As the rest of his primary antagonists for this year’s Tour de France are currently fine-tuning form at the Critérium du Dauphiné, Nairo Quintana is taking a break, and perhaps, second-guessing some decisions.
At the end of May, the Colombian finished 31 seconds off the pace of the Giro d’Italia’s winner, Tom Dumoulin. Perhaps Dumoulin’s tenacity was a surprise, but by the final stage of the Corsa Rosa, it was clear not only that he was a worthy champion, but also that the Dutchman had deserved the hype surrounding him for the last few years. At 26, it seems he has the potential to become the dominant Grand Tour talent of the coming decade.
What was not clear in Milan was whether or not Quintana’s stated aim for 2017 – winning both the Giro and the Tour de France – had been folly. Had Movistar’s leader messed up his chances of adding a second Giro title to his palmarès by beginning in Sardinia under-trained, in the hope of riding himself into form later in the race, without running the risk of burning out before the business end of the Tour? Or had he just been narrowly beaten by a rival who was in better form and on a course more suited to his talents?
It will be a lot easier to answer both questions in Paris on 23 July. Until then, any critique is useless, because if he finishes on top of the podium – or even close – on the Champs-Élysées, it would prove that objectively, despite the fact that consensus seems to have consigned the Giro-Tour double to the history books, cycling’s most illustrious brace of titles is still within the realms of possibility.
If he falls to pieces in the Alps, the common logic will be reinforced: these days, goes the cliché, the races are too demanding, too different, and too close together, to be won by the same person. But as a contrarian, one could reply, what’s new?
When Miguel Indurain won his first double in 1992, he finished ahead of Claudio Chiappucci in Paris – the same man who’d finished second to him in Milan. There were 20 days between the two Grand Tours – one day less than when he’d repeat the feat the following summer.
There’s an argument that having the two events closer together actually makes it easier for a rider to maintain form, rather than trying to train for two distinct peaks. But the last time anyone managed the double, in 1998, when Marco Pantani beat Pavel Tonkov and Jan Ullrich in Milan and Paris respectively, there were 34 days between the end of the Giro and the beginning of the Tour – the same number that separates the races this year.
And as tempting as it might be to make disparaging remarks about the cleanliness of that era, it’s debatable how relevant they would be to an argument about the double’s feasibility, because we can assume that the difficulty of one dirty rider beating a bunch of other cheats is roughly analogous to a clean rider prevailing over a peloton of equally virtuous rivals.
Rest is best
The big change, and the double’s biggest challenge, has been specialisation. Recovery time is an issue, only in the sense that it would be almost impossible for a rider to win the Giro and then head to France to face up to an adversary who’d spent the last 12 months preparing specifically for the Tour. Just ask Alberto Contador, who tried it in 2015 only to finish the Tour almost ten minutes behind Chris Froome.
The Spaniard prevailed in a gruelling Giro that year against an Astana team that had one goal in mind – putting Fabio Aru on top of the podium – but couldn’t keep up with his rested rivals a month later.
A more micro-managed approach to coaching has distilled modern cyclists into focused specialists, who develop the mindset and the skillset to pursue one goal above all others.
It’s unlikely that you’d see a rider like Pantani, who in 1994 finished on the podium at both races, aged just 24. He’d have a goal-oriented training schedule, and being Italian, that would probably mean a couple of cracks at the Giro before a more mature attempt over the border.
Even at the top, a fear of failure, or at least, a fear of less success, keeps the most able candidates from daring the double. As imperious as he can be, it’s impossible to imagine Chris Froome, supposedly this generation’s pre-eminent GC rider, risking an entire season on some romantic notion.
To borrow from an interview I did in issue 17.3 of Rouleur this year, Felice Gimondi put it succinctly when he said: “It’s difficult to know who to support nowadays, because the riders all specialise, focusing on only a few races, while we competed everywhere.
“Back then it was a rivalry direct and continuous, starting in February and finishing in November, always with the same opponents, in a lot of straight-up clashes. Cycling used to be an adventure, but now it’s more like a science.”
Easier to predict
On top of that, today’s more serious professionalism denies us another of the double’s constituent parts: an unpredicted anomaly. It’s unlikely, nowadays, that you’d see an internal feud equivalent to the one that tore Carrera apart in June ’87 and put Stephen Roche against his team-mate, the defending Giro champion Roberto Visentini.
And it’s even more unlikely that the Tour’s incumbent victor would miss the Grand Départ having been shot in a hunting accident – Greg LeMond’s misfortune almost certainly made it easier for Roche to prevail in France that July.
The Giro-Tour double isn’t something that can be planned for once in a rider’s career – rather, it’s something that should be hoped for. As the trope goes, fortune favours the brave, but it is also something that rewards the faithful. Ultimately, it’s an exception to the rule, and an occurrence that requires exceptional circumstances.
Even the sport’s most venerated names – Messrs. Coppi and Merckx – only managed it twice in their careers, and they have 18 Grand Tours between them. You can question the prudence of Quintana’s lofty objective, but its audacity is to be applauded.
Because even if it’s beyond his capabilities, at least he’s willing to give it a go. Which raises perhaps the most convincing explanation as to why it’s been so long since anyone’s done it: more than exceptional circumstances, have we just lacked exceptional riders?
Giro d’Italia: The Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race by Colin O’Brien is published by Pursuit Books.