Saxo-Tinkoff owner Oleg Tinkov courted controversy by inviting the world’s four top cyclists to go head-to-head over the roads of Italy, France and Spain next season.
The Russian billionaire’s ‘Three Grand Tour’ proposal would see Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana fight for their portion of a €1 million kitty should they merely attempt a rare Giro, Tour and Vuelta triple.
It is – let’s be honest – a rather louche suggestion. And it’s never going to happen.
If the sport suffers due a lack of major battles between its main protagonists you could make a strong counter claim that the ever-changing cast makes the major three-week races the unpredictable, unique, one-off spectacles that they are.
There is such thing as too much of a good thing – just ask Oleg after a heavy night on the champagne and caviar.
Over-saturation can lead to devaluation – look at the diamond industry for evidence of this. Habit, too, can lead to boredom.
What’s more, seeing that the last man to secure a rare Giro-Tour double was the late Marco Pantani in 1998 – and no doubt doped to the gills – the likelihood that one of the sport’s current crème de la crème could go one further in this new austere era of cycling is highly unlikely.
Indeed, detractors of Tinkov’s ‘Three Grand Tour’ proposal claim it will reduce riders to the playthings of a flamboyant quasi-master who – despite his constant anti-doping professions – seems to be encouraging (albeit indirectly) exactly the same kind of dubious practices that were still so prevalent when he was last involved in the sport (circa 2007/08).
While many see Tinkov as a charismatic Donald Trump-style figure charged with singlehandedly reinvigorating cycling and lifting it from the doldrums, others have cast the Russian as the Allen Stanford of cycling – with a nod to the salacious American/Antiguan financier and sports sponsor currently serving a 110-year prison sentence for fraud.
Amazingly, the noises from the professional cycling community are not entirely dismissive of his latest madcap idea.
Although Nibali seems to have dismissed the challenge on the grounds that it would keep him away from his family, Quintana’s Movistar manager, Eusebio Unzue, says the idea is a “good one” while Froome’s manager at Sky, Sir David Brailsford, thinks it has “a lot of merit”.
Veteran Australian Mick Rogers – formerly of Sky and now one of Contador’s key lieutenants at Tinkoff-Saxo – thinks the proposal is both “fantastic” and “encouraging”.
“Oleg is bringing a different way of thinking into cycling that all of us in the sport are not used to,” he said. Tinkov’s “fresh voice” is “pulling cycling out of its comfort zone” – a comfort zone, the 34-year-old shouldn’t need to be reminded, that was required after the excesses of the riders of his era.
Further underlining the ridiculousness of the whole proposal, even Rogers admits that it would need “a training programme that would be very specialised” – the kind of vernacular in cycling that should set alarm bells ringing.
All things considered, however, if anyone can attempt a Grand Tour treble it’s probably Contador.
When he joined Saxo from Astana back in 2011 – and just prior to his clenbuterol positive bombshell – Bjarne Riis had tipped the Spaniard to become the first rider to win all three in the same year.
Last year Tinkoff-Saxo’s Nicolas Roche and Rafal Majka joined Rogers in riding both the Giro and the Tour – and Contador has already said he will attempt the double in 2015 – off the back of his Vuelta win in September.
In fact, so superhumanly strong are Tinkoff-Saxo becoming that their next training camp will take place on Mount Kilimanjaro – no doubt to be dubbed ‘KilimanGiro-Tour-Vuelta’ or something suitably catchy.
Funnily enough, it’s not actually Tinkov’s challenge that I really wanted to talk about in this column – it’s something else he also said at the presentation of the 2015 Giro route last week.
Speaking to Cyclingnews, Tinkov agreed that the “easiest route” in years would be ideally suited to Contador’s initial plans of emulating Pantani’s feat.
What he then said struck a chord with me: “Personally I’m disappointed that there’s no stage start in Forte de Marmi as expected,” he said with both faux chagrin and a touch of genuine lament (he owns a villa in the Tuscan coastal resort and often tackles the local climbs of the Apennines and Apuan Alps).
“I was hoping there would be a stage with the Cipollaio and the San Pellegrino in Alpe climbs,” he added.
