For most riders, an overall victory in Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico would be the highlight of a season. But Bradley Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali have bigger fish to fry this year, and reigning Tour de France champion Cadel Evans will not be taking their early-season form lightly.
Last year, Evans won the seven-day Tirreno-Adriatico race in Italy, using the win as a launching pad for his assault on cycling’s biggest prize: July’s Grande Boucle.
This year, the Australian finished a whopping 12:55 down on Nibali, who added a first Italian-stage race win to his 2010 Vuelta a Espana title.
Across the border in France, Wiggins – another one of Evans’s big rivals – powered up the iconic Col d’Eze climb to snatch victory in the individual mountain time trial to secure the eight-stage Paris-Nice crown.
A slim and confident Wiggins is climbing better than ever, while his ability to race against the clock remains as strong as you’d expect from an Olympic track gold medalist.
Following his Criterium du Dauphine win last June, Wiggins now has yellow jerseys for both of France’s biggest stage races – and the Briton is bullish about his chances of adding the Tour to his swelling palmarès.
“There is no longer any question of my fourth place in the Tour in 2009 being a fluke,” Wiggins wrote in his column in British newspaper The Guardian.
“I said during the week that Paris-Nice, for all the respect I have for it, is a stepping stone. If I’m capable of winning it, I’m capable of winning the Tour de France.”
With habitual race-favourite Alberto Contador banned from racing until August, this year’s Tour de France is tipped to be one of the most open races in recent history.
While Evans will no doubt enter the race as clear favourite, the BMC rider will be aware that the route – which includes almost 100 kilometres of time trials – plays very much to the strengths of Wiggins, a rider who – like Evans – has seen his overall chances of victory often rubbished by many.
After a surprise fourth place in 2009, Wiggins made a big money move to Team Sky where he disappointed in his debut year, finishing the race 24th. Following his win in last June’s Dauphine, Wiggins subsequently crashed out of the Tour with a broken collarbone, sustained in stage eight.
But Evans – four years Wiggins’ senior – experienced similar lows before finally nailing his maiden Tour win; successive finishes outside the top 20 saw many write off Evans before his accomplished and experienced performance last July.
As for Nibali, the 27-year-old Liquigas rider has ridden as team-mate Ivan Basso’s apprentice for so long, but those days seem long gone. The Sicilian is arguably his team’s trump card now and, having sat out the last two Tours, it looks likely Nibali will have another stab at a race in which he finished seventh back in 2009.
Nibali’s participation in the Tour is far from guaranteed. Having taken third and second in the last two editions of the Giro, he may fancy his chances at going one better on home soil. But the noises coming out of the Liquigas camp are that their man will ride both the Tour and the Vuelta this year.
One thing’s certain: of all the big-name riders fancied for the Tour Nibali and Wiggins are the only two showing any real form so far this season.
If Evans’ 2012 debut was underwhelming, then spare a thought for 2010 de-facto Tour champion Andy Schleck, whose opening time trial in Paris-Nice was so poor that the RadioShack rider was forced to withdraw from the race with a mystery gastroenteritis.
After crashing heavily, and frequently finding himself off the back of the bunch, Basso also pulled out of the race. Meanwhile, French favourite Thomas Voeckler has done little to prove that his own fourth place in the Tour was anything other than a fluke (albeit of an endearingly plucky nature).
Of course, this raises the question of whether or not riders can peak too early in the season – an issue that Roar expert Chris Sidwells has already addressed in his excellent column earlier this week.
We all know what happened to Contador last season: after his superhuman performance in the Giro, the Spaniard was excruciatingly short of form during the Tour.
But there is no rule book when it comes to form. Indeed, the notion of peaking too early was proved a fallacy last year by Philippe Gilbert, who pretty much seemed to ride the crest of a wave throughout the season, not once hitting anything remotely resembling a trough.
As Wiggins himself wrote this week: “I don’t believe any of that stuff about peaking too early. I went into Paris-Nice with the form I had. We had a plan, I’m not ahead of it, but there are still some areas to work on.”
“My trainers have pushed me hard all winter with a view to peaking for July and I think I’m at about 95% of my potential now. The rest will come from the work I do between now and July.”
While questions of hitting form too early or too late are clearly a grey area, let’s also not get carried away with the significance of both Wiggins and Nibali’s wins.
Although Contador has won Paris-Nice twice in recent years, and on both occasions gone on to win the Tour, last year’s victor Tony Martin has never – and probably will never – come close to wearing the yellow jersey on the Champs Elysees. The same could be said of 2009-winner Luis Leon Sanchez.
Tirreno-Adriatico is even less of a form gauge than Paris-Nice; Evans is the only rider in history to have gone on to win the Tour, having won the Italian race earlier in the year.
So while Evans’s main concerns at this stage will be about his legs – and not the legs of his rivals – he’ll definitely be aware that, in Wiggins and Nibali, he will have two worthy adversaries come July.