The summer of cycling is underway.
Foreshadowing the battle many anticipate defining it at the Tour de France, past Grand Tour winners Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali all rode to top-10 places in stage one of the Criterium du Dauphine on Sunday.
Sky's reigning Tour de France winner, Froome, topped the 10-km time trial around Lyon. Minutes earlier, Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) had gone ahead of Bob Jungels' (Trek Factory Racing) previous best time. Astana's Nibali finished a respectable eighth, 13 seconds behind.
The Dauphine concludes next Sunday. By then, we will have a better idea of how the Tour favourites are shaping up. Of course, the previous two winners of the race went on to win France's main cycling extravaganza—Froome last year, Bradley Wiggins in 2012 (the latter might have done so the previous year too, if he had not been injured early on in the Tour).
Much discussion in the sport last week was focused on the aforementioned Sky stars. On Monday, the British team announced their squads for the Dauphine and the upcoming Tour de Suisse—another traditional Tour precursor.
Wiggins' selection for Switzerland, rather than as part of Froome's France-bound team, was immediately jumped upon in the British media. "Speculation that Sir Bradley Wiggins may not make Team Sky’s Tour de France squad is only likely to grow," wrote the Daily Telegraph's Tom Cary.
Well, it might have, had Wiggins not appeared to clarify the situation. Talking to the BBC, Wiggins claimed "the team is focused around Chris Froome" for the Tour. Admirably, he did not break ranks despite admitting he was "gutted" at probably missing out on this year's edition, which begins in England.
But then Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford spoke up, here via The Guardian:
Despite the impression that might have been created, the team for the Tour is not yet finalised. I will be the one making the decision on who is in the team. I speak with our performance team, the riders can offer an opinion but they don't select the team and they never will.
The situation is complicated, to say the least. Wiggins and Froome shared a rivalry which came to the fore during the former's Tour de France victory in 2012.
Wiggins was perturbed at how he felt his chief lieutenant had appeared to challenge him mid-race, straying from the accepted hierarchy. Any other Tour winner might have demanded a subsequent removal. But by that point, Froome's potential—hinted at in his excellent second place in the 2011 Vuelta a Espana—was too tantalising for Sky to ever consider bowing to any demands from the elder rider (aged 34, Wiggins has five years on him).
Froome realised that in an excellent 2013, replicating Wiggins' successful buildup in stage races from the previous year, similarly culminating with yellow in Paris. The senior Sky man's Giro d'Italia tilt proved unsuccessful, but he rescued his year by winning the Tour of Britain and silver in the World Championships time trial.
Tensions appeared to have eased heading into 2014. "The more we can race together, the better for everybody in the team," Wiggins told Sky Sports in January. The notion of him riding the Tour de France with Froome did not seem so unrealistic.
A couple of things changed.
Richie Porte was scheduled to ride the Giro before ill-health ravaged his preparations. Back in contention to ride the Tour as Froome's No. 2 once more, a potential spot for Wiggins seemed to have disappeared. Speaking to The Guardian's William Fotheringham last week, Froome spoke about his faith in the Australian.
In this writer's mind, Wiggins would serve as general support rather than as a main lieutenant in the mountains. Froome appeared to think so too in the previously mentioned Guardian piece. But had Wiggins' Tour of California success planted a seed of concern in Froome's mind? Still a big name in Britain and clearly in good form, would Wiggins support him, or would a lust for glory emerge and he try to usurp him?
It might be the case the two ride together in July and everything is fine. But it appears this is a relationship drama not yet completely played out.
Leadership rivalries are not new to cycling. Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi would act out their most famous battles on separate sides, but their personal competition originated during time spent together on the Legnano team prior to World War II. Arguably the sport's most famous rivalry was between Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, at La Vie Claire in the 1980s.
In the present day, Froome and Wiggins at Sky is not the only intriguing inter-team dynamic when it comes to Grand Tour concerns.
The name arguably missing from those at the top of this article is Movistar's Nairo Quintana. Second at last year's Tour de France, the promise of the 24-year-old Colombian was fulfilled in clinical yet scintillating fashion at last month's Giro d'Italia.
Quintana's securing of the maglia rosa has led to some fans questioning his absence from the Tour. Movistar confirmed in February, via Velo News' Andrew Hood, that Alejandro Valverde would be their leader in July.
As has also been pointed out, though, there is no point rushing and tiring out the younger Quintana, his time will come. First in La Fleche Wallonne, second in Liege-Bastogne-Liege—there is hope Valverde can build on his Spring Classics form next month.
At Lampre-Merida, road race world champion moved Rui Costa joined from Movistar so as to further his chances of a top-10 bid at the Tour. In an interview with Alasdair Fotheringham in the June issue of ProCycling magazine, the Portuguese was described as "a little on edge..when asked about team-mate Chris Horner's possible participation."
Horner became the oldest winner (aged 41) of a Grand Tour at last year's Vuelta. A training accident disrupted his plans this year, and now a trip to France by way of England is on the schedule. With team boss Brent Copeland confirming to Cycling News' Daniel Benson Lampre's intention to offer both extensions to their respective one-year contacts, how they get on together this summer will be worth watching.
Elsewhere, after his third place at the Giro, Astana's Fabio Aru is already being touted as a general classification competitor to potentially rival his team-mate and fellow Italian Nibali.
Beating everyone else is difficult enough with your team-mates firmly on your side. It is one of cycling's most perplexing, yet entertaining facets that even so many years into the sport's history, the pursuits of the individual are still sometimes above all else.