It’s late January, so naturally, we’re not even thinking about the spring classics. That would be too obvious. No, we’re already pondering the Tour de France.
In our mind, it keeps coming back to Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar). Those two heavyweights –that’s metaphorically, skinny climber guys — are the key to the race.
By that time in July, Sky’s Chris Froome may or may not be riding the Tour. Perhaps a legal miracle will occur and his twice-the-limit salbutamol debacle will be decided one way or another. A suspension and he’s out of the French grand tour and deep into various forms of torture and misery.
If the matter is not decided — and that’s everyone’s educated guess — then Froome will be doing his impersonation of Alberto Contador, swapping the salbutamol for the clenbuterol. A tainted Spanish steak for an asthma inhaler. It’s going to get ugly and bizarre and sad.
Either way — and hang on, we’re getting to Vince and Nairo — if Froome rides the Tour, there will be a massive shitstorm of controversy and you can bet Sky won’t be throwing any press conferences. I wouldn’t want to be in Froome’s skin for those four weeks of media abuse and roadside anger. We just have a feeling that fate will intervene and knock Froome out of the tour with a crash or sickness or an advanced case of psychological exhaustion.
Which brings us back to Nibali and Quintana. Who would we put our money on? Nibali was mighty impressive in the 2014 Tour he won when Froome crashed out on stage five. In miserable conditions, he put major time into his rivals during the cobblestone stage, providing yet another display of his superb bike handling skills.
He was never, ever, in any really danger in that Tour, with both Froome and Contador hors de combat. Is he ready to come back, four years later and win his second Tour de France? Froome will be coming off an exhausting Giro d’Italia and this Tour promises, along with the usual agonies, 15 sectors and 27 kilometers of cobbles. That’s basically a half Paris- Roubaix –and the Shark from Messina is not one to miss a rare opportunity like this.
Then there’s Nairo Quintana, a man who must first beat back the challenge from within his own squad. We’ll be hearing five months of make-nice from the Colombian and new signing Mikel Landa but everyone anticipates that show of solidarity will crack in France. The old “road will decide” argument is a handy one, but we’re not convinced these two want to wait for the road to offer an opinion before they take destiny into their own hands. (See Alberto Contador, Lance Armstrong, 2009 Tour de France.)
In the battle between Quintana and Landa, we’ll put our money on the guy who’s been on the podium twice already. It’s one thing for Landa to say he could have taken third place in last year’s Tour — and he probably should have — but it’s another thing to have the responsibility of captain at Le Grand Shindig, the biggest, most pressure-packed and intense grand tour of them all. Our bet is the Colombian will be the top dog come July and the Sueño Amarillo will be dreamy again.
That sets up a fascinating battle between two men who understand the unique race situation they see in front of them. A tired Froome, a mentally taxed Froome, a Froome worn down by months of innuendo, character assassination and lawyer-induced stupor. Quintana and Nibali can’t wait to hit the turbo charger and attack.
For Nibali, it’s a chance to prove that his first Tour victory wasn’t a fluke. This seems a bit silly given that Froome will either be prevented from starting or mentally and physically wiped out before he even hits France. A second win under those circumstances hardly illustrates the Nibali is the best rider in the Tour. We expect an insanely motivated Nibali on the start line but that’s not where our money goes.
Now, of those two men, who has more to prove in Le Tour? After two miserable fails in a row, including his wildly misguided Giro-Tour double attempt, it would seem to be put up or shut up time for Quintana. The arrival of a serious Movistar plan B in the form of Mikel Landa only ratchets up the pressure and expectations. That leads us to believe that Quintana will show up in the form of his life, eager and ready to demonstrate that he’s the best pure climber in pro cycling. He simply has more on the line than Nibali.