Five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault has said that it is impossible to predict who will win the looming battle between defending champion Chris Froome and 2007 and 2009 winner Alberto Contador. The Frenchman anticipates a big battle between the two past victors, and says that things are too close to call at this point in time.

“The two riders have had a great season, they are well prepared for the Tour, even if there were little health concerns for Froome in the Dauphiné,” he told CyclingTips on Friday. “They are the two favourites and they are ready for the clash.

“I think Froome and Contador are equal. One is not better than the other. We can’t say at this moment who will be the best in the Tour.”

However Hinault believes it would be an error to presume that either the Briton or the Spaniard will be the final recipient of the Maillot Jaune. “You should not only look at these riders,” he cautioned, aware that a race as long as the Tour is rarely predictable. “[Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew] Talansky has proven that he can win as well. He rode very well in the Dauphiné in attacking from far out. It’s necessary to consider him too. Those who want to win should not wait, they must attack as Talansky did.”

Sky tensions and leaving Wiggins out of team selection:

Hinault is one of the greatest riders of all time. He won his first Tours in 1978 and 1979; in 1981, he beat runner-up Lucien Van Impe by a staggering 14 minutes 34 seconds. He also triumphed in 1982 and in 1985.

The latter race plus the 1986 Tour de France saw him on the same team as Greg LeMond. In 1985 Hinault had a solid lead but his form faltered after he crashed on stage fourteen, breaking his nose. LeMond was ahead on stage 17 but was told to wait for Hinault; in return, he was promised the Frenchman’s support in 1986.
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LeMond was expecting drama-free backing but panicked when Hinault took over the race lead on stage 12, then attacked on stage 13. He claimed that the Frenchman had reneged on his deal, but the latter insisted he was simply pushing LeMond to battle harder. The American ultimately won the race with Hinault second, three minutes 10 seconds back.

The tension on the La Vie Claire team is echoed somewhat by the relationship between Froome and Bradley Wiggins, but Hinault stresses the situation is not the same. Because of that, he said he can understand the decision announced Friday by Dave Brailsford that Wiggins will not ride.

“Sky were scared to have two leaders. There are plenty of issues and it’s also a personal problem [between Wiggins and Froome],” he said. “This is a team problem, and only they can determine their strategy. If Sky is sure that Froome will win the Tour, I am in agreement with the decision. But if he finishes second, it would have been a bad strategy by them.”

“It was different between Greg and I. We had defined who was the leader beforehand. In 1985 and 1986, Greg and I already knew what we would have to be done in these two Tours. Froome did his work in helping Wiggins in 2012; he could have won that Tour two times in the mountain stages, but he worked for Wiggins.

“In 2013, Froome won the Tour and Wiggins wasn’t there, he was ill. For 2014, Froome is in form, we saw that in the Dauphiné. [If he was selected] I think that Wiggins would have to accept the fact of working for Froome.”

Although Wiggins said on several occasions that he would be willing to back the younger rider, Brailsford and others have suggested that the team dynamic would not be correct. The subtext is that he feels tensions between the two Tour winners could rear up under pressure.

Hinault feels that it may have been a strength to have had two riders in the race, but only with a clear commitment that Wiggins would not change his mind.

“If he had been at the Tour, it would be to play the Froome card. He should accept the fact of being a teammate,” he said. “Brailsford defined the roles and it is necessary to accept them and Wiggins would have to ride for Froome like Greg and I did [for each other].

“But it is true that to put everything on one rider is risky; two riders is better, but it is necessary that they accept to work for one for another and that they get along.”

Green jersey battle, and his view on the missing French talent:

Hinault was a general classification rider but had sufficient consistency in the race to win the green jersey competition in 1979.

The points structure in the Tour is different now and it is next to impossible for a yellow jersey rider to take the Maillot Vert. As a result he knows a sprinter will win the award in Paris; as for who it will be, he said that it is impossible to look beyond one of Marcel Kittel (Giant Shimano), Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma Quick Step), Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and André Greipel (Lotto Belisol).

“I think that it will be played out between them. I don’t see many people beat them on stages, and I think the jersey will between those four riders, and only those.”

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Hinault feels it is too early to call who the final victor will be. “Last year we expected Cavendish in the stages but it was Kittel who dominated. We will see this year. We will see if Cavendish is present [in top form]. The race will be starting in England…”

Another rider who has proven very quick is the Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni, the winner of the points classification in the Giro d’Italia. He wanted to ride the Tour but was ultimately not selected by his team. While Hinault would like to see French success in the race, he said he understands the reason why the 23 year old will not be there.

“Nacer Bouhanni is a good rider. But the decision of Marc Madiot and of FDJ.fr is understandable and it is theirs,” he said. “If you bring two sprinters, it is necessary to think that there must be two teammates for each sprinter. That means six riders for the sprints, which complicates things for the rest of the Tour, notably for the mountains and helping Pinot.

“Bouhanni had the Giro and he could go perhaps to the Vuelta. Madiot choose Démarre for the Tour de France. Each sprinter has their tour. In addition, Bouhanni announced to the press that he wants to leave FDJ.fr, he did not hide it.”

Known as someone with strong opinions, it is perhaps surprising that he is similarly sanguine about Warren Barguil missing the race. However he said he respects his Giant Shimano squad’s right to decide.

“Warren Barguil is one of the best young French riders and he had his place in the Tour. But the decision belongs to the team,” he said. “They have a strategy and they rely on that. It’s not possible to criticise that.

“I would have liked to see the young French riders, of course, but the teams make their choices based on strategies. Warren Barguil is part of a new generation of talented French riders such as Coquard, Démarre, Ellissonde and Bouhanni…it’s a very nice list.”

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Thanks to Jean Vantalon of Be-Celt.com for his assistance in relation to this article.