Last year, the three-way showdown between Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali never materialized, with crashes accounting for Froome and Contador before the race’s decisive stages. In the end, Nibali was left to cruise to victory, and he did, looking like he could have whistled a tune on route to a dominant yellow jersey.
This year, the same three protagonists are back, so we will hopefully get the showdown we were denied last year. And there’s more – added to the mix is Nairo Quintata, second in 2013, Giro winner last year, and the man most content with mountains and lack of time-trials.
So who wins? It’s impossible to call, but here are my thoughts and predictions.
Let’s begin with the defending champion, who has surprisingly (in my opinion) not featured in many people’s podium picks (at least, not the ones I’ve heard). Last year, Nibali won the race in dominant fashion, but didn’t have to go head to head against Froome or Contador. Part of bike racing is staying on the bike, and navigating the tricky tactical and technical aspects of the race, and Nibali has shown himself to be more than capable. This year’s race throws a few really tricky stages at riders in the first week, including more cobbles, and potentially some wind and rain. The Italian is most likely to get through that to be there in the Pyrenees and Alps.
He’s also one of only two active riders who has won all three Grand Tours, so the ability to time the peak, the sustain it, and manage his physiology through three weeks is not in question. His most recent Grand tour victories have been dominant, too.
His form is what has most people questioning his 2015 credentials, but I don’t see that. Last year, he was nowhere, right through the Dauphine, and then he won the Italian jersey and swept the Tour. This year, his Dauphine campaign might have been worse overall (he was 7th in 2014, 2:12 down, compared to 12th, 4:32 down this year), but he showed signs that weren’t there in 2012, putting himself in yellow before paying for his efforts to fall back. I’d say his preparation is at least the same as 2014, and that means he’ll be at close to his 2014 level.
That level is certainly good enough to win. For all the accusations of pseudoscience (here’s looking at you Dave B and JournalVelo – wink), I believe in the general accuracy of our performance data over the course of the race, and what that shows is that Nibali was riding last year’s mountains at the same (or higher) level as Froome or Contador in the years before him. Specifically, Ammattipyoraily had Nibali averaging 5.99W/kg for the major climbs, compared to 5.96W/kg for Froome in 2013. Contador was 6.07W/kg in 2009.
Now, aside from what those numbers mean, and their physiological feasibility (there’ll be plenty of time for that in the next few weeks), the point is that the difference between the riders is within the error of the measurement, certainly, but suggest that Nibali wasn’t a notch below Froome and Contador’s best abilities. And most tellingly, he didn’t need to be there in 2014 – he could have won it at a significantly lower level. That suggests more to come, and it’s the reason I’d put Nibali on my podium without hesitation.
Quintana is the only one of the big four who hasn’t won the Tour before, but he does have a second in 2013, and won the Giro last year. His climbing credentials make him a favourite for 2014. His form is even more difficult to gauge than Nibali’s, given his relative absence from the circuit. That actually drew some pointed questions by Nibali (the irony is not lost on anyone), and a response from Quintana, where he said he doesn’t need to be in Europe to train at altitude. That’s fair enough, and let’s be honest – there’s about as much testing in Tenerife as there probably is in Colombia.
Anyway, back to Quintana – his most recent race was a defeat to Contador, but it came thanks to an attack by the Spaniard on the descent, not the climb, so it’s not really an indication of his true form. There’s nothing to suggest that Quintana will not be in contention on every climb, put it that way, and given that he may lose minimal time in the team-time trial, he has to be a contender for the overall win. In fact, I’d make him the safest podium bet of the four.
Froome was the Dauphine in June, holding off a spirited challenge from Tejay van Garderen. Winning the Dauphine in peak form is never a good thing – it means you have to hold your peak for six weeks. However, winning it as you are coming into form and fitness is a very good thing, and time will tell which of those applies to Froome.
History says Froome knows how to prepare – twice he has been good enough to win the race. The first time he had to sacrifice his ambitions for the “greater good” (that is, Bradley Wiggins). The second he won it with huge performances in the mountains. The dominance he showed that year has been harder to come by since, with crashes (2014 TDF) and bad days (Dauphine 2014) costing him. However, he’s won numerous races, and beaten his rivals often enough that he will be confident in his climbing ability.
The big question around Contador is whether he can double, after winning what all the pros described as a brutally tough Giro in May? That double is rarely achieved, for the obvious reason that physiology stretched out over so many months invariably breaks at some point. Contador will have gone away from the Giro with a need to recover, and then rebuild to ‘re-peak’ and that’s a mighty tough thing to do.
He did beat Quintana in a warm-up event, but I got the impression that both were holding their ammunition back. He has been, for some time, the pre-eminent stage racer, and so will surely feature in some way. However, he has also shown a penchant for a really bad day once in a while, including at this year’s Giro, and the 2013 Tour de France, and one such day will cost him this year.
I suspect the three weeks of the Tour will be perhaps a week too far, and that bad day, perhaps costing two to three minutes, will see his chances disappear.
Harsh to group them as “the rest”, but I don’t want to write a mini-thesis predicting the race, but there’s a group of men off the level of the top four who may well feature in breakthrough performances. Tejay van Garderen pushed Froome at the Dauphine, but found himself consistently a few seconds off. If he can find a little more, he’s a podium threat for sure. The French have Romain Bardet and Thibault Pinot to cheer for, and both have shown form and promise, so that could well provide an interesting sub-plot.
Overall, though, I suspect they concede small time just too often to scare the yellow jersey contest. Stage wins, mountains jerseys, and maybe provoking some anxiety (Bardet comes to mind for his willingness to attack a descent, as we saw in the Dauphine) will be their contributions.
Right, so some predictions. There is nothing to these other than feel, so feel free to disagree. My podium, assuming everyone gets around without injury or accident is:
- Vincenzo Nibali
- Nairo Quintana
- Chris Froome
The reasons are described above – I think a good Nibali, like the one we saw last year, is good enough to beat everyone else. It’s a bit of a wildcard call, however – I would say that Quintana is the most likely to podium, and probably also most likely to win, but I’m going with the wildcard because why conform?
Contador doesn’t feature only because of the risk of that one really bad day. The four names are really interchangeable though, it could just as easily go Froome – Contador – Quintana. I’m predicting only for the sake of it. If I’m right, I’ll remind you, and if I’m wrong, we’ll all forget anyway! Such is the nature and folly of prediction!
The feasibility of the Tour
Then finally, the Tour has been a platform to discuss the feasibility of performances for some time now. Ever since 2009, when Contador flew up the Verbier and Greg Lemond challenged him to prove his VO2max would allow this, I have focused on the analysis of the mountain performances as a window into doping.
This analysis has really evolved in recent years, and guys like Ammattipyoraily and Dr Mike Puchowicz have taken the insight to a new level. In fact, we were even featured in a New York Times piece on it in 2013 (Hi Andy Coggan, Ed Coyle, thinking of you guys).
We’ll do that again this year, but I can promise you this already: It’s not going to give you revelationary insights and earth-shattering discoveries. I’m going to emphasize, as I’ve done numerous times before, that we must avoid the dangers of ‘performance pixellation’, and look at the bigger picture and the trends, not the minute details that this analysis doesn’t allow us to do.
So before the race even starts, if you’re interested in an ongoing discussion, I’d encourage you to read these:
- The origins of the analysis and the performance implications
- Avoiding pixelation, but also how not to choose blindness just because you can’t have 20/20 vision
- All my other Tour de France posts dating back to 2009 can be found here
Enjoy the racing