The Classics may be dominating the headlines at present, but away from the spotlight, the contenders for the Tour de France have been continuing their preparation for July. A little under three months from the Grand Départ at Mont-Saint-Michel, Cyclingnews takes a look at how some of the favourites for yellow have fared thus far.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff)
As if victory at the Tour of the Basque Country wasn’t enough of an indicator, Alberto Contador highlighted his fine early-season form by confirming that he will almost certainly continue his professional career into 2017, having previously suggested he might retire at the end of the current season.
The 33-year-old Contador has been the stand-out performer of the top echelon of contenders thus far. A stage winner at the Volta ao Algarve, Contador almost snatched victory from Geraint Thomas (Sky) on a breathless final day of Paris-Nice, and was bettered only by Nairo Quintana (Movistar) at the Volta a Catalunya.
Contador is no longer the same explosive rider of the 2009 Tour, but his campaign to date closely mirrors his fast start to 2014, which was his best season since his doping ban of 2012. If his invention almost landed him Paris-Nice, his pragmatism won out in the Basque Country, as he dosed his effort well day by day, and then won the final time trial to deny Quintana.
Best moment: Contador’s daring attack on the final day of Paris-Nice didn’t quite land him overall victory but it showed that his penchant for turning a race on its head remains undimmed.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
Quintana has begun 2016 in a similarly consistent vein to Contador. Third place at the Tour de San Luis in January, a repeat of 2015’s result, included a fine cameo on the Filo de la Sierra de Comechingones to help secure overall victory for his younger brother, Dayer, and his European campaign has been strikingly similar that of last year.
Twelve months ago, Quintana showcased his early form by winning Tirreno-Adriatico. This time around, he defeated an equally star-studded field at the Volta a Catalunya. Seemingly caught on the back foot at La Molina, Quintana responded with what proved to be the race-winning attack at Port Aine, where he shook off Contador in the finale and put almost 40 seconds into Chris Froome (Sky).
The punchy climbs of the Basque Country are less suited to Quintana – though he did win the race overall in 2013 – and in that light, third place behind Contador won’t be an undue disappointment. Though, having lost the final time trial to Contador by just five seconds, he may wonder if his bike change was the right call.
Best moment: Seeing off Contador, Froome, Fabio Aru et al on the 18.5km haul up Port Aine.
Thibaut Pinot (FDJ)
When Pinot turned professional in 2010, his FDJ team made a point of sending him primarily to WorldTour races, happy to sacrifice immediate results for longer-term gains. As a consequence, Pinot’s palmarès is barer than one might expect, but, still shy of his 26th birthday, his maturation as a Grand Tour contender remains on track.
Pinot’s class in the mountains has been apparent from his amateur days – he won the tough Giro della Valle d’Aosta as an under-23 rider – but it is his progress against the watch that has been most striking over the past year and, in particular, during the opening months of the current campaign, capped by victory in the individual test at Critérium International. That said, slipping off the podium placings in the final, hilly time trial at the Tour of the Basque Country suggested that there is still work to be done. Strangely for a climber, Pinot has admitted that he is more comfortable time trialling on the flat.
Fifth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico and fourth at the Tour of the Basque Country, Pinot has performed as expected at WorldTour level, but despite the relative paucity of the opposition, his overall victory at Critérium International is the stand-out result thus far. Pinot’s physical qualities have never been in question but his troubled 2013 and 2015 Tours suggested a capacity for crippling self-doubt. Having blown a winning hand at Critérium International in 2015, it was crucial that he came up trumps this time.
Best moment: Sealing the deal at Critérium International by soloing to victory on the Col de l’Ospedale.
Richie Porte (BMC)
It’s been a solid, rather than a spectacular, start to life at BMC for Porte, but the Tasmanian will hope that he is laying the foundation for a concrete result in July, something which proved beyond him when he was – belatedly – handed the opportunity in 2014.
Despite insisting he was short of form at the Tour Down Under, Porte had enough in his legs to claim a third successive win atop Willunga Hill. After a decidedly low-key showing at the Tour of Oman, he placed third overall at Paris-Nice, where the absence of the traditional Col d’Éze time trial was an undoubted penalty.
At the Volta a Catalunya, meanwhile, Porte was more or less able to break even with Contador in the mountains, and though he was bumped out of the podium spots by Dan Martin (Cannondale) on the final day, he did finish a place ahead of his teammate Tejay van Garderen. An early blow in the unspoken battle for leadership.
Best moment: Placing third on Port Aine in Catalonia, just ahead of Contador.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC)
The Volta a Catalunya was van Garderen’s first appearance alongside new arrival Richie Porte, and the pair dovetailed their efforts well enough to place third and fourth overall in Barcelona. Before that, van Garderen had, like Porte, quietly showcased some decent early form.
At the Ruta del Sol in February, only Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) – who this year targets the Giro d’Italia – had the better of van Garderen, who claimed the earliest victory of his professional career thus far by winning the opening time trial.
Van Garderen’s hopes of a high finish at Tirreno-Adriatico, meanwhile, were compromised first by the cancellation of the key mountain stage and then by an untimely broken spoke in the finale of the penultimate stage. He will line out alongside Porte again at the Tour de Romandie later this month.
