It’s early February, most contenders are yet to race and it’s already started. Tourwatch.
First, at San Luis last week, Nairo Quintana was questioned about whether he was ready for the Tour de France after his ‘defeat’. (He finished third overall, which is pretty good in my books.) Elsewhere, there were stories that the 2015 Paris-Roubaix route has been designed to entice Tour de France hopefuls to the race because it features a few sectors of cobbles included in this summer’s race.
Most of the first half of the racing season is filled with speculation: who’s racing where and against which other contender, who’s going better and the repetition of each contender’s vague, tentative overall aims for July. Perhaps it’s down to the never-satiated, 24/7 news era we live in and the tabloidisation of the media.
No wonder Velon is worried about the current confusing, season-long narrative of cycling. I love the Tour, but it is already rather like the big plant in cycling’s metaphorical Little Shop of Horrors. Let’s make sure it doesn’t become all-consuming.
Are we heading towards a sport where all roads and races lead to the Tour, where a third place in the Volta a Catalunya is analysed to show that a contender is on track, but 13th place is off the pace? One where even an esteemed Classic like Paris-Roubaix offers a news angle towards the Tour, detracting from its own individual standing?
Cycling is more nuanced than that. Let smaller races and other WorldTour events live and breath on their own merits, geography, culture, prestige and history.
Unless a serious contender comes in 20 minutes down and 20 kilograms overweight, he should never be soaking up questions about Tour form at an early-season event. It’s far too soon to obsess about it, as we saw with Vincenzo Nibali last summer. While media, and even his team managers, fretted about his lack of wins, the Italian champion saved his best for the start line in Yorkshire. He must have enjoyed answering the mid-season naysayers with the maillot jaune.
To the premature question in San Luis, Quintana answered: “I feel pretty much in the same condition on these climbs as I did last year. I’m calm and confident because I know the path to the Tour de France is really long. This race is a starting point to gain form and confidence.”
What more could he say? There is no significant way of gauging form or gaining true insight so early. Everyone is only at 50 or 60 per cent. It's like asking Father Christmas in mid-June whether he's ready to make all the toys.
As the modern racing season starts earlier and finishes later, let the riders breath too. They know the Tour is the most important and prestigious race of the year; they and their trainers are already analysing performance enough.
It’s the same for fans: it’s all about delayed gratification. You risk burnout by keeping a gimlet eye on every contender’s result in March. Best to get obsessed in early June so you’re not jaded for the Grand Départ in Utrecht.
You could hardly blame a wannabe Tour winner for tacitly switching his focus to the Giro and Vuelta if it suits him. And that’s one last thing about such focus on the Tour: some people seem to have quickly forgotten that it was the least compelling Grand Tour of 2014.