Last season it was Fabian Cancellara and Bradley Wiggins. This year, it was Tom Boonen and soon Thomas Voeckler will join him. Alberto Contador has already announced retirement once. Chris Froome is 32, so too Nibali and Porte. Even Mark Cavendish, that quintessential boyish upstart, is 32. One swallow does not a summer make, but at least a few of these high-flyers are starting to look a bit grey around the plumage.
Cycling is coming to a sea change. The generation of riders that has dominated cycling’s greatest races for the last few years is beginning to break up, and hanging over the peloton is the sense that the established order of things will not last much longer.
In the spring of recent years we have grown accustomed to seeing a tall, rangy rider dominate time trial stages whilst going mano a mano with the pure climbers in the mountains. The difference this year is that the rider has been Tom Dumoulin at the Giro, rather than Chris Froome at the Dauphiné.
Dumoulin conquered the Giro with two storming performances against the clock, whilst Froome laboured to a disappointing eighth at the Dauphiné TT and could only claw his way back to 4th overall. They don’t call the time-trial ‘the race of truth’ for nothing, and Froome’s race was distinctly lacklustre.
A question of form
Weighing on Froome’s mind will be the fact the Dauphiné has acted as a reliable bellwether of his form for the past five seasons. Historically, if he wins the Dauphiné, he wins the Tour. Backstage, Sky face their usual difficulty of keeping a group of potential Grand Tour leaders happy riding as domestiques. Landa, Thomas, Henao – if the crown slips, they are ready to wear it. Landa, especially, is said to resent forgoing his shot at the Vuelta in order to ride for Froome in July.
Elsewhere, other established Grand Tour riders also look vulnerable. Still only 27, and balancing his efforts against a tilt at the Tour this July, Nairo Quintana can afford one disappointing Giro.
Nibali no longer has that luxury. Racing on home soil with no Tour campaign to worry about, he will be disturbed by his inability to drop Dumoulin, who had traditionally struggled when the road tilted uphill. Alberto Contador, one of this era’s giants, is now 34 and could not make the top ten at the Dauphiné.
If this spring sent tremors through the GC hierarchy, the shakeup within the sprinters’ ranks has been seismic. André Greipel might have nicked a stage win, but the 34-year-old was thoroughly overshadowed. On his Grand Tour debut, Fernando Gaviria took four stage victories.
It was the kind of imperious showing that we are used to seeing from Mark Cavendish who, with the Tour looming large, has still shown no real signs of form after three months out with glandular fever. He has at last made a return to racing at the Tour of Slovenia, but he was edged out there for a sprint win by the young Irishman Sam Bennett. And all this before mentioning the rider most widely tipped to inherit Cavendish’s crown, Caleb Ewan, who recently added a Giro stage to his win at last year’s Vuelta.
A generation of talented riders is fading. But if one is on the way out, that inevitably means another is on the way in. And it is not yet the end for any of these veterans – they still have the legs to put themselves about. A pivotal Tour de France beckons and they will be all too aware of the limited time left for them in a cut-throat sport that values results above all else. For some, this might be a last roll of the dice.
Should Chris Froome’s vicelike grip on the Tour weaken, there will be a host of riders desperate to take advantage, both old masters and young pretenders alike. And therein lies the boon for us, as cycling fans. This year’s Tour looks the most unpredictable in years. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Time for mere anarchy.