When I read this, my ears pricked – for the previous week I had done just that: having tackled the fearsome climb of San Pellegrino during a loop that also took in the ski resort of Abetone, I had ridden over the Apuan Alps and down the back of the Cipollaio to Forte de Marmi the next day for a swim in the sea before nipping south to Pisa (via an ice cream-powered detour to Lucca).
It was the most pleasant two days’ riding I have had in a long while – and perhaps the hardest.
Scaling the south side of San Pellegrino from the town of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana marked a coming of age for me. A year before, while riding from Barcelona to Rome for my book ‘Climbs and Punishment‘, I broke through the mist to reach the summit via the easier approach on the Passo delle Radici.
One year later – and a week before Oleg’s timely words – I did this same watered-down climb a second time the day before I finally had the opportunity to take on the challenging 12km climb used just twice in Giro history.
The first 7km of San Pellegrino in Alpe from Castelnuovo plays out on a tough but acceptable 8% gradient on winding roads through dense woodland. This, however, is a mere amuse-bouche to the painful main course: after a slight dip the road suddenly ramps upwards. A sign announces a gradient of 18%. Bear in mind that this is just an average: my Strava records peak out at just over 30%.
Narrow, winding and barbarically steep, this road snakes upwards for 3km before the tiny hamlet of San Pellegrino (not to be mistaken with the town of the same name in the Dolomites, famous for its sparkling water).
The settlement – a red herring for the summit is another kilometre up the road – is the highest inhabited town in the Apennines. It’s an isolated place that belonged simultaneously to two parishes, two provinces and two regions, and home to one of the most ancient shrines in Italy, dedicated to Saint Peregrine.
Legend has it that the seventh-century hermit was the son of the king of Scotland, but gave up his wealth to tame wild beasts (as you do) and live in a hollow beech tree in these hills while overcoming the evil forces of the Devil.
When he popped his clogs both the Emilians and Tuscans claimed the right to his relics. To decide the outcome of this dispute, his body was placed on a cart drawn by two wild bulls, one from Modena and one from Lucca.
The bulls (perhaps former pupils of Peregrine) bounded off, stopping exactly on the border between the two provinces. The bulls refusing to budge, it was decided that this would be the site for a church and sanctuary housing Peregrine’s remains.
When the Giro last came up here – in 2000 – Italian Francesco Casagrande crossed the summit ahead of Danilo Di Luca (Boo! Hiss!) before riding on to secure the stage win in Abetone.
Stage 5 of the 2015 Giro d’Italia also finishes in Abetone. I can vouch that the climb – although nowhere near as steep as San Pellegrino – should still force a selection and shake up the standings.
(That said, I was riding down what Contador et al will have to ride up: having snared San Pellegrino I approached the ski resort via the glorious descent of the Passo delle Radici and the scenic climb from Fiumalbo.)
My post-lunch ride back from Abetone to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana will be repeated in the final 70km of next year’s stage – but in reverse.
Meanwhile, my route up and over the Cipollaio and down to Forte de Marmi the next day would have been the reverse of the opening half of Tinkov’s dream stage – the finale of which (including those climbs to San Pellegrino in Alpe and Abetone) would have completely blown the race apart just five days into the opening week.
Say what you like about Tinkov (and everyone does just that) but his take on what would make for good viewing in his Tuscan neck of the woods is very appealing and very honest.
There is no doubt that San Pellegrino is a beautiful climb: in the autumn sunshine and with the leaves turning it was one of the most stunning cycling scenarios of the past couple of years of my life – and there have been many.
San Pellegrino is the kind of climb spectators want to see in the Giro and that riders fear – for it is as steep as the kind of ascents that habitually light up the final week of the Vuelta.
Which is where the nub of the green lies.
For Tinkov to offer a bounty of €1 million for the top riders to tackle all three Grand Tours – and then for him to complain that stage five of the opening race of those three Grand Tours is not hard enough – shows just how out of touch he is with the actual physical demands of professional cycling.
It’s as if he’s picking a fantasy team for an online competition and now trying to set the course.
Still, even without San Pellegrino in Alpe the safe money’s only really on one rider completing all three Grand Tours next year. Which begs another question: just when is Oleg Tinkoff going to offer Adam Hansen a million euros?