[At the risk of beating this subject to death...] Want real action at the Tour de France? Let's quickly sort through the options:
- A race dominated by time trial aces? Hm, we just got that, and it has destroyed cycling. Scratch that off the list.
- A race dominated by climbers? Hm, not so sure there either. The best recent example would be the 2010 Tour, when Bert and Andy traded punches for a few stages, then kissed and made up on the Tourmalet, to a chorus of boos.
- How about a race pitting climbers and time trial aces against each other? Hey! That's just crazy enough to work!
Of course, every year the favorites contain a mix of cronomen and mountain goats. Unfortunately, this year's mountain goats never got engaged. Andy Schleck was injured before the race, Robert Gesink and Wout Poels during it. Vincenzo Nibali was left in the role of climbing protagonist, and he did OK, but he isn't really that guy. Nor is Jani Brajkovic. Nor is Sammy Sanchez, who mooted the point by crashing out, as did Ryder Hesjedal. Much has been said of Froome, but contracts are unbreakable, regardless of what we might prefer. Guys like Leipheimer and VandeVelde and Valverde and Basso... not sure what to expect there anymore. Pinot was great, but unfinished. Rolland too, although he's getting closer. Dan Martin is also inching up the ladder with a very nice third week, but he too wasn't a threat in 2012.
What was left were a collection of guys whose strength lay more in the race of truth... but Wiggins was the absolute master of that discipline. Guys like Menchov, Evans, all of the Radio Shackers ... what chance did they have of producing fireworks in the mountains, so as to compensate for their solid-but-relative weakness to Wiggins in the time trial? None, that's what.
Which leads me to my point... bring back Alberto Contador!
Here are the elements of a reliably excellent Tour de France battle.
- Climbers versus cronomen... a good, fun Tour cries out for explosive climbers who can accelerate. Like Bert. And Pinot and Andy Schleck, if they can hang in against the watch -- because the formula doesn't work with climbers who will chunk ten minutes against the watch. I mean climbers like Carlos Sastre who are a threat to lose in the time trial, but might not, and whose climbing ability makes them truly dangerous. That's Bert, to a tee. Obviously he's crushed a crono or two in his day, though it's been a while, and he's not in Wiggins' class. By the same token, the crono guys like Wiggins make perfect protagonists, because you may or may not crack them in the mountains. Same goes for Tejay Van Garderen, to a lesser and less proven extent, but possibly coming to a Tour de France near you.
- Both climbers and cronomen threats enjoying similar levels of team support. I can't decide if I would rather they be on weak teams and have to fight for themselves, or both be on strong teams, where maybe they feel more free to take risks (but less of an urgency? Maybe I'm overthinking this). I guess I'll go with strong teams, as in teams that can keep them upright into the mountains, since that's the biggest threat to a good race nowadays. As long as one doesn't dominate the other... though even then, the 2008 Tour was good fun for everyone not connected with Lotto or Australia. So Contador at Saxo versus Wiggins at Sky will likely be a fair fight. Whoever else can join in, the more the merrier.
There are twitrumors of a climby course next year -- which seems like a logical semi-certainty, given ASO's tendency to mix things up and not serve up too many cookies to the existing champion. I am guessing they won't want to kill Wiggins either, so my money is on a balanced course that gives him a solid chance to defend, but nowhere near the distinct advantage he enjoyed this year from the second the course announcement was made. Give Bert a little love too, with some real HC MTFs, hopefully get several more real contenders into the mix, and you're looking at a cracking 2013 race.
Photo by Bryn Lennon, Getty Images Sport