Blazin' Saddles: Sean Yates tips Chris Froome for Vuelta success
Former Team Sky directeur sportive Sean Yates believes Chris Froome can become the first man in the modern era to win the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana in the same year - although he's not 100% sure.
Speaking in the sleepy Norwegian town of Evenskjer during the recent Arctic Race of Norway, Yates told Eurosport's Blazin' Saddles that he envisaged the forthcoming Vuelta being "a close run thing" in the absence of his Tinkoff-Saxo team's star rider, Alberto Contador.
"Although he really had to suffer at the end, Froome, from his performances in the Tour, looks a good bet for the Vuelta," Yates said.
"When was the last time someone won the Tour and then the Vuelta? I don't know. He [Froome] likes to write history. Every big rider likes to put his name down in the record books and win big races."
Well, Sean, we can tell you when a rider last won the Tour and then the Vuelta: never.
Only two riders in history - Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault - have secured the rare double but both Frenchman did so by winning the Vuelta before the Tour.
You see, until 1995 cycling's third Grand Tour of the Season used to be the first, playing out from late-April until mid-May and overlapping with the Giro d'Italia. As such, Froome would write himself into the history books should he ride into Madrid on Sunday 13th September with the red jersey covering his shapely shoulders.
"I'd go for Froome," predicted Yates ahead of a race that features the top four riders from July's Tour - Froome, Movistar pair Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, and Vincenzo Nibali of Astana, as well as the likes of Tejay Van Garderen (BMC), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
Colombian cyclist Nairo Quintana of Movistar Team smiles next to fans ahead of the 11th edition of the 'Natourcriterium van Herentals' cycling race in Herentals on July 30, 2015AFP
"They've all done the Tour and so they're in the same boat. The guy who had the easiest ride in the Tour was Rodriguez. I don't 100% know the profile of the Tour of Spain but I've heard the profile is very hard - and I don't know how many time trial kilometres there are, and that is Rodriguez's weak point - but he took the Tour relatively easy.
"He's not yet won a Grand Tour and he's missed a couple of opportunities - big time - of winning a Grand Tour. But why would you put money on him when Froome has proven he can win races?"
Unlike Rodriguez, Froome is a big fan of the individual time trial - so much so that the Briton famously threatened to sit out of this summer's Tour on learning that it included just 14 individual time trial kilometres.
While the parcours in Spain only features one individual time trial, the 30-year-old Team Sky rider will be pleased to know that the flat 39km race against the clock for stage 17 is ideally suited to his strengths.
The opening 7.4km team time trial perhaps less so - although, to coin Yates's phrase, every main contender will be in the same boat when their teams tackle the sandy off-road track ahead of a bizarre finish on the beach at Marbella following a flat but obstacle-strewn ride from Puerto Banus late on Saturday afternoon.
Froome was one of numerous riders to voice his concerns on Twitter after on Thursday.
Such a rum opening gambit in southern Spain sparked a healthy amount of debate on social media.
Of course, if we're all getting in our knickers in a twist about the mere opening 7.4km of the race, then what about those nine summit finishes later in the race?
We say later in the race, but actually those nine mountain/hill-top finishes - all of which are entirely new to the Vuelta, incidentally - come before the second rest day. The final five stages include that time trial in Burgos, two hilly stages, one mountain stage with a downhill finish and the final sprint showdown in Madrid.
The pick of the mountain stages, however, is the "queen" stage 11 on Wednesday 2nd September. Featuring six back-to-back peaks (and over 5,200m of climbing) the 138km stage takes part entirely in Andorra and has been described as "holy suffering" and "insanity" by one rider Movistar's Rory Sutherland.
"The super steep climbs in my opinion don't suit Quintana as much as Froome," Yates said from the comfort of his Tinkoff-Saxo team car ahead of stage 2 of the Arctic Race in very different surroundings.
"Quintana likes the long, long climbs, the wearing-down ones. He's always out of the saddle, he's pushing a bigger gear, he's not explosive. Of course he can go up a hill bloody fast, but I think Froome is more calculating. Movistar is an old-school team, you know."
With the pendulum swinging towards the end of the Tour, Yates believes the Movistar pair of Quintana and Valverde will pose the biggest threat to Froome's Team Sky (which includes Ireland's Nico Roche and Welshman Geraint Thomas).
British Geraint Thomas of Team Sky celebrates as he crosses the finish line of the 58th edition of the 'E3 Prijs Vlaanderen Harelbeke' cycling race on March 27, 2015, in HarelbekeAFP
"Quintana obviously won the Giro and finished second in the Tour twice. He's showed that he's pretty damn strong. He's the one who races the less of all the contenders - and I certainly didn't get the impression that he was tired in the Tour.
"I think Valverde is passed his best and is willing to help him, so they have a strong team. Valverde won't be suffering from doing the Tour, although last year you saw him tire a bit towards the end, which is not something you usually associate with Valverde - getting tired."
One rider who was tired by the end of the Tour was Tinkoff-Saxo leader Contador, who suffered from his Giro-winning exploits from earlier in the season.
According to Yates, the Spaniard was "on his last legs physically" at the Tour. "Without a doubt, Alberto was more tired than the rest. We saw that we was still suffering from the Giro and you have to be 100% more so than ever in the Tour now - especially this year with the tough start, where no quarter was given."
Yates confirmed that next season Contador will skip the Giro and resort to a more traditional race programme. "He's going all in for the Tour. Mentally, Alberto is probably the strongest guy out there, but physically the Giro took its toll and that was there for everyone to witness at the Tour."
Spain's Alberto Contador rides in the pack during the 178,5 km fourteenth stage of the 102nd edition of the Tour de France cycling race on July 18, 2015AFP
"Nothing ventured, nothing gained. For sure, if you want to optimise your chances [for the Tour] then you shouldn't do the Giro. But at the end of the day the riders either do what they want to do or do what their teams tell them. It's horses for courses, " Yates said.
In the absence of Contador, Tinkoff-Saxo will put their huevos in the baskets of Polish climber Majka and all-rounder Peter Sagan in Spain. Riding his fourth Vuelta, Majka will be seeking a maiden stage win while Slovakia's Sagan will hope to get back to winning ways after a two-year barren patch in Grand Tours.
Felix Lowe - @saddleblaze