Best moment: Although he was later shut down by Contador, van Garderen’s attack on Port Aine suggested an upside to cohabitation with a foil such as Porte.
Chris Froome (Sky)
The international man of mystery. Of all the contenders for Tour victory, no man has raced as sparingly as the defending champion Froome, who has lined out for just twelve days – across two races, the Herald Sun Tour and the Volta a Catalunya – so far in 2016.
Froome followed a similarly light early schedule in 2015, racing the Ruta del Sol and Catalunya, though that was largely because he was a late withdrawal from Tirreno-Adriatico, citing illness. This time out, Froome’s light schedule has been by design, and he opted to train at altitude in Mpumalanga, South Africa with Ian Boswell between the Herald Sun Tour and Volta a Catalunya.
Froome was a dominant winner against a largely Australian field at the 2.1 Herald Sun Tour, but was some way short of Contador, Quintana et al at the Volta a Catalunya, placing 8th overall. Having laboured to 71st overall in the same race a year ago, however, neither Froome nor Sky will be unduly concerned. As ever, his march towards the Tour will begin in earnest at the Tour de Romandie.
Best moment: Soloing to victory at Arthurs Seat in the Herald Sun Tour
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
The jury is out as to whether Nibali qualifies as a Tour contender, given that the Giro is central to his plans this season and, officially at least, he is only likely to line out at the Grande Boucle in support of Fabio Aru as he builds towards his year’s second major objective, the Olympic Games road race in Rio.
That said, Nibali is one of just three former Tour winners in the WorldTour peloton and he has been enjoying his best start to a season since his first campaign with Astana in 2013. After a solid beginning at the Tour de San Luis, Nibali impressed in winning the Tour of Oman in February, though the cancellation of Tirreno-Adriatico’s key stage meant he had to settle for 6th overall in what was the main target of his early season.
After placing 33rd at Milan-San Remo, Nibali left for an altitude training camp, but will return to action at next week’s Giro del Trentino. He will line out for the Giro d’Italia as favourite and if he lands overall victory, thoughts would likely turn – Aru or no Aru – to July and the seemingly impossible double.
Best moment: Grinding away from Romain Bardet on Green Mountain at the Tour of Oman.
Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale)
Second overall at the Tour of Oman suggested that Bardet, a paradigm of steady progress since turning professional in 2012, was on the cusp of taking a great stride forward in 2016. It remains to be seen if that will prove the case, but the Frenchman will surely be satisfied with his outings at WorldTour level thus far.
Bardet would have hoped for better than 9th overall at Paris-Nice, but his disappointment will be tempered somewhat by the suspension of the Mont Brouilly stage. At a very high-quality Volta a Catalunya, meanwhile, Bardet was never far off the pace, coming home alongside Contador at La Molina and Froome at Port Aine.
Unlike many of the others on this list, Bardet’s thoughts are not quite trained on the Tour at this juncture – Liège-Bastogne-Liège is the race he covets above all others in the early part of the season.
Best moment: His slugging match with Nibali on the vertiginous slopes of Green Mountain.
Fabio Aru (Astana)
After riding the Giro d’Italia for the past three years, Aru makes his Tour debut in 2016 and his early-season programme has changed accordingly. Whereas the Sardinian has usually raced sparingly in the opening months of the season, preferring to train at altitude, this time around, he has already pinned on a dossard 21 times. In 2014, he had just 13 race days before the Giro and last year that number was only barely higher, at 15.
As in those two years, early results have been thin on the ground for Aru, who has tended to emerge from his chrysalis in startling form just as the Giro gets underway. A second place finish behind Contador on the Alto de Malhao at February’s Volta ao Algarve was his only flourish. Aru went on to place 14th overall at the Volta a Catalunya and then withdrew from the Tour of the Basque Country after crashing early on stage 5. Aru is, however, like to make his debut in the Ardennes Classics this year and will reportedly be targeting a result.
Best moment: Second place on the Alto de Malhao, albeit some 20 seconds down on Contador.
Geraint Thomas (Sky)
There are others out there with a loftier stage racing pedigree than Thomas, but they are either targeting the Giro d’Italia (see Alejandro Valverde, Mikel Landa and Tom Dumoulin) or enduring low-key starts to the year (see Joaquim Rodriguez, though fifth at the Tour of the Basque Country was an important sign of life).
The Welshman, by contrast, has enjoyed a sparkling start to 2016, winning the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice as he makes a high overall finish in a three-week race an explicit target for the first time in his career, buoyed by his strong showing in support of Froome at last year’s Tour de France.
Thomas set himself up at the Volta ao Algarve by limiting his losses to Contador on the Alto de Malhao, and forged Paris-Nice victory on the Madone d’Utelle, though the mountain passes of the Tour – and his duties to Froome – mean that his aspirations for July surely ought to be limited. Thomas abandoned the Volta a Catalunya, meanwhile, in order to prepare for the Tour of Flanders, where he placed 12th.
Best moment: Sealing Paris-Nice victory after a frantic pursuit of Contador on the final stage.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation (opens in new tab), published by Gill Books.