The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
After his overall win in the Tour of Oman, dancing away from his rivals on the slopes of Green Mountain, it’s clear Chris Froome isn’t suffering any hangovers from his massive 2013 campaign.
Everyone should be afraid.
A burst of high-cadence acceleration was all it took to blow away Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and former Team Sky lieutenant Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
As for Vincenzo Nibali, a man who many consider Froome’s most serious rival for the Tour de France, he was never truly in the hunt. With his wife at home about to give birth to their first child, it’s understandable if Nibali’s head wasn’t fully in the game in Oman.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Robert Gesink (Belkin), and Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo) were all thereabouts, but had no answer to Froome’s attack.
After stage five, Froome gave his perspective on his performance to Cycling Central:
“From a personal perspective I wanted to see where I was, where my condition was, and I think today I got the answer I wanted.
“Winning here is always more psychological than anything else. At this point it’s still too early to say anything in terms of build-up to the Tour de France, but it’s definitely good to have it in there.”
As he says, it’s far too early to draw too many conclusions about the form of other riders, but what the Tour of Oman shows is Froome definitely hasn’t spent his winter wining and dining at gala dinners.
It shows Froome still has the hunger that seemed to desert Sir Bradley Wiggins after his own magical 2012 season (remember a clearly-overweight Wiggins struggling to find form and condition leading into last year’s Giro d’Italia).
Smashing his rivals so early in the season is such a psychological victory because everyone can see that, barring accident or injury, there will be no slackening off from the man who dominated every stage race he entered last year.
The effects of this can be seen already in the list of general classification riders shifting their sights to the Giro d’Italia. It’s almost an admission that Froome can’t be beaten in the Tour this year, so let’s aim for the next biggest prize.
It’s a coup for the Italian race, which begins in Ireland on May ninth. You could even argue the list of GC contenders for the Giro looks better than for the Tour.
In fact I will: the best GC riders, Froome excepted, are not riding the Tour de France this year.
Joaquim Rodriguez, Cadel Evans, Rigoberto Uran, Nairo Quintana and Froome’s teammate Richie Porte are all aiming squarely for the Giro. All except Uran targeted the Tour in 2013.
That’s some serious talent on display in May.
In July, Froome’s main rivals will be Nibali, Alberto Contador, Rui Costa, Tejay van Garderen, Robert Gesink, and Alejandro Valverde.
Nibali is one of my favourites, but he’ll have to overcome the disruption of new fatherhood, as well as Team Sky.
Contador has looked past his best for two years, but he took his first win in over a year in stage four of the Volta ao Algarve this week. Hey, that’s better than nothing, but he didn’t beat anyone as good as the riders Froome just thrashed.
I’ll need to see a lot more before I rate Contador as a serious GC threat again.
Valverde is a similar story: he defeated Richie Porte on home turf in the Ruta del Sol this week, cleaning up three stage wins in the process. But he’ll be 34 by the time the Tour begins, and he’s never made the podium there.
Many astute observers don’t think he’s even the best GC rider in his team.
Yes, Valverde’s still deadly in stages that suit him, but can he go three weeks without a bad day in the high mountains?
Costa is all class, but his best results have come in single-day races and as a stage winner. His highest Grand Tour GC finish to date is 18th, at the Tour in 2012.
He’s unproven as a Grand Tour GC contender, despite very strong performances in shorter stage races like the Tour de Suisse.
Gesink and van Garderen are well known for their buckets of potential without ever really looking like winning a Grand Tour.
As the season progresses we’ll have a better idea of who is really in form and who’s playing catch-up.
But for my money, there are more genuine GC riders aiming for the Giro than I can remember.
Why would the Giro, a great race but undeniably less prestigious than its French cousin, attract a more competitive field than the Tour?
Because they think Froome can’t be beaten.