Edward Pickering argues that it's too early to predict how the main Tour de France contenders will fare in July
The great head-to-head climbing battle between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador at the Volta a Catalunya, which finished yesterday, resulted in a win for… Joaquim Rodriguez. The Katusha rider won the first of two summit finishes in the race, at La Molina, then came fourth in freezing conditions at Vallter 2000, the next day. He beat Contador by four seconds, with Tejay van Garderen in third, seven seconds behind. Froome was sixth overall, 17 seconds down.
At La Molina, Froome had been the first of the big favourites to attack, going for it inside the last kilometre, but the reactions to his acceleration had been telling. Rodriguez was straight onto his wheel, while Contador made heavier weather of it, slowly closing the gap. Froome’s not quite in the form he was in during 2013, with a back injury having caused him to pull out of Tirreno-Adriatico, and Rodriguez simply bounced off his acceleration to ride away. Contador put clear air between himself and Froome, who was also passed by Nairo Quintana and Tejay van Garderen before the finish line.
It was a good week for Katusha. They’d started it with a win by Alexander Kristoff in Milan-San Remo, and ended it with overall victory in Catalunya.
Spring used to be a time when the Grand Tour favourites tapped around at the back of the races, building form and trying their best to ignore each other, and us. But in the last few years, training wisdom has dictated that it’s better to hold a higher level of form through the early part of the year. Bradley Wiggins started it, winning Paris-Nice, the Tour of Romandy and the Criterium du Dauphine en route to winning the Tour in 2012, while Chris Froome took a different route last year with similar results, winning the Tour of Oman, Criterium International, Romandy and the Dauphine before taking the yellow jersey in France.
So far this year, the main GT contenders have come head to head in three races: the Tour of Oman, Tirreno-Adriatico and Catalunya. (Although Vincenzo Nibali and Carlos Betancur were both at Paris-Nice, the depth of field was not as great there, in terms of Grand Tour GC contenders.)
Mainly, the favourites have ridden two out of these three races, although Ag2r’s Domenico Pozzovivo has been one of the few to ride all three, coming sixth, sixth and eighth. The main conclusion is that there is little to choose between them in form. Alberto Contador won Tirreno and came second in Catalunya. Froome won in Oman, pulled out of Tirreno, and was sixth in Catalunya. Tejay van Garderen was runner-up in Oman and third in Catalunya (having pulled out of Paris-Nice, ill). Rodriguez was fourth in Oman before winning Catalunya. Nairo Quintana was second in Tirreno and fifth in Catalunya. While Roman Kreuziger was eighth in Oman and third in Tirreno.
Add up the best two overall finishes in these three races and you get the following totals, and a rough form guide.
Alberto Contador – 3
Joaquim Rodriguez – 5
Tejay van Garderen – 5
Chris Froome – 7
Nairo Quintana – 7
Roman Kreuziger – 11
It’s not possible to draw too many conclusions from this, other than that all six riders are in pretty good shape. We’re often guilty in cycling of assuming that what happened last year is going to happen this year. Just because Chris Froome was going better than Alberto Contador in March last year and went on to win the Tour doesn’t mean that Contador is now nailed on to turn the tables in 2014. Froome’s had an injury, and lost training. Rodriguez and Quintana are both targeting the Giro this year, so their form should be further along than that of the others.
However, spring races are no longer just training time, but a chance to really start making the final tweaks to preparation for July. The accumulation of marginal psychological gains has already started, and right now, Contador should be the happiest man.