There was a time when winning a Grand Tour, whether it was the Giro, the Tour or the Vuelta, was a matter of talent and temperament, and finding form at the right time. And once a rider had become a champion, he would usually be able to repeat his feat year after year. That was the case with the Tour’s first five-time champions Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Induráin. They prepared their seasons pretty much the same way every year: same training camp in January, same early-season races to get the engine going, and basically the same team to help them win the big races.
Today, it’s somewhat different. Let’s first take a look at the winners of this year’s Grand Tours, Ryder Hesjedal, Brad Wiggins and Alberto Contador, and then study the races that await them in 2013.
Garmin-Sharp’s Hesjedal has raced most of his career as a support rider, even though he has always had the intrinsic ability to be a leader. He rode for team leaders such as Paolo Savoldelli of Discovery Channel at the 2005 Giro before he joined the Garmin team four years ago; he has since ridden at the Tour for Christian Vande Velde (2008) and Wiggins (2009) before making his breakthrough sixth place overall at the 2010 Tour. In 2011, Hesjedal was solid in his only Grand Tour, finishing 18th at the Tour behind teammate Tom Danielson’s eighth place. So when the team persuaded the Canadian to target the 2012 Giro and gave him the leadership role, he prepared for it with great focus, both physically and mentally.
We now know that Hesjedal became the first Canadian to win a Grand Tour. He was ably supported by Vande Velde and the rest of the Garmin team after showing new strengths in the mountain stages to overcome an impressive Joaquim Rodriguez—who was also seeking his first Grand Tour victory. Rodriguez deliberately targeted the Giro, sidestepped the Tour, and then went for the Vuelta. He was a tad unlucky to lead both the Giro and the Vuelta for many stages but eventual had to settle for the podium. But his and Hesjedal’s performances showed how much total focus (and team support) can transform a good Grand Tour rider into a great one.
A different type of focus has been successful for Wiggins, whose best Grand Tour finish before winning this year’s Tour was fourth at the 2009 Tour when riding for Garmin (supported by Vande Velde and Hesjedal). After joining Team Sky in 2010, Wiggins did target the Tour, but he failed miserably, partly because of the huge pressure placed on him by the British media. Sky took a different tack in 2011, creating a dedicated team around Wiggins to ride the Tour and also target the preceding stage races, including Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Last year, Wiggins was second at Paris-Nice, won the Dauphiné and then unluckily crashed out of the Tour in the opening week. The plan worked to perfection this year, with Wiggins winning all three preparatory races, including the Tour de Romandie, before he took the Tour. One reason for the plan’s success was that every new victory boosted Wiggins’ morale and transformed him from an athlete who was notoriously uncertain into the totally confident yellow jersey we saw in July.
As for this year’s third Grand Tour winner, Contador, he used the time he was out of competition with his drugs suspension to focus totally on the Vuelta—although the Spaniard is somewhat of an anomaly in modern racing because he attempts to win every race he starts. Next year, with a strengthened Saxo Bank team behind him, Contador says he will skip the Giro and focus on winning another Tour (after losing his third Tour title in 2010 to his positive drug test).
Giro and Tour In 2013
What was most instructive from Contador’s Vuelta win earlier this month was that he achieved it with a breakaway on what was considered a transitional stage, not one with a ferociously steep and long mountaintop finish. He had tried repeatedly with multiple attacks on all those summit finishes, but Rodriguez had followed him every time. The single time trial had earlier helped Contador get within shooting distance of his fellow Spaniard.
As for the other two Grand Tours this year, the Giro had plenty of uphill stage finishes, which set the hierarchy, with both Hesjedal and Rodriguez alternating their attacking forays. But the race was won in the individual time trials that began and ended the Giro, where Hesjedal gained enough time to defeat his Spanish rival.
Hesjedal was hoping to carry his excellent form into the Tour, but he crashed out before the first mountains were reached, and Wiggins (ably seconded by teammate Chris Froome) won the Tour by staying with the best climbers on the summit finishes and destroying the opposition in the two long individual time trials. It was a similar tactic used by Induráin and Anquetil in the past, but it’s unlikely that Wiggins will be able to repeat that tactic year after year, judging by the courses that await Grand Tour riders in 2013.
The 100th edition of the Tour de France, whose route will be announced next month, is shaping up to be one of the more mountainous courses in recent years. It starts on the Mediterranean island of Corsica with three road stages, the second of which features a steep climb a few kilometers from the finish. A team time trial at Nice will favor the stronger teams, notably BMC Racing (Cadel Evans and Tejay Van Garderen), Garmin-Sharp (Hesjedal and Vande Velde), Sky (Froome and Wiggins), RadioShack-Nissan (the Schleck brothers) and Saxo Bank (Contador). That hilly stage on Corsica and the TTT will set the hierarchy, but the race for victory will definitely be played out on the climbing stages.
It looks like the first mountain range, the Pyrénées, will feature one summit finish, either Plateau de Beille or Ax-3 Domaines, and at least three more uphill stage finishes will likely come in the final week: Mont Ventoux; L’Alpe d’Huez, which is said to be climbed twice on a finishing loop (something that I suggested in a article previewing the 2011 Tour route); and Le Grand Bornand (similar to a stage of this year’s Tour de l’Avenir).
Those stages will favor the more gifted climbers, including Contador, Froome and Rodriguez, but all-arounders such as Evans, Hesjedal, Van Garderen and Wiggins will get their chances too in the two individual time trials. One looks like being on a flat course in Normandy that’s rumored to be finishing at the foot of the iconic island of Mont St. Michel. The other is said to be the day before the finish in Annecy with a mountaintop finish at Semnoz.
In some ways, next year’s Giro route (to be announced this Sunday) bears great similarity to the Tour course. Among the widely leaked details is a start in the city of Naples, with a team time trial on the second day, followed by an uphill finish two days later in southwest Italy. The first week looks like ending with an individual time trial with a hilltop finish away from the Adriatic coast, followed by a stage ending on the hilly 2013 world championship circuit in Florence.
If the rumors are correct, the climbers will have all the advantages in the last week and a bit. There’ll be two mountaintop finishes in the Alps: at Jafferau, a new climb above Bardonecchia, and the long grind up the tougher northern side of the Col du Galibier in France. And more mountains await the peloton in the Dolomites in the final few days. One looks like being up the 10-kilometer, 10-percent Punta Veleno, followed the next day by an uphill time trial to Polsa. The Giro then has two tremendously difficult days: a stage over the high-altitude Gavia and Stelvio mountain before un uphill finish at Martello, and the race’s penultimate stage ending on the mythic climb of the Tre Cime di Lavaredo.
Whoever decides to target the Giro, whether its reigning champion Hesjedal, the ambitious Froome or home favorite Vincenzo Nibali, who’ll be racing for the much-strengthened Astana team in 2013, the final week’s climbs (including the uphill TT) will certainly decide the race. It’s not a course that would have suited Anquetil or Induráin, but Merckx would have loved it. In fact the Cannibal won a stage on the Tre Cime in 1968 to win the Giro, and six years later, when he wasn’t feeling well, he clung to the pink jersey on the Tre Cime to win that 1974 Giro by just 12 seconds over Italian Gibi Baronchelli.
What we can take from this year’s Grand Tours, and those coming up next year, is that the race organizers are becoming more inventive, giving the riders more balanced courses and a host of unexpected uphill finishes. It should be a great year!
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