Chris Froome will drink champagne on the approach to Paris as champion-elect of the 2016 Tour de France. On a largely ceremonial final stage – until the race among the sprinters for the stage win on the Champs-Elysées – it would take a disaster for Froome to not now claim his third victory and become one of only eight riders to win three or more Tours de France.
It hasn’t been easy for Froome. On two occasions he has had to abandon his bike, most dramatically on Mont Ventoux, when his instinct to keep moving overrode the commonsense reaction, which would have been to wait for a spare bike. Froome began running, risking injury in his cleated cycling shoes, and of course ridicule – because it is impossible to look elegant or graceful running in that footwear.
He lost his bike again on Friday, when he fell on a greasy descent and swapped bikes with his team-mate, Geraint Thomas. Again it was an instinctive reaction and on this occasion the right one with his team car, with spare bike, stuck behind. Despite the bike not being quite the right size, Froome rode it up the climb to the finish and, until the final metres, remained with his rivals.
These were two moments when Froome could have lost the Tour. The fact he didn’t – and the fact that he was prepared to improvise in such a bizarre way on Mont Ventoux – speaks to his determination, desire and hunger.
Froome is two different people – mild and polite off the bike and a killer on it. He won his third Tour in a totally different fashion to his first two, which were built on his dominance in the mountains. This time he imposed himself in surprising places – taking off on the descent into Luchon at the end of stage eight, then attacking with Peter Sagan in the crosswinds at the end of stage 