The Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double has become the elusive Holy Grail of professional cycling. In the nineteen years since it was last achieved by Marco Pantani, it has become almost mythologised as the ultimate achievement for the peloton’s biggest stars.
It’s been described as impossible in an era of increased specialisation and tougher doping controls, yet its allure still tempts hubristic stars believing they have what it takes.
Ivan Basso thought he could do it after winning the Giro in 2010 but flopped to 31st at the Tour. Alberto Contador had looked unbeatable prior to attempting it in 2011, and romped to victory at the Giro, but looked vulnerable for the first time in his career at the Tour, where he finished fifth. (He was later stripped of both results for a doping violation).
Undeterred, Contador tried again four years later but was unsuccessful, again only managing a fatigued fifth at the Tour having had to dig deep to win a very hard Giro. And just last year Nairo Quintana fell at the first hurdle by failing to win the Giro, which still took so much out of him that at the Tour he could only muster 12th overall.
This week, Chris Froome became the latest rider to announce that he would embark on this apparent fool’s errand.
“It’s really exciting to be able to take on a new challenge, to do something that perhaps most people wouldn’t expect”, the Briton stated, aware of the surprise when rumours of the attempt first surfaced earlier this month.
“It’s a whole new motivation for me to see if I can pull off something special next year.”
Watch: Tour de France 2018 route guide
So can he do it? Well, there are promising signs that he is better equipped than the recent failed candidates. For one thing, in pulling off the Tour/Vuelta double in 2017 he has already proven himself capable of winning back-to-back Grand Tours, something that Basso, Contador and Quintana have not been able to manage.
The way he controlled his efforts across each race, peaking for both without going too deep in either, demonstrated a racing intelligence and prolonged consistency to suggest repeat performances at the Giro and Tour next year could be possible, while Team Sky have perfected the art of assembling squads to peak at the perfect time.
It must be remembered that the Giro/Tour is another kettle of fish. A select few riders over the past couple of decades have podiumed in both the Tour and the Vuelta in the same season – but nobody in that same time has done so at the Tour and the Giro.
One reason the Tour/Vuelta is easier is that the latter race features towards the end of the season when most riders are fatigued and have already completed a Grand Tour – for instance, Froome’s main rival at the Vuelta last year, Vincenzo Nibali, had already targeted and finished second at the Giro. By contrast, when Froome rides the Tour de France as his second Grand Tour of next season, the vast majority of his probable competitors will be a lot fresher than him.
On the plus side, a quirk in the 2018 calendar should mean Froome enters the Tour fresher than he otherwise would have. You might usually associate a football World Cup as a bad omen for British sport, but its scheduling this summer has prompted Tour organisers to push the race back one week later than usual. A mere seven days may not sound like a lot, but, in the fine margins of Grand Tour racing, could make all the difference in Froome’s quest to achieve the double.
The last point to consider is a fairly simple one – just how good Froome is. Of the failed attempts mentioned above, only Contador in 2011 could be said to have been at the very top of his game, and even that campaign was compromised by the stress of an unresolved doping investigation.
Froome, by contrast, looked near invisible last season, and though he will turn 33 at the Giro, is still probably just about in his peak years. The winning margins may not have been as large at the Tour and Vuelta last year, but he rode more consistently than he ever has done before, and never really looked under pressure in either race.
The Giro/Tour double continues to fascinate as a romantic notion, a pinnacle of the sport only attainable for the unsurpassable legends of bygone eras. But if anyone from this generation can achieve this apparently impossible feat, it’s Chris Froome, even if it would be the greatest of all his achievements.