Great news for cycling as we head into the 102nd Tour de France, which begins with Saturday’s flat-as-a-cheeseboard time trial in the Dutch city of Utrecht: It’s someone else’s turn to wear the doping Cone of Shame. While allegations against Alberto Salazar have roiled track and field; while the doping guru behind Operacion Puerto has admitted having numerous clients in the upper reaches of pro soccer and tennis, cycling itself has been enjoying a period of almost-calm, in which the focus has been on the racing, and the controversies relatively benign.
No, the Union Cycliste Internationale recently told Team Sky’s Christopher Froome, you may not repose each night of the Tour in the five-star motor home the club had designed for you: to do so, ruled the governing body, would give the ‘13 Tour champion an unfair advantage over the common proles forced to bunk in hotels.
Froome can endure a dash of privation. He is a Kenyan-born Brit whose earliest training rides were in the Great Rift Valley. “We’d spend the morning going down, and spend the rest of the day coming back up again,” he told SI last year. Froome is one of a quartet of strong favorites going into this year’s race. Filling out the so-called Fab Four are Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador, who has won a jaw-dropping seven grand tours in his career, last May’s Giro d’Italia being the most recent; rising Colombian star Nairo Quintana of the Movistar team, and defending Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali of Astana.
Nibali has had less turbulent off-seasons. Since descending from the top rung of the podium on the Champs-Élysées last July, he has seen five riders with Astana ties suspended for “adverse anyalytical findings.” Yes, we stated earlier that cycling has begun to distance itself from its drug-drenched past. That doesn’t mean, alas, that the entire pro peloton has found the scruples of Ned Flanders. Astana in particular, seems unable to escape its past. With a team manager, Alexander Vinokourov, who was booted from the ’07 tour for homologous blood doping; with 17 of its former and present riders revealed by the Italian paper La Gazzetta dello Sport last December to have ties with banned doctor Michele Ferrari, the team in turquoise seems to carry a propensity for doping in its DNA, dating back to its days as Liberty Seguros. Expecting Astana to suddenly hew to the straight and narrow is like expecting Slytherin House to host a fundraiser for stray kittens.
That does not make defending champion Nibali cycling’s Draco Malfoy. The two look nothing alike. Not only is he clean, Nibali insisted to The Guardian in a recent interview, but his sport is “the cleanest sport because of all the doping controls.”
“Today we have a biological passport, regular doping control, race controls. If you are doping, you will be caught … Risking and cheating today is for stupid people.”
Of the ’15 Tour’s four pre-race favorites, Nibali has done the least so far this season, muddling through the Tour of Dubai in 90th place, flashing inconsistent form at last month’s Criterium du Dauphine, won by Froome. To deflect attention from himself, possibly, and get inside the Movistar rider’s head, Nibali asked reporters at the Dauphine, rhetorically, “And where is Quintana?” While Nibali, Froome and Contador were putting in miles in Tenerife before the Dauphine, Quintana had chosen to train at altitude in his native Colombia. The Sicilian seemed to be implying that his young rival had stayed in South America to elude drug-testers.
Pointing out that he’d spent two months racing in Europe earlier in the season, Quintana explained to the Dutch paper Het Nieuwsblad–quite reasonably, it seemed–that “I can not spend a year away from my family, my friends, my world.”
Besides, he’d made rather a dramatic impression on Nibali during those two months, particularly on the fifth day of the Italian stage race Tirreno-Adriatico, when Quintana tore the legs off his rivals, attacking five kilometers from the summit of the somewhat dauntingly named Monte Terminillo. Riding into blizzard conditions, the Colombian displayed a sharp climbing punch reminiscent of a young Contador, attacking Michael Rasmussen like a spider monkey on the slopes of the Peyresourde in ‘07. But on this day–last March 17th–the 32-year-old Contador had no answer. Quintana took the stage, and the race.
Contador hopes to become just the eighth rider in cycling history to win the Giro and Tour de France in a single season. There’s something profoundly unnatural about riding a grand Tour; tackling two in three months is not a reasonable request to make of one’s body. How will Contador hold up in the final week of this Tour, which ends, cruelly, with four straight days in the Alps, the last of those being the dastardly, iconic, 21-switchback Alpe d’Huez?
A better question might be, How will he hold up in the first week? A year ago, the race was shaken and stirred in Stage 5, which sent the riders over nine sectors of cobbles, resulting in big time gaps and the loss of its defending champion. Froome crashed twice, badly injuring his left wrist, and couldn’t continue. Contador fell heavily five stages later, and was also forced to abandon.
This year, the cobbles come a day earlier. Stage 4, from Seraing to Cambrai, features seven secteurs of cobbles, for a total of “just over 13 kilometers of trembling,” as Tour director Christian Prudhomme put it. All eyes will be on Quintana, who has done relatively little riding on the pave, and who will be in double trouble if the weather is foul. As it was for last year’s cobbled stage.
Best to tune in early if you have even a passing interest in seeing these four favorites jostle and jockey and play mind games with one another. The cold reality of this cruel ordeal is this: all four will take the start, but it’s unlikely that all four will finish.