For Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond, the world was not enough, even when offered on a plate by the beguiling Elektra King (Sophie Marceau). For Oleg Tinkov and the men vying for Grand Tour dominance in the current era, the Tour de France, it seems, is not enough either.
Attempted kidnappings, explosions, and dastardly plans to trigger nuclear meltdown may be absent from elite cycling (so far), but evidence that merely contesting the sport’s greatest prize is no longer sufficient for a select group of stage race specialists – or for a certain Russian financier – is impossible to ignore.
The fall out from last week’s unveiling of the 2015 Tour parcours, and, more specifically, Chris Froome’s response to it, in a statement issued from a team building day in Weymouth, rather than in person at the Palais de Congrès, has begun what might prove to be a strategic battle between the 2013 champion, his rivals, and the ASO of which any thriller writer would be proud. As Christian Prudhomme might have it, “I expect you to ride, Mr Froome.”
Christian Prudhomme: “I expect you to ride, Mr Froome.” 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 last week of the new 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 Italian job, he had already observed in a masterful opening gambit, was one well-suited to Froome. The Cold War has begun.
The greater surprise arrived with Froome’s announcement 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. His statement came hot on the heels of the ASO’s unveiling of, among other challenges, a cobbled stage for the second year in succession. Many had feared for his safety on such a demanding surface last year, but like a villain despatched by Commander Bond as early as scene five, the 2013 winner exited long before the climax. Now his return for the sequel is in doubt.
Of more pressing concern to the Team Sky leader than cobbles, it seems, is the significant reduction in the number of kilometres contested in the time trial. The race against the clock is an essential plot device in any thriller, and like the best characters, Froome may be bargaining for more time. The Italian race would certainly hand it to him, with an individual time trial of 59.2km, rather than the scant 14km of timed action offered by the assignment in Utrecht.
Clearly, Froome 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. After all, Froome was beaten by Contador and Alejandro Valverde (the Movistar leader himself no stranger to undercover Operacións) in both time trials at this year’s Vuelta (and even by the feared ‘Purito’ in the short, final stage test).
No Bond-style thriller is complete without the presence of a shark, and here at least ASO can rely upon reigning champion, Vincenzo Nibali, to defend his title. Greater uncertainty surrounds his participation in the Giro. A winner of all three Grand Tours, and blessed with the looks of a matinee idol, organisers of each race will hope to secure Nibali’s participation, but might Astana central casting be considering a new candidate for the leading role? The youthful Fabio Aru would certainly gain the support of studio bosses at RCS.
Mystery and intrigue is likely to surround the start list for next season’s Grand Tours for some time to come, but who will emerge as heroes when the dust has settled? Tinkov has offered the peloton’s leading men a prize of €1m for contesting all three Grand Tours, but a lack of interest from Contador, Froome, and Nibali, suggests that the prize is not enough. It remains to be seen if, for any of the three, a single Grand Tour next season will be either.
STAT’S THE WAY, UH HUH UH HUH
Number of riders offered support by the Dave Rayner Fund since 1996 – 339
Number of DRF-funded riders who have since ridden for Team Sky – 3
Number of DRF-funded riders who have since worked as mechanics for Team Sky – 2
Methods by which Chris Froome might be persuaded to ride the 2015 Tour de France
Methods by which Christian Prudhomme might be persuaded to bring the Tour back to London
A visual tribute to some of the riders supported by the Dave Rayner Fund