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The Tour is not enough

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Photographs: Simon Wilkinson

One Grand Tour may no longer be enough for the three men vying for stage race dominance in the current era – or for team owner/agent provocateur, Oleg Tinkov.
The Russian oligarch’s challenge to the contenders for cycling’s three-week races – to contest all three in a single season – may not have met with universal approval, but for two of the leading men at least, challenging for two, it seems, is not without appeal. The notion of targeting more than one of the sport’s biggest races – thrust into the spotlight by Tinkov, and validated by former multiple winners, Roche and Hinault – gained new impetus yesterday with the unveiling of the route for the 2015 Tour de France.
Will the inclusion of cobbles in the 2015 Tour de France allow Vincenzo Nibali to walk away from the opposition for a second consecutive year? pic: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com
Alberto Contador went public with his ambition to attempt next year’s Giro d’Italia and Tour de France soon after the unveiling of the 2015 corsa rosa earlier this month. The big reveal yesterday of the latest Tour parcours has done little to dampen his enthusiasm, it seems. In a public statement, the Spaniard noted the severity of the course but, perhaps more significantly, the importance of post-Giro recovery.
The greater surprise arrived with Chris Froome’s admission that the Tour may not feature on his itinerary next year, and a sizeable hint that an attempt at a Giro-Vuelta double may command his attention instead. The 2013 Tour winner, who, like Contador, did not attend yesterday’s star-studded ceremony at the Parisian Palais de Congrès, said in a statement that while a cobbled fourth stage did not concern him, a significant reduction in the number of kilometres contested against the clock – just 14 of them, on the opening stage in Utrecht – would demand serious consideration. In the same statement, he hinted at the very real possibility of attempting the Giro and the Vuelta.
Clearly, the Team Sky leader feels that his principal advantage over his rivals lies in the individual time trial, rather than in the mountains. The view is a little surprising. Froome was beaten by Contador and Alejandro Valverde in both time trials at this year’s Vuelta (and even by Rodriguez in the short, final stage test) after all, but may prefer to base his opinion on his best condition (victories against all comers in ITTs at this year’s Tour de Romandie and Dauphiné). 
Equally surprising is that the five summit finishes at next year’s Tour do not tempt Froome (though the six in the Giro clearly appeal). While Contador rode away from him to seal overall victory on the climb to Puerto de Anacares, Froome’s ability to remain in contention while below par was arguably the revelation of this year’s Vuelta – ignoring the accelerations of his rivals in favour of riding at his own tempo, and almost always regaining contact. Only at the denouement of the aforementioned twentieth stage was he unable to ride back up to El Pistolero. Froome in peak condition is at his best when the road rises, with numerous examples, the most memorable of which, of course, came on the Ventoux at the 2013 Tour. 
Nibali has refused to confirm his programme yet, though the notion that he will not defend his Tour title seems fanciful, especially given yesterday’s announcement that a cobbled stage will again form part of the parcours. He made light work of the ferocious surfaces of northern France last time out and will be the least troubled of the favourites by the return of the pavé next year. While The Shark took a sizeable bite from the ambitions of his rivals as early as stage two, it was on the cobbled fifth stage from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut that overall victory first seemed a realistic possibility. Such was the strength of his display, riding confidently to third place on the stage, expertly guided by super domestique, Jakob Fuglsang, that Froome’s departure before the even reaching the pave seemed increasingly to be a side issue. 
For both Contador and Nibali, winners already of each of the Grand Tours, the challenge of claiming two in a season must offer very real interest, despite Nibali’s public reticence (received wisdom has it that his young team-mate and countryman, Fabio Aru, will lead Astana’s charge at the Giro). The Spaniard is open about his ambition, though far from underestimating its scale. Froome’s statement on the day the Tour route was unveiled, however, has added a new and fascinating dimension to a debate whose tenor has risen significantly in recent months, not least as a result of Tinkoff’’s unfailing appetite for spectacle.
Team Sky may feel they have unfinished business at the Giro, and Froome clearly has unfinished business at the Vuelta, after two second placed finishes in races he might realistically have hoped to win. For all three giants of the modern era of stage racing, tailoring a season around a single Grand Tour appears increasingly untenable. The specialism of the Armstrong era, and what may come to be seen as ‘early Sky’, may be drawing to a close. Nibali’s achievement this year in becoming only the sixth rider in the history of the sport to win all three Grand Tours may have stoked greater, and different ambitions among his rivals than relentlessly targeting the Tour. Race organisers can claim some of the credit too: the Vuelta has been the most exciting of the Grand Tours twice in the last three seasons (2102 and 2014), in the humble opinion of this correspondent. And the last two editions of the Giro have been enthralling (next year’s corsa rosa looks set to be a classic edition, too). 
Few will be disappointed by a trend that might pit the world’s greatest stage racers against each other over three weeks more than once a season. Nairo Quintana’s victory at the Giro earlier this year, followed by a promising Vuelta campaign curtailed by accident and injury, proved that it is possible to perform strongly in two Grand Tours in the modern era; Contador and Froome’s fast tracked return from injury to the top two steps of the Vuelta podium still more so. 
Tinkov, Contador’s employer, may speak for many cycling fans – and perhaps some of the biggest names in the sport, as well – when he says, the Tour is not enough. 

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