Every winter someone starts a conversation about Tour de France contenders and it's suggested that if all of x, y and z can hit the mountains together, we might be in for a barn-burner of a race. [Aside: when did barn-burning become a euphemism for fun? Ah well...] What follows next is pessimism that such a situation can happen, with discussion of early stages over cobblestones or Dutch road furniture or some other potential calamity that we expect will eliminate much of the mystery. And then we have years like 2014, when the top two contenders were gone by week 1. Or 2013, when we didn't even see much in the way of competition, apart from inside of one team. Or 2012, where I can't remember what we expected, but we got a generationally dull event.
Ah, but it's different now. Our wish has come true. Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali are all upright and soldiering onward, ready to do battle in the Pyrénées starting tomorrow. For company they are joined by Tejay van Garderen, who wasn't tabbed to win by anyone but suddenly looks like a podium contender. Each of us can offer up another handful of names of riders whose climbing ability may elevate their position starting immediately (Warren Barguil? Robert Gesink? Bauke Mollema?). There have been crashes and painful scenes of riders exiting the Tour, but those incidents have barely impacted the general classification battle going forward.
So why does this race feel like one where drama is an endangered species?
The problem -- the only problem -- is that the yellow jersey sits on the shoulders of a rider who looks set to salt it away, possibly as early as tomorrow. Chris Froome may not be the defending champion, but the only thing stopping him since his most recent, fairly dominant Tour de France performance is bad luck. Two broken wrists ushered him out of last year's race, which then fell to a guy (Nibali) whom Froome has not lost a competition to in a long while. Prior to that only Froome's teammate Bradley Wiggins stood in the way of the Kenyan/Brit, who could be hunting for a fourth straight title right now if things had broken a bit differently.
This year, Froome is on top because of his attention to detail, which is a big improvement over last year, but also because of being simply strong at everything. He's the top cronoman among the contenders, and his team's loss to BMC in the team time trial had more to do with Froome's team than the rider himself. Froome could probably have pushed Nicolas Roche up the Côte de Cadoudal and rescued the stage win for his team, if rules permitted it. Froome was there at the end of the Mûr de Bretagne stage and the Mûr de Huy stage and the Hell of the North cobbles stage and most importantly the stormy stage along the Dutch coast. Froome has beaten Nibali at his own game.
And if Froome is this strong now, what can we expect to change? Nibali is off his game right now, desperately hoping that a day of rest restores his power, which may have been drained a bit by bruises sustained in that Stage 6 dogpile of Tour contenders. Let's say it is... so where does he pull back 2.23 from Froome? On the climbs? Maybe on a descent, but there are far fewer decisive moments going downhill than up.
Contador? He's got 1.03 to recoup, and while he looks great, everyone is waiting for the Giro-Tour Double shoe to drop. Quintana? He needs two minutes. This would be super-interesting if one of these guys could out-climb Froome. After all, the race is likely to reward the best climber. But maybe Froome is the best climber? In his last healthy Tour he won the stages to Ax-3-Domaines and Mont Ventoux. He conceded nothing of consequence in 2012, as a helper. He dominated the Dauphiné climbs last month. The only time he's lost out to someone he should care about was in 2013, when Quintana clawed his way up to second place in the Alps, but even then it was merely second; Froome's lead was never in serious doubt. There's an element of permission to those escapes.
Contador looks OK but he's several years removed from his last serious Tour de France challenge. His most recent finish was 2013, fourth place, without a Giro in his legs. In 2011 he was a distraction during Cadel Evans' successful run. In 2010 he won, though the record books say otherwise. Contador is 32, and headed in the wrong direction.
Only Quintana seems to have a real chance, barring a shock from one of the young climbers. Quintana's 2013 effort was real, and he should be even better prepared this time. Whether that translates into excellence in the Pyrénées or not remains to be seen; last time around he was much better in the Alps. By then the race could be over. But Quintana has tomorrow to show the world that it isn't.
At a bare minimum, the race is Froome's to lose. He has the experience and the team, he has the lead, and he probably has the climbing legs to finish it off. The Tour is shaping up the way we asked it to, but in doing so we may have simply been asking for more proof of Froome as the generation's dominant figure.