Alberto Contador is alone among the 'Big Four' of major favourites in tackling both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France this season, but his attempt at the double is by no means a solo act. All year, a core of Contador’s teammates have followed a similarly tailored programme, with a reduced diet of spring racing, and the end result is that the Tinkoff-Saxo roster at this Tour includes no fewer than five of the team that lined up at the Giro in May.
To put that figure in perspective, just two of Sky’s Giro team, Richie Porte and Leopold König, have made it to the Tour to support Chris Froome, while Tanel Kangert is the lone man to double up for Astana. Nairo Quintana’s Movistar, meanwhile, have had the luxury of fielding entirely different teams for each race.
Michael Rogers, Ivan Basso, Roman Kreuziger and the experienced Matteo Tosatto were all part of Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo guard during his victorious Giro and returned to the coalface on this Tour, just five weeks after the corsa rosa concluded in Milan. Rogers, who raced the Route du Sud with Contador and Basso in the intervening period, explained that recovery took precedence over quality work in such a tight turnaround time.
“It did take me a good two weeks to feel ready to get back into training,” Rogers told Cyclingnews in Abbeville ahead of stage 6. “Physically so far on the Tour, it hasn’t been really, really hard but mentally it’s been very tough. It’s been interesting to see the different approaches of the teams. Some teams are coming in a lot fresher from not doing the double. We’ll see how that plays out in the coming stages.”
Thanks in no small part to the repeated onslaught of Fabio Aru’s Astana squad, the general classification race at the Giro was fought over the course of three weeks rather than simply in the final high mountains, as some had predicted beforehand. Contador took possession of the maglia rosa at Abetone in week one, for instance, and held it for all bar one of the 16 stages that followed.
Relative to Astana, at least, the Tinkoff-Saxo squad showed some signs of weakness as the race went on, and Rogers acknowledged that the Giro had proven to be more difficult than anticipated when Contador’s double plans were first drawn up.
“Yes, it was,” Rogers said. “It certainly did take its toll, also because we ride very defensively as a team and that’s the price of having one of the favourites. We can’t afford to sit down at the back of the bunch because if Alberto’s down the back, potentially other teams could take advantage of it and make it harder for us. That’s the way we ride.”
When the Giro broke for its first rest day in San Giorgio del Sannio, Rogers told reporters that his power data suggested that it had been the toughest opening to a Grand Tour in his career, and there was scarcely any let up thereafter. This Tour, too, has had a breathless opening, though the Australian feels the challenge here is as much mental as physical.
“Course-wise, I believe the Giro was a lot harder but I think you can see on television the tension within the bunch here and that wears people down,” Rogers said. “I believe a lot of people were crashing on Wednesday because they were just tired and their reactions were slower, and with the bad weather mixed in, that made for treacherous riding. It’s kind of a like a cat biting its tail, the more pressure there is, the more stress there is, the more riders push in to be in the front.
“The Tour is always a grind. The Giro is more about legs whereas at the Tour you need that mental aspect to keep pushing on. The physical difference between the top 10 or 20 guys is minimal and sometimes you can make a lot of difference if you’re prepared to suffer on for ten more minutes.”
A marked feature of the Tour to date has been the presence of the overall favourites and their squads en masse at the head of the peloton, often at junctures when such a position might traditionally have been the preserve of the sprinters’ teams. The final 80 kilometres of stage 5 to Amiens, for instance, were deadlocked not by Etixx-QuickStep so much as by Astana, BMC, Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo.
“You have to get through these stages and we’re expending a lot of energy, as the other teams are,” Rogers said. “I think the teams want some guarantees that nothing’s going to happen. Astana, BMC, Movistar… they’ve got massive investments sitting there, so you ride to avoid a crash.”
Five days into the Tour, after making the split on stage 2 but then struggling on the Mur de Huy, Contador lies 36 seconds down on Chris Froome, but 1:02 ahead of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and 1:20 up on Quintana. “I wouldn’t have signed to be in this position right now, I’d like to be closer to Froome, clearly,” Contador said in Amiens on Wednesday evening. “But considering the high tension, we haven’t fallen and that’s important.”
As for whether Contador and Tinkoff-Saxo would now settle for the status quo being more or less maintained until the Pyrenees, Rogers took a measured view. “I think most teams would sign off on that,” he said. “But being an open race, when opportunities arise, then of course we’re going to have a go.”