Miguel Indurain was the last rider to successfully defend their Tour de France title from one year to the next. The Spaniard’s run of five victories from 1991 to 1995 is the last time that a rider’s name appears in consecutive years on the list of Tour winners.
Since Indurain, 11 riders appear on that list of Tour champions from 1996 to 2014. Only Alberto Contador appears twice, and not in consecutive years (but… of course… see footnote below).
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Cycling is growing in popularity worldwide, and it is arguable that the Tour de France is bigger than it has ever been. Once the preserve of the specialist media, it’s now possible to choose which TV channel you watch it on, while browsing literally hundreds of websites giving you the latest Tour news, results, videos and updates. The Tour is everywhere.
Anyone who wins professional cycling’s biggest race is instantly a star, and that brings with it a great deal of pressure and commitments to be honoured to please fans and sponsors. Such is the level of attention after winning the Tour that it is virtually impossible for that rider to continue their training over the following winter and into spring. And that can severely damage chances of a repeat win.
Last year, Vincenzo Nibali became the first Italian winner of the Tour since Marco Pantani in 1998. Needless to say, his status in Italy grew dramatically despite having already won his home grand tour, the Giro d’Italia, in 2013.
However, Nibali admitted long before the start of the 2015 Tour in Utrecht that he had suffered “a lot of distractions during the winter”, and he has not appeared to be the same rider in 2015. “I don’t even seem like the brother of Nibali from last year,” he said after reflecting on his lack of form.
Nibali is not alone. Bradley Wiggins also struggled to regain his form after his 2012 Tour de France victory, despite subsequently winning the Olympic time trial title in London. An aborted ride at the 2013 Giro d’Italia saw him suffer with illness and injury and not start the 2013 Tour. Instead, his team-mate Chris Froome was Team Sky leader and duly took the honours – but then the following year, Froome suffered a series of mishaps, and crashed out of the race.
Winning the Tour is no longer a ticket to a good ride the following year, it’s now something of a handicap. One that is compounded by the expectation and pressure of your home nation, team, sponsors and fans who may be quick to dismiss you as a ‘has been’ or a let down if you do not perform.
Whilst the Tour champion attends post-Tour criteriums, lavish dinners, sponsor events and jets around the world, their rivals have properly rested after a tough season, and are now already hard at work, training and plotting for next year’s race.
Professional cycling may have grown in international stature, but the ways in which riders are able to deal with and manage the fame and – rather limited by the standards of other global sports – fortune of winning the biggest big race on the planet still leaves a lot to be desired.
Cycle training may have been revolutionised in recent years with power meters and marginal gains, but there’s no denying that cycling is still one of the more straightforward sports to prepare for: hours of time spent in the saddle is a necessity. And that means hard miles and specific training, not just bumbling around back lanes for half an hour in between dinner courses and corporate speeches.
All the signs are that the Tour is only getting bigger, so the pressure on the winner is only going to get greater. It’s going to take a very special sort of rider to deal with a winter of commitments and still come back and win the Tour the following year. Those days may be over.
Any reference to cycling in the 1990s has to have a footnote. I said that Miguel Indurain was the last rider whose name appears in consecutive years in the list of past Tour de France winners, but that ignores an elephant in the corner of the room wearing an XXXXXL yellow jersey. Two riders have since stood on the podium in Paris in adjoining years: Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador.
In the case of Armstrong, all seven of the American’s consecutive 1999 to 2005 Tour titles were stripped after he admitted to doping during his career. And in the case of Contador – who won in 2009 – his 2010 Tour title was removed after he tested positive for clenbuterol during the race.
The 1999-2005 Tour titles remain blank in the official list, and the 2010 Tour title went to Andy Schleck.
Video: What’s it like to ride the Tour de France