Authors: Rio Sports
As Chris Froome flew south from Asturias to Madrid for a final, ceremonial Vuelta stage in the Spanish capital on Sunday morning, Bernard Hinault was standing with his gun on the edge of a maize field in Brittany, waiting for wild boar to emerge from cover. The last man to win the double of Tour of Spain and Tour de France in the same year, back in 1978, the “Badger” said he believes that Froome, who was set to emulate him after 39 years, should go on next year to attempt a grand slam of all three major Tours in 12 months by tackling the Giro d’Italia before going on to tilt for a fifth Tour de France title.
“He should try that,” said Hinault. “He has proved that you can win the Tour and the Vuelta in the same year, so why not the Giro? What he has managed in Spain is a great thing because the general view was that it was not possible to win either the Giro and Tour or the Tour and Vuelta in the modern era. He wasn’t as dominant as usual in the Tour but he’s really rediscovered his true capacity at the Vuelta, in spite of having one or two difficult days.”
Why not the Giro? While the appeal of a grand slam is obvious for romantics, Team Sky have built their success over the last few years on ruthless pragmatism. The risk of compromising a fifth Tour win is obvious. On a practical level, as Sir Bradley Wiggins found out, the Giro carries its own unique challenges, including poor weather, not to mention a wealth of climbs unknown to Froome that would have to be reconnoitred in a relatively short time frame. The risk of over-reach and emerging with nothing is surely too great.
Hinault responded approvingly when told of the way that the four-times Tour winner had handled Saturday’s key final mountain stage. Froome saw his key rival, Vincenzo Nibali, fall on the descent from the Alto del Cordal to the foot of the Angliru, and backed off the pace, making sure that he stayed upright even though his caution permitted Alberto Contador and his team-mate Jarlinson Pantano to race clear in what proved the stage-winning escape. “Froome’s management of stage racing is as good as ever. He can adopt precisely the tactic that’s required to win. You have to keep that bigger view of where each moment is going to lead.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Hinault feels one cannot rank the feats of riders such as himself, Froome, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil, the only other rider to win Vuelta and Tour in the same year. “These are different eras, with different riders, different equipment and a different calendar. You should take each achievement for what it is and when it is.”
Froome’s victory in the Vuelta and his capture of the Tour-Vuelta double after three attempts reflects the domination of three-week stage races by the 32-year-old and Team Sky since 2013, to an extent which has not been seen since Miguel Indurain’s purple patch between 1991 and 1995, when the Spaniard won five Tours and two Giri.
Lance Armstrong, even during his EPO and blood-bag fuelled dominance of the Tour de France between 1999 and 2005 – or perhaps because of the way he was manipulating his body – never stretched to targeting a second three-week stage race in the same season.
When the Badger and Anquetil managed their doubles of Vuelta and Tour, the Vuelta had a late April-mid-May calendar slot, which meant it was possible to race a full spring programme of Paris-Nice and the Classics, then carry that form into the Vuelta, but the risk was that a rider would end up raced-out by July. The more parochial nature of cycling up to the 1990s, plus the obvious difficulty of peaking twice in the season, meant the Vuelta was rarely on the hit list.
The restructuring of the calendar in 1995 turned the challenge of targeting the Tour and Vuelta into a matter of holding form, physically and mentally, for 11 or 12 weeks, including the most demanding and draining event in the cycling calendar. The scale of that challenge can be seen by looking at the fortunes of Romain Bardet, Simon Yates and Fabio Aru, challengers at the Tour but unable to make much impact on the Vuelta. Contador rode with immense courage and charisma in Spain, as in France, but never looked a true threat once he had lost time in Andorra. Riding the Tour and Vuelta is one thing, racing them to win and managing to win them is clearly quite another.
“Given that they are so close together it’s extremely hard to keep your form over that period,” said Froome on Saturday. “That’s a huge part of why no one has managed it before. I’ve found that to be the challenge previously. We did it by backing off earlier in the year – [I had] much fewer race days before the Tour – coming in fresher to the Tour. Maybe I wasn’t quite at 100% for the start of the Tour. If I’m brutally honest, my climbing wasn’t up to scratch at the Tour.”
The gamble Froome took was to risk turning up at the Tour below his best; it paid off, though he won it on his own admission with little fanfare. Over the three weeks of the Vuelta he rode an almost perfect race but, as Hinault says, that is to be expected of a rider who has now contested almost a dozen Grand Tours. A mature rider at the height of his powers should know when to make the efforts necessary to gain time, be it a few seconds here and there, and to limit his losses on the bad days such as Las Machucos.
Additionally Team Sky’s resources meant that they could field almost completely different line-ups in Spain and France but of virtually equal strength. By this time of the season much of the peloton are racing on fumes but at one point on Saturday, at the foot of the Angliru, Sky had six riders in a lead group of 12. Froome was rarely alone on the road; most critically, their key support climber Wout Poels’s injury earlier in the season leading to the difficult decision to keep him out of the Tour meant he turned up fresh at the Vuelta, which helps explain his final sixth place overall.
Over the years Team Sky have singularly failed to endear themselves to those with a romantic vision of cycling or doubts over the sport’s ethical issues. The UKAD inquiry into the Jiffy bag affair remains unresolved after almost a year and the questions it raises may never be answered. The debate is inevitable. However, the ability of Froome and his team to manage a Grand Tour from conception to consummation, its build-up and its direction on the road, should never be minimised and should be admired for what it is. Love them or loathe them, cavil at the resources they employ or laud them for the level to which they have taken their sport, Team Sky are the supreme practitioners of their art.
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