When Team Sky this week named the eight riders selected to support Chris Froome at the Tour de France, which starts at Mont Saint-Michel on Saturday, his rivals might have looked enviously not only at the nine riders on the team sheet, but also those left out.
Sky’s strength owes much to a large budget, but has also had something to do with their ability to pay more thanks to a strong pound in a sport that tends to trade in Euros. That could change, of course. But for now, Froome will be supported by riders who could lead some other teams: Geraint Thomas, Mikel Landa and Sergio Henao.
The most likely threat comes from the Colombian, Nairo Quintana. In the two Tours Froome has won, Quintana has appeared to get stronger as the race has gone on, giving Froome anxious moments in 2013 and last year. And Quintana is edging closer: three years ago he was 4min, 20sec down; last year, the gap had closed to just over a minute.
This year’s route is similar to these two Tours, back-loaded with four tough back-to-back stages in the Alps. In both, the pattern was the same: on the first mountain stage Froome attacked to win alone, establishing a time advantage that gradually eroded over the final week as he faded and Quintana rallied.
Last year, Froome was ill in the final week and on the last mountain of the race, Alpe d’Huez, had the fight of his life to keep the yellow jersey. Quintana and his Movistar team attacked relentlessly until Quintana went clear, leaving Froome clinging by his fingertips to the edge of a cliff. He survived – just. In the final analysis, he didn’t win the Tour in the mountains, but on stage two, on a flat, windy road in northern Europe, when Quintana was on the wrong side of a split in the peloton.
There is food for thought for Froome, then. There is also age: he is 31, Quintana is 26 and – a scary thought – entering what should be his prime years.
Each has followed his own path to the Tour, meeting only occasionally – Quintana prevailing on both occasions, at the Tours of Catalonia and Romandie – but spending long periods at altitude, Froome in Tenerife, Quintana at home in Colombia. Froome’s build-up has been quieter than usual – deliberately so. Yet even so, there were staff on his own team who wondered whether he had misjudged it, noting with concern, as recently as mid-May, that he “wasn’t sparkling”.
At the time Froome was on Mount Teide in Tenerife, staying in the Hotel Parador that is a favourite base for several of the world’s top teams. But if he wasn’t yet sparkling, he was working as hard as ever – perhaps even harder. And when he re-emerged, at the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this month, he was a convincing winner in a field that included Alberto Contador.
A week later it was Quintana’s turn to return to racing and show what he had. Against a modest field at the Route du Sud, he won with relative ease. Most considered, after these two races, that Froome was once again favourite – after all, he won against much tougher opposition. But Quintana couldn’t do any more than win. And win he did.
It is hard to see beyond Froome and Quintana, though Romain Bardet is one of three young Frenchmen who are improving every year, Thibaut Pinot and Warren Barguil being the others. Then there is Contador, another double winner, and Fabio Aru, the Italian who seems out of form, and his Astana teammate Vincenzo Nibali, whose recent win in the Giro d’Italia will surely rule him out of an overall challenge. Some imagine that if Froome falters then Landa, his Sky teammate, could win. The Spaniard was a favourite at the Giro before falling ill.
What is certain, especially if Froome repeats his trick of launching a decisive attack on the first big mountain stage – in the Pyrenees after a week – is that he will again prove a lightning rod for doping suspicion and scrutiny. That is as inevitable as a brave French bid for victory on Bastille Day.
The fact that Froome submitted to physiological tests last year, just after the Tour, won’t make much difference, even though he did so largely because his critics demanded it. These tests demonstrated that he has the physiology of a Tour winner – quelle surprise. But there was more to them than the headline Vo2 max figure. The scientists also studied his relative performance in cool and hot and humid conditions and drew some interesting, perhaps significant, conclusions. Their paper, submitted to a sports medicine journal in March, is still going through the revision process, with a decision on publication expected in the next month.
Froome didn’t expect the tests to answer all questions on his performances, but he has been keen to make a distinction between legitimate scepticism and outright accusations. In Le Monde last year Antoine Vayer, the former Festina coach, accused him of having a motor in his bike, writing: “Chris Froome will not win a third Tour de France if his equipment is checked at the right time and in the right place.”
If this isn’t true, then why not sue? “I know a lot of people would turn round and say, ‘That’s what Lance [Armstrong] did: he sued people’,” Froome said when we met in London after the tests. “That’s a little bit the predicament I’m in but at the same time you can’t sit back and let people say that.” He didn’t rule out legal action if there are more accusations this year.
Is there a grey area when it comes to doping? “Personally I don’t think there is a massive grey area,” Froome said. “I think the grey area most people are referring to are TUEs [therapeutic use exemptions], using substances that aren’t banned but do give a performance gain. I’ve applied for two TUEs in my seven years as a professional. Each was a week long. One was [at the 2014 Tour de] Romandie, the other was a year earlier just after Romandie. For two weeks in seven years I’ve taken something for medical reasons. I feel quite strongly that you shouldn’t be taking anything that you don’t medically need.”
Many feel that even if doping still goes on, which of course it does, the culture has changed from the 1990s, when there was no test for EPO and its use was rampant. What would Froome have done if he had been a rider in that era, when the choice seemed to be to dope or go home? “It’s tough to think about racing in an environment like that,” he said.
“I think I would have stayed an amateur if you had to become a pharmacist, basically, to compete. I wouldn’t have wanted to put those substances, those chemicals, into my body, and also from a moral point of view, it would no longer have been what sport is about for me, which is sacrifice, commitment, hard work, dedication to your training. When it becomes no longer about that but about the doping, I don’t believe I would have had the same passion.”