The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Both the Grand Tour ‘double’ and the Hour Record are back in vogue. Barely a week passes without a rider announcing that he will attempt some combination of two of the three Grand Tours, or an assault on The Hour. This is to be welcomed.
Rigoberto Uran has become the latest big name to announce a tilt at a Grand Tour double next season. pic: Offside-L'Equipe
Most recently, Rohan Dennis (BMC) has announced his intention to attempt the Hour and Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) has confirmed that he will tackle the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France next year. By doing so, both have joined a growing queue that includes, respectively, Jack Bobridge and Nairo Quintana - though Uran’s countryman will not defend his Giro crown but instead target a Tour-Vuelta double.
On the double
Only nine riders in the history of the sport have achieved a Grand Tour ‘double’ in a single year, and nobody has won all three in one season. This second statistic is unlikely to change in 2015, with each of the heavyweights offered €1m by Oleg Tinkov to ride all three dismissing the challenge.
Alberto Contador’s announcement that he will attempt to win both the Giro and the Tour next season has, however, restored some of the double's allure, after the previous generation dismissed it as incompatible with the specialism of the modern era. Interestingly, the Giro-Tour double, arguably the most challenging, given their proximity on the calendar and the severity of the respective parcours, has been the double completed most often, if 'often' is the correct phrase to describe the achievement of just seven riders (Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Roche, Indurain, Pantani).
The Grand Tour double's return to popularity may have come in part by accident after Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez and Dan Martin all recovered from earlier misfortune to ride strongly at the Vuelta. pic: Offside-L'Equipe
A winner of all three Grand Tours, and a 'double' winner in 2008 , when he claimed the Giro and the Vuelta, Contador is one of only a handful of current riders with the pedigree to repeat the achievement (significantly, Conatador's double came during a year in which his Astana team was not invited to the Tour, ending his chances of defending the title; might he have won all three that year?). Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is the only other member of today's peloton to have won all three Grand Tours, but, unlike Contador, each of his triumphs came in separate seasons. He has declared for the Tour alone in 2015.
Uran’s challenge is not as serious, though the Colombian will not be overlooked at the Giro, having finished second in the last two editions. Quintana, too, is unlikely to start the Tour in the front rank of favourites, although Movistar’s strategy of placing Valverde in a senior supporting role might prove interesting.
Cometh the Hour…
The Hour Record had been devalued by what was perceived as regulation amounting to restriction. A more enlightened sport might have welcomed the technical arms race that unfolded between Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree in the early 1990s and celebrated the ingenuity of two closely matched athletes. By turning back the clock and insisting that riders used the same machinery that Merckx had at his disposal for his 1972 record, administrators at once removed much of the prestige from the event. The complete primacy of the athlete had been restored, but at a cost: subsequent generations who had grown up competing in track endurance races on low profile bikes had no interest in racing for 60 minutes on an ‘upright’.
Jens Voigt was the first rider to improve the Hour Record under the new regulations. pic: Offside-L'Equipe
The new regime’s revised regulations feel like the right balance and have captured the imagination of of a new generation of riders and the bike manufacturers who supply them (Trek will have gained much from the German’s improvement of the record in Aigle in September; Scott’s failure to gain the same publicity from Matthias Brändle’s superior attempt feels like an opportunity squandered).
To be brief, the bike must meet the technical stipulations applicable to the type of machinery used in pursuit races. For Voigt and Trek, this meant a reconfiguration of the Wisconsin firm’s Speed Concept road time trial bike; for Brändle, a revised Scott Plasma 5. Another of the industry’s major players is about to enter the Hour Record arena, Rouleur understands.
Sarah Storey is the first female rider to announce an attempt on the Hour under the new regulations. UCI President Cookson has made little secret of his delight at Storey’s candidacy. Such is her pedigree, a benchmark set by Britain’s most decorated Paralympian would be of real merit, and its potential to inspire the likes of Joanna Rowsell or even Marianne Vos cannot be discounted.
The more things change…
What other trends from bygone eras might return? Mark Cavendish contested this year’s Ghent Six with OPQS team-mate (and five-time winner), Iljo Keisse, in an echo of Merckx’s off-season engagements with Patrick Sercu. And on the road, Movistar will send both Quintana and Valverde to the Tour and the Vuelta next season, though they will hope for a relationship more akin to that of Delgado and Indurain than the ill-starred pairings of LeMond and Hinault, or Wiggins and Froome.
Does Bradley Wiggins have an era-uniting trump card to play next season? Bernard Hinault was the last Tour champion to win Paris-Roubaix, in 1981. pic: Offside-L'Equipe
The Hour looks set to dominate headlines in the coming months, however, with contenders perhaps cognisant of the need to get in quick before Bradley Wiggins makes his attempt in June. Does Wiggins have an era-uniting trump card of his own to play? Paris-Roubaix is in his plans for 2015. The last Tour de France winner to triumph in l’enfer du Nord was Hinault, in 1981. Wiggins’ ride there in April suggests his ambition is not far fetched.