Top two can deliver Tour de force

1989 set a high bar for drama in the Tour de France but 2014 has all the ingredients to eclipse it

Top two can deliver Tour de force

“I’ve lost. By eight seconds. Eight seconds in Hell. LeMond has taken 58 seconds out of me in 24.5km. In the chaos, someone finally brings me up to date by admitting: “You’ve lost Laurent.” I can’t get a grip on what he is saying. I don’t believe it. More precisely, I can’t manage to believe it. No man should endure that much pain.”

— Laurent Fignon after losing the 1989 Tour de France by eight seconds on the last day

Fignon and LeMond. Froome and Contador.

A quarter of a century separates the former and latter pair from their respective heydays but there’s a neat symmetry in how both sets of rivals have defined each other.

The Tour de France, all colour and noise, rolls out of Leeds this afternoon and by the time the same weary circus speeds into Paris for the finale in three weeks’ time, it’s likely that anyone with just a passing interest in the sport will know no more than two riders. Briton Chris Froome and Spaniard Alberto Contador.

Just like the 1989 Tour won’t jog any memories outside of what happened between the Frenchman and the American, this year’s battle for yellow is likely to see a similar scenario play out.

How is that possible in a race of 198 riders? is one question often asked, while another is, surely a two-horse race makes the whole thing utterly boring?

For starters, there are ‘just’ 22 teams (of nine riders) in the race but only around half of those will actually designate a team leader who they will aim to get as high up the overall standings as possible.

However, because there is far more than ‘just’ a yellow jersey to fight for, many teams, with far lesser budgets and more realistic ambitions than Froome’s Team Sky and Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo, have more modest goals and won’t even attempt to go for the overall. Instead, they’ll target the Green jersey for the Points Classification, the Polka Dot jersey for King of the Mountains, the White U25 Young Rider’s jersey, or the Team prize. All very significant in their own right.

This ‘horses for courses’ approach is exactly what happened in 1989 when it all came down to Fignon and LeMond. They went at each other the minute the flag was dropped and sustained their blow and counter blow assault for the three weeks. It was gripping and it was enthralling and by the time they both collapsed over the line at the top of the Champs-Élysées, eight seconds was the difference after 2,000 miles of racing, with LeMond the victor.

Before that sepia-tinged showdown 25 years ago, they had three Tours won between them (Fignon in ’83 and ’84), LeMond in ’86. Froome and Contador have the same number, with the latter one up, and this, the 101st edition of the race could settle the argument over who is the greatest rider of the modern, cleaner, era.

Fignon often said he was more known as the man who lost the ’89 Tour rather than the guy who won the ’83 and ’84 Tours. If Froome wins this year, a similar fate is set to befall Contador.

Their relationship is not a bitter one by any means, there’s a mutual respect, in fact, but with both teams’ seasons totally focused on this race, nothing less than first will be enough. And both camps have gone to extraordinary lengths to seek the edge.

Contador flew into the UK by private jet this week so he’d be fresher. Froome has reconnoitred every single metre of road ahead of the race. Contador and his team have spent time training at altitude — something he has never done before, mirroring the preparation that made Froome so outrageously strong last year. Stride for stride they’ve matched each other for the first time ever, which is what is going to make this Tour so exhilarating.

“The objective can only be to win,” Contador said this week. “If I was only fighting to finish second, I wouldn’t be motivated enough to make the sacrifices I have to make.

“But it’s clear that there is a top favourite in Froome, who’s been really strong in the last two years, and who will be equally strong this year.

“It’s going to be difficult to beat him, but nobody’s unbeatable,” added the two-time winner.

And what does Froome make of all the pretenders to his throne?

“We’ve got some big champions in this year’s Tour,” he suggested.

“If you look at Alberto’s season up to now, I think he’s leading the UCI rankings, so that shows he’s done well. I definitely wouldn’t say he’s the underdog and I’m not the clear favourite. I’m coming in as defending champion but I don’t think that makes me the number one favourite. There are a few guys who will be fighting for the win.”

What will make the battle even more intriguing is that, like 1989, the Tour organisers have designed a route that is likely to keep the race suspense-filled for the entire three weeks. Yes, there are mountains and time-trials in the opening two weeks that will indicate who’s on form (and distance those who aren’t) but the three Pyrenean mountain stages back-to-back in the final week, coupled with the hellish 54km time-trial on the penultimate day, will decide the race.

Froome’s metronomic style of riding, like Fignon’s, is something few can match and perhaps, crucially, he has a stronger team and is a better rider against the clock than Contador. However, El Pistolero, as he’s known back home, is in the form of his life and after a string of fine wins this year, is brimming with confidence. He’s much more aggressive than Froome and can launch race-winning, devil-may-care attacks, a la LeMond, from anywhere.

They said 1989 would never be trumped for drama. That could all change over the next three weeks.

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