Ryder Hejedal’s unprecedented triumph at the Giro d’Italia and Robert Gesink’s win at the Amgen Tour of California were both tremendous achievements. But what do their victories mean in the context of this year’s Tour de France? Not much, some would say. And what about the results of the upcoming Critérium du Dauphiné (starting this Sunday) and Tour de Suisse (coming up next weekend)? Does success in any of these challenging stage races equate to being competitive at the Tour? We’ll see….
A year ago, the cycling world was pondering whether the winners of those four events—respectively Chris Horner, Alberto Contador, Brad Wiggins and Levi Leipheimer—would also be contending at the Tour. It looked as though they would, but all of them were then involved in disastrous crashes during the Tour’s opening week that wrecked their hopes.
Team Sky’s Wiggins pulled out with a broken collarbone after the stage 7 pileup that also sent RadioShack’s Horner home with a concussion and other injuries. Contador’s fatigue from the Giro combined with a back injury caused by his Tour crash diminished his superlative climbing form and he ended up in fifth (later disqualified). And Leipheimer’s multiple crashes limited him to a support role and an ultimate finish of 32nd.
It seemed like there was a hex on those four riders. Perhaps it was preempted by their successes in May and June, while riders who played lesser roles in pre-Tour races came through strong in July. BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans was content to use the Dauphiné as an ultimate preparation, placing second to Wiggins, before going on to win the Tour. And Tour runner-ups Andy and Fränk Schleck raced conservatively in Switzerland, just stretching their legs in a few breakaways, with Fränk finishing seventh overall and Andy 19th.
History shows that winning the Dauphiné or Switzerland may not be the best preparation for the Tour. Only three Dauphiné winners in the past 30 years have gone on to win the Tour: multiple Tour champions Bernard Hinault (in 1981), Miguel Induráin (1995) and Lance Armstrong (2002 and ’03). As for the other races, only two men have done the Tour de Suisse-Tour de France double in the past 40 years: Eddy Merckx (1974) and Armstrong (2001); five have completed the Giro-Tour double in that time frame: Marco Pantani (1998), Induráin (1992 and ’93), Stephen Roche (1987), Hinault (1982 and ’85) and Merckx (1970, ’72 and ’74); and a Tour of California winner has yet to win the Tour.
None of this means that Gesink, who showed excellent time-trial ability along with his hallmark climbing strength in California, can’t podium in Paris. Nor does it mean that Wiggins can’t repeat his Dauphiné win next week and go on to win the Tour. The tall Brit has totally refocused his schedule to alternate periods of high-altitude training in Tenerife with high-profile races, all of which he wants to win. He’s already taken Paris-Nice and the Tour de Romandie this year, and winning a second Dauphiné would sustain the total confidence he has in his Sky teammates and his ambitious new schedule.
Another factor in riding the Dauphiné using it as a dress rehearsal for key Tour stages—particularly since Tour owner ASO took over organization of the Dauphiné a couple of years ago. Last year, ASO included the identical Grenoble time trial that was key to Evans’s victory at the Tour. This coming week, two stages are of similar importance. Next Thursday’s rolling time trial to Bourg-en-Bresse is on a different course from the Tour’s crucial stage 19 time trial at Chartres but over an identical 53.5-kilometer distance; and next Friday’s Dauphiné stage mirrors stage 10 of the Tour, climbing the same three mountain passes, the Cat. 2 Corlier, hors-catégorie Grand Colombier and Cat. 3 Richemond.
That long, long time trial will indicate the efficacy of Wiggins’s and Evans’s recent high-altitude training camps. It will also show what sort of time they can gain on RadioShack-Nissan-Trek’s Andy Schleck, whose new team manager Johan Bruyneel made the Luxembourg star do thin-air training in May before starting the Dauphiné for the first time in his eight years as a professional. If Schleck does poorly in the Dauphiné time trial, he’ll have to boost his morale with a good performance in one of the climbing stages—perhaps over the little-known and extremely steep Grand Colombier or the penultimate stage next weekend over the mighty Col de Joux-Plane into Morzine.
Also starting this year’s Dauphiné are eight others with hopes of Tour glory: Liquigas-Cannondale’s Vincenzo Nibali, Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Samuel Sanchez, Lotto-Belisol’s Jurgen Van den Broeck, Katusha Team’s Denis Menchov, Movistar’s Juanjo Cobo, Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler, Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tony Martin and former Dauphiné winner Jani Brajkovic of Astana. It’s rare that so many pre-Tour favorites are on the Dauphiné start line.
Fewer Tour contenders have chosen next week’s Tour de Suisse, which looks likely to include defending champion Leipheimer of Omega, Gesink of Rabobank, Fränk Schleck (and Horner) of RadioShack, former Vuelta a España winner Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, and Tom Danielson of Garmin-Barracuda. They will face an unusual Swiss tour that has a mountaintop finish to its first road stage at Verbier—where Contador destroyed the opposition at the 2009 Tour de France—and a final stage that concludes with a finishing loop over two hors-cat mountains.
Danielson should excel in Switzerland, while his Garmin teammates Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde are sensibly recovering from their excellent Giro rides before deciding which of them will lead the U.S. squad at the Tour. Historically, Giro winners, with rare exceptions, haven’t done well at the Tour. Roche did the double in 1987 after not racing in the 17 days separating his winning Giro and the start of the Tour. Nor did Pantani race in the 33 days between his victorious Giro and the start of the 1998 Tour. There’s the same 33-day gap this year, so perhaps Hesjedal can also regain the condition and incentive that allowed the Canadian to conquer the Giro last Sunday—though none of his main rivals in Italy, Joaquim Rodriguez, Thomas De Gendt or Michele Scarponi, is starting the Tour.
What we can take away from all this information is that riding one (or two) of the pre-Tour stage races is essential for victory in July. Riding a strong Dauphiné (not necessarily winning it) has been the most popular recent route to winning the Tour, but it will be interesting to see if the California-plus-one-of-the-other-June-races combo can be just as successful for Danielson, Gesink, Horner, Leipheimer or Nibali. All we know, looking ahead, is that the 99th Tour de France looks like being a more open race than ever before.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson