perfect as the four main contenders are all good climbers. One of these climbers will win, but the opening nine days, plus the transition across the Massif Central, also ensure that it might not be the strongest climber who wins, but the cleverest.
Tour de France begins on Saturday 4th July on ITV4 from 1pm
This article was originally published in Procycling magazine.