CHRIS Froome will head into the Tour de France as the firm favourite after wrapping up victory in the Criterium du Dauphine with an impressive final stage in difficult conditions yesterday.
As he crossed the line second on the day, Froome racked up his fourth stage race win of the season in this traditional warm-up event for the Tour, won by Team Sky team-mate Sir Bradley Wiggins last year before he went on to become the first ever British Tour winner.
Just as Wiggins dominated events prior to the Tour last year, Froome has done so this season, and this victory adds to his successes in the Tour of Oman, the Criterium International and the Tour of Romandie.
However, Froome would not get ahead of himself and insisted he was just one of several contenders for the yellow jersey. “I have won the Dauphine, and other races before, but the counter is back to zero when the Tour starts,” the Kenyan-born Briton said.
“There will be six to seven main contenders for overall victory.
“The names? (Alberto) Contador, (Alejandro) Valverde, (Joaquim) Rodriguez, (Cadel) Evans, (Tejay) Van Garderen, (Nairo) Quintana are all capable of strong rides.”
But while Froome played it cool, Team Sky have every reason to head to Corsica full of confidence.
Richie Porte, primed to serve as Froome’s chief lieutenant on the Tour in the absence of Wiggins, took second place overall while the squad finished top of the team classifications by a full 12 minutes.
Team Sky sports director Nicolas Portal told their website: “It was nice to finish with such a fantastic performance. The team were super strong and then Froomey and Richie rounded it off in style.
“Those two have ticked off every goal they’ve set this season, raced hard, and enjoyed a lot of success. That breeds massive confidence within the rest of team because they know their efforts won’t be wasted and that Richie and Froomey can deliver the results.”
Alessandro De Marchi, the lone survivor of a breakaway, took the stage honours yesterday, but Froome underlined his strength as he raced away from the peloton in the final kilometre to beat Andrew Talansky to second, with Porte crossing the line in fourth.
The first significant rain of the race made conditions treacherous during parts of the 155.5-kilometre run to the summit finish at Montee de Risoul, causing several riders to withdraw through precaution less than three weeks out from the start of the Tour on 29 June.
But there was no let up from Froome.
De Marchi had been part of a 24-man breakaway along with the likes of Tim Wellens, who led the race going towards the final climb.
De Marchi was able to get back on his wheel and pull clear heading into the final three kilometres and Wellens fell back, swallowed up by a peloton being paced by the relentless Sky riders. Froome and Porte made their break with one kilometre left but De Marchi held on to win the stage by 24 seconds from Froome and Talansky, with Porte a further seven seconds back.
In the general classification, Froome finished 58 seconds clear of Porte in second, with Katusha’s Daniel Moreno moving up into third place.
Team Saxo-Tinkoff’s Michael Rogers, second behind Wiggins last year while racing for Team Sky, had started the day in third but he slipped to sixth behind Moreno, Jakob Fuglsang and Daniel Navarro.
That was despite the best efforts of Contador, a contender here until a disappointing time-trial, to help pace his team-mate to the finish. Contador ultimately finished 10th overall, four minutes and 27 seconds off Froome’s time.