What happens when the best individual and the best team at a Grand Tour go directly head to head against each other? In the case of this year’s Giro d’Italia, even a team strong enough to place two riders on the podium (Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa) and a further four in the top 25 (Tanel Kangert, Paolo Tiralongo, Diego Rosa and Dario Cataldo) was not enough to depose a rider as superior as Alberto Contador.
Despite being regularly isolated by Astana whenever the road went uphill, with the light blue jerseys sometimes outnumbering the pink by four or five to one, Contador’s lead in the general classification never looked under any serious threat until the very last day in the mountains.
Astana exercised all the usual tactics of a dominant team – riding at the front to drop the Tinkoff-Saxo domestiques, and sending one leader up the road for Contador to chase while their other leader rested – but failed to put any serious dents in his lead.
Could Astana have done more? They were in a difficult situation – Landa was generally stronger in the mountains, but after a poor time-trial languished much further down the GC than Aru.
If Landa had possessed Aru’s GC position, or if Aru had possessed Landa’s climbing legs, it would have been clear which rider was designated leader and which was the decoy – but without such clearly-defined roles, Astana were unsure of which rider to back, meaning both intermittently made inroads into Contador’s lead in the final week without either of them managing enough.
Yet despite this failure to get the better of Contador, Astana will be buoyed by Tinkoff-Saxo’s apparent weakness heading into the Tour de France. In that race they possess a clear leader in defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, who they hope will be able to make more of his team’s superiority over Tinkoff-Saxo than either Aru or Landa did.
Is the gulf between Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo guaranteed to be as wide at the Tour? Some of Contador’s key domestiques were not present at the Giro, but will return to his side at the Tour. There’s Rafal Majka, last year’s king of the mountains winner; Chris Anker Sorensen, who played a key role in his Vuelta triumph last year; new signing Robert Kiserlovski, who is good enough himself to make Grand Tour top tens; and Jesus Hernandez, who has for years been Contador’s loyal right-hand man.
That certainly sounds like a strong team on paper – but then again, so did their Giro line-up. Going into the race, Oleg Tinkov’s nine looked every bit as strong as Astana’s, but the likes of Roman Kreuziger, Ivan Basso and to some extent Michael Rogers all underachieved while Astana’s Cataldo, Tiralongo and Landa all exceeded expectations.
All this suggests that Astana are preparing riders better than Tinkoff. If their supposedly weaker domestiques can ride so well at the Giro, then how strong will the likes of Jakob Fuglsang and Michele Scarponi be at the Tour? Added to the fact that some of their dominant Giro contingent (most likely Kangert) could be selected for the Tour as well, Astana look set to be similarly strong.
Contador therefore looks set to have problems in July. Nibali will be far more capable and canny when it comes to exploiting an isolated Contador, and will not lose so much time in the time-trials. Then of course there’s the added threat of Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and Sky’s Chris Froome, both of which also possess super-domestiques (Alejandro Valverde for the former and a recovered Richie Porte for the latter) capable of putting the Spaniard under pressure in the mountains.
Tinkoff-Saxo will have to improve drastically if Contador is to pull off the Giro-Tour double.
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