To win the Tour you have to be a top-class climber – there is no way around it. The last time a non-climber won the Tour was Spaniard Miguel Indurain in 1995, but even then he was certainly not a weak climber. Indurain’s competition was not the greatest and the time-trial specialist had more than 100km of individual races against the clock to take huge chunks of time out of his rivals, which he then easily defended in the mountains.
These days, though, the time trials are much shorter – 54km this year, less than a third of the 1995 total including the team time trial. And with four summit finishes, seven hors catégory mountains, 14 first-category ones and an uphill time trial to boot, anyone not considered a climber simply could not compete.
Cycling is an individual sport based around teamwork. No matter how good a cyclist is, if he doesn’t have a strong team, he won’t be able to win the Tour. Team-mates are there to protect a rider from the elements, from hazards and even to hand him water bottles and food.
They can also take away some of the burden in setting tempo, chasing down attacks, showing the line on a tricky descent and even providing a boost to morale. In short, if you don’t have a strong team to help you out in the toughest moments, then you will be alone, exposed and vulnerable.
There are many pitfalls along the way to a Tour victory; in fact, it is typically said that riders can lose the Tour on any stage but not win it. And to avoid losing the Tour, a rider needs tactical acumen. That means being able to read the race around him, knowing when to attack, when to defend, when to use his team-mates and where to position himself in the peloton.
Last year, Nairo Quintana was caught out on the second stage when crosswinds split the peloton. He lost 1min 27sec to Chris Froome that day and eventually lost by only 1min 12sec overall. Knowing when to ensure you’re in the right place at the right time can be crucial in such a brutal race where every mistake can be fatal to your overall hopes.
There may be less and less time-trial kilometres compared with years gone by but, nonetheless, riders need to be good against the clock. When Indurain used to win the Tour he would put several minutes into his rivals in each time trial and that was enough to give him overall victory. The time trial is a moment when you cannot rely on anyone else, there are no team-mates to help. If you’re having a bad day, you’re entirely on your own and you can quickly lose a lot of time.
Although there are many more opportunities to lose the Tour than win it, you cannot claim victory by simply waiting for the rest to fall by the wayside. The Tour champion needs to have the self-belief to strike out for home when he feels strong.
One reason Froome has been so successful these past few years is his belief that he can drop anyone on any climb. When he decides to attack he goes full gas and doesn’t look behind. And more often than not, he breaks his opponents mentally as well as physically.
If Quintana developed the same kind of self-assurance, he may well be able to compete with Froome. But so far, in finishing second to the Englishman in 2013 and 2015, he’s taken too long on each occasion to launch his counterattack, and by then Froome already had the yellow jersey as good as locked up.