Is there any doubt that the Tour de France is the world’s greatest bike race? Of course not, say the sport’s traditionalists. It’s been around for more than 100 years. It’s acknowledged as one of the most difficult athletic challenges in the world. And it boasts a global TV audience greater than any other annual sports event.
All that may be true, but many cycling fans, particularly in recent years, believe that the other Grand Tours are more demanding and often more exciting than La Grande Boucle. The fans reason that the Giro d’Italia’s endless mountain stages, with their backbreaking gradients and often-adverse weather conditions, reveal true champions, and that the Vuelta a España’s shorter, snappier stages produce racing that’s more unpredictable and often much better than seen at the Tour.
Those counterarguments are valid, but there are other, far more compelling reasons why the Tour is in a different league to the Giro and Vuelta, and why it commands far greater attention from the media. We know that history is part of the answer—the Tour was founded six years before the Giro and 32 years ahead of the Vuelta—but a more compelling reason for the Tour’s preeminence in the cycling world is its place on the calendar.
The Tour takes place in mid-summer when schools are out and Europeans are on vacation, which means that far greater numbers of spectators are available to come and watch the Tour than the other two grand tours, which take place in late spring and early fall. Also, there’s no clash with other major sporting events.
When the Giro happens in May, the European soccer season is reaching its climax, and a new soccer season is starting up when the Vuelta is held in late August and September. There are no such clashes with the Tour, and where there is a potential conflict, the Tour adjusts its dates. When the World Cup was held in France in 1998, the Tour started in Ireland (and later than usual) so as not to conflict with the final of the world’s greatest soccer competition in Paris. And when this year’s Tour starts next weekend in Liège, Belgium, the world’s next most popular soccer show, Euro 2012, will be coming to a close in Kiev, Ukraine.
These facts help explain why the Tour is cycling’s 100-ton gorilla, especially in the media, but there are other compelling reason too. For the teams and athletes, there is a natural build-up toward the Tour, with other historic races such as the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse providing a natural lead-in to July’s big rendezvous. In contrast, the Giro happens right after the spring classics and the Vuelta has only a few minor stage races beforehand.
All this means that the world’s major pro teams do not send their strongest squads to the Giro or Vuelta, and so even though those other Grand Tours may see exciting, unpredictable racing, they have no chance of producing the same quality of winners as the Tour de France. Ryder Hesjedal was a great winner of this year’s Giro, just as Juanjo Cobo excelled at last year’s Vuelta, but like past winners in Italy and Spain, including Damiano Cunego, Denis Menchov, Michele Scarponi, Alejandro Valverde and Alexander Vinokourov, none have gone on to win the Tour.
To see the difference in quality of teams that start the Tour, we only have to look at the team selections made this past week for the Tour’s 99th edition starting in Liège on June 30. For instance, none of defending champion Cadel Evans’s Tour team, including Philippe Gilbert, George Hincapie and Tejay Van Garderen, rode the Giro. And the only two Team Sky men to start both Grand Tours are sprinter Mark Cavendish and lead-out man Bernhard Eisel, so the British team’s leader Brad Wiggins and his main support riders Eddy Boasson Hagen, Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Michael Rogers are only riding the Tour.
Similarly, only one Rabobank rider (sprinter Mark Renshaw) did the Giro before the Tour—where leader Robert Gesink is being supported by a far more powerful squad than the one in Italy. Other major contenders for the Tour, who didn’t start the Giro, include Levi Leipheimer of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale, Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, along with Jani Brajkovic and Vinokourov of Astana, Menchov of Katusha Team and Valverde of Movistar.
The only potential Tour contenders to ride the Giro ahead of the Tour were RadioShack-Nissan’s Fränk Schleck (who wasn’t scheduled to start it, and didn’t complete it); Garmin-Barracuda’s Hesjedal (who started the Giro to see if he could be a challenger and ended up winning it) and teammate Christian Vande Velde (who supported Hesjedal and began the Giro as preparation for the Tour); Liquigas’s Ivan Basso (whose Giro challenge fizzled in the high mountains); and perhaps Lampre’s Scarponi.
The strength of the teams and their leaders augers well for this upcoming Tour, which besides confirming itself as the 100-ton gorilla of cycling looks like providing some new challenges on a much more varied course than usual. With such factors, and with a greater media presence than ever, the 2012 Tour de France could even rival the Giro and Vuelta’s in terms of spectacular, exciting racing.
So, is there any doubt that the Tour de France is the world’s greatest bike race?
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