IT is 11 days until the Tour de France begins with an opening stage between Leeds and Harrogate, but for some of the leading cyclists in the world, this week will mark the end of the road.
The teams competing on the Tour are due to settle on their nine-man starting lists before the weekend, and there will be some notable absentees from the peloton that lines up for Yorkshire’s Grand Depart a week on Saturday.
Movistar have already confirmed that last year’s runner up, Nairo Quintana, will not be contesting the Tour in the wake of his Giro d’Italia triumph. The Giro and Vuelta were always going to be Quintana’s targets for the season, and Movistar will concentrate their efforts on delivering Alejandro Valverde into yellow jersey contention in the closing stages of the Tour.
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There is logic to their decision, with Quintana having expended considerable energy on the Giro, but as arguably the leading climber in the field, last year’s King of the Mountains and best young rider will be missed.
Quintana’s absence should increase Chris Froome’s chances of retaining the yellow jersey he won so thrillingly last year, although Team Sky’s team selection will be the most eagerly-awaited of this week’s announcements as there remains considerable doubt over who will be charged with the task of supporting Froome, who is now firmly established as Sky’s number one.
At the start of this month, Sir Bradley Wiggins’ chances of competing on the Tour looked all but nondescript.
The 2012 champion’s relationship with Froome has always been something of a soap opera, but the simmering tensions between the duo became impossible to ignore when Froome’s recently-released autobiography effectively accused Wiggins of betraying signs of weakness as he became the first British rider to win the Tour two years ago.
Wiggins’ distrust of Froome stems from the latter’s unauthorised attack on La Toussuire during the 2012 Tour, and over the course of the last two years, Team Sky principal Sir Dave Brailsford has tended to keep the riders apart whenever possible.
“The team is focused around Chris Froome,” said Wiggins at the start of the month. “I am gutted. I feel I am in the form I was two years ago. Now, if I want to go to the Tour again, the reality is that I might have to go elsewhere.”
Since uttering those words, however, Wiggins has triumphed on the Tour of California, and while he was forced to pull out of the Tour de Suisse because of injury, he remains arguably the most in-form rider on the Team Sky roster.
He has achieved better results this season than Froome, he could only finish 12th in the Criterium du Dauphine after a desperate final stage that saw him tumble down the rankings and finish more than five minutes behind his team-mate Mikel Nieve.
As a leading pack that featured former Tour champion Alberto Contador pulled away from him, Froome struggled to shake off the effects of a crash in the early stages of the Criterium. Physically, the 29-year-old should have recovered from his exertions by the time the Tour begins a week on Saturday. Mentally, it remains to be seen whether they have left a scar.
Next month, more than ever, Froome needs the support of some able deputies, but his trusted inner circle of domestiques have also been beset by problems.
Richie Porte, Froome’s long-time right-hand man, has spent most of the season battling against illness, Geraint Thomas crashed out of Paris-Nice when well placed, Ian Stannard fractured a vertebra at Gent-Wevelgem, Sergio Henao fractured his kneecap in a training accident and the experienced Edvald Boasson Hagen was forced to pull out in the latter stages of the Route du Sud.
Stannard is definitely out of the Tour, while Henao, who had impressed during the early stages of the Tour de Suisse, and Boasson Hagen are major doubts.
Nieve’s fine form has provided a rare chink of light in recent weeks, but as someone who prides himself on meticulous planning and ‘controlling the controllables’, Brailsford must be despairing at his team’s run of bad luck.
With that in mind, might it be worth selecting Wiggins, who when personal issues are put to one side, remains a world-class rider with recent experience of winning the Tour?
It always pays to have a ‘Plan B’, and if Froome was to drop out of the reckoning for some reason over the three weeks of the Tour, Wiggins is the only other Team Sky rider who could realistically compete for the yellow jersey. He would also play a potentially pivotal role in the individual and team time trials.
The downside to such an approach would be the reigniting of the personality clash that has threatened to rip apart Team Sky in the past. In elite-level cycling, there is insufficient room for two team leaders, but surely Wiggins could be persuaded to shelve his individual ambitions, at least while Froome was contending for the lead in the general classification.
One other interesting aspect to Team Sky’s selection will be the fate of Yorkshireman Ben Swift, who is desperate to compete in his home county.
Swift, a proven sprinter, has recovered from the injuries that plagued him last season and recently finished second behind Marcel Kittel on the third stage of the Giro.
If Team Sky’s line-up is designed solely to support Froome, it is hard to see why Swift would feature. If, however, Brailsford is also targeting stage wins, specifically on the high-profile opening stage to Harrogate, the local sprinter could yet make the frame.