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Double or nothing: Is the Giro-Tour double the last great prize in cycling?

Joseph Delves
4 May 2017

With Nairo Quintana taking aim at both the Giro and Tour this year, we look at the history of one of cycling's great challenges

There are three Grand Tours in cycling, and no rider has ever won all three in a single year. In all likelihood it's simply not possible, either – particularly in the modern era.

These days most of the top general classification riders base their entire year around trying to win just one of them – typically the Tour de France, the sport's biggest event.

In fact, very few even attempt to ride the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana in a single year, and fewer still succeed in completing all three.

Last year just two riders managed it: Alejandro Valverde, who impressively took 3rd, 6th and 12th respectively in his Grand Tour trifecta, and Adam Hansen, who incredibly was completing the feat for the fifth straight year.

But Valverde isn't riding the Giro at all this year, and Hansen's best placing in those 15 straight Grand Tour finishes was 55th in the 2015 Vuelta, so we can safely discount him from our thinking.

But if winning all three Grand Tours in a year is effectively impossible, how about two?

Hard, yes, but not impossible. And if you're going to pick the two most prestigious, it has to be the Giro and Tour (with all respect to the Vuelta), which begs the question: Is a Giro-Tour double the last truly great achievement in cycling?

It’s a feat that’s rarely attempted, let alone completed. That’s because in racing the earlier tour riders compromise their chances in both, potentially risking their team going away from the whole season with nothing.

‘The Tour is the big one, it’s the most important race for riders and sponsors,’ Grand Tour winner and Eurosport commentator Sean Kelly explains.

‘If you concentrate on the Tour and make getting yourself 100% ready for it, then you can take the earlier part of the season a little bit easier.

'You’ve seen that both this year and last with Froome being very quiet in the early season, riding the Tour then continuing to the Vuelta.

'The Tour and the Vuelta is possible, but the Giro and Tour is much harder.’

The Tour de France is cycling's most prestigious race and the best teams and riders home in on it with laser like focus.

It’s telling that even at his most juiced up Lance Armstrong never seriously considered adding a Giro to his seven consecutive Tour wins.

Venturing to tackle both is to tempt fate. That’s partly because neither start list, nor route profile, ever give an accurate prediction of how the year’s first Grand Tour might play out.

‘It all depends on how hard they race at the Giro,’ explains Kelly.

‘If it’s very aggressive racing every day, that’s going to leave a mark that will follow the rider all the way to the Tour de France,’ he added.

Still the promise of adding their name to the list of Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain and Marco Pantani is an almost irresistible draw for some riders.

With such an illustrious list of former winners, the Giro-Tour double feels like it truly belongs to cycling history.

It’s perhaps fitting then that the last rider to accomplish it was Marco Pantani, with a literally unbelievable performance back in 1998.

In retrospect his season that year formed a closing act to a bygone era that came to define cycling at its most spectacular and conflicted.

With the Festina doping scandal almost seeing the cancellation of the Tour de France, the rider known as Il Pirata sped away from his rivals at both races in a fashion that seemed superhuman.

It was a performance that flew a little too close to the sun. The next year he would be expelled from the Giro for an abnormal hematocrit level, and within five years would be dead of a cocaine overdose in an out of season hotel.

Since then cycling has cleaned up its act, but it’s also become infinitely more prescriptive. It’s not just the lack of doped riders that makes the double less likely.

The way that Grand Tours are designed and contested nowadays makes winning them back to back far harder than in the days of Coppi and Merckx, or even Pantani.

Sean Kelly explains: ‘The earlier part of these races used to be run off more casually. Now they’re raced very nervously from the off.

'There’s so many difficult stages put in early in the race, along with lot of long transfers between stages. I’m surprised there’s not a strike from the riders.’

Go back a few years and a gentlemen’s agreement between the big bosses in the peloton would see many of the stages essentially neutralised, leaving the riders in the break to put on a show for the cameras.

Now almost every day is contested in earnest.  

This increased workload, along with a style of racing that sees the big teams driving from the off to deter attacks is also far more draining.

After Pantani, Alberto Contador was the last rider to attempt the feat. The Spanish rider had form, having won the easier Giro-Vuelta pairing in 2008 at the height of his career.

His manager at Tinkoff–Saxo, the Russian businessman Oleg Tinkov was also a fan of seeing the double repeated, offering a million euros to be split between Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali if they’d attempt it that year.

However, despite starting well with victory in the 2015 Giro, Contador's Tour attempt fizzled out early in the race, with the rider admitting the previous race had left him with little left to give.

‘I’m glad that I tried. If I hadn’t tried then after my career I might have wondered whether I could have done the Giro-Tour double and now I know.

'I don’t think it’s impossible to do the double but it’s really complicated because nobody has the experience on how to prepare it.

'However, I prefer having tried than being left with a desire to do it,’ he said.

Despite the fact that he’s now back contesting this year's Tour, his attempt came at a time when most commentators believed his powers were already on the wane.

By contrast, at 27-years-old Quintana still seems to be improving with each season. A favourite with the bookies, who have him down as runaway favourite at the Giro, Kelly also believes he has prior form on his side too.

‘He’s capable of winning both the Giro and the Tour. Last year at the Tour he wasn’t in the best shape (yet was still able to finish third), but then he got it together for the Vuelta and won that.

'So there’s no reason he can’t do the Giro and the Tour. The riders we’ve seen trying to do it before are not riders we’ve seen do anything like that, but Quintana, he’s done something similar already.

'I think he’s capable. Of recent times he’s really the one to do it.’

Not that the Colombian isn’t aware of the enormity of what he’s attempting.

‘Everyone has seen how difficult it’s become in the last few years, We’ve never taken such a gamble, trying to chase both the Giro and the Tour.

'I wanted to go for it now that I’m young and healthy enough. We want to tackle both races in great condition,’ said the Movistar rider.

Of course, even if he pulls on the Maglia Rosa in Milan on 28th May, Quintana will still only be in the foothills.

The real climb will begin at the Tour de France, which starts a month later. Heavily tipped for the win in France, Froome will certainly be looking to keep the Colombian’s name out of the history books for at least another season.

'If Quintana makes it through the Giro we might not know until the final week of the Tour,’ says Kelly.

‘That’ll be the real difficult part, that last week catches everyone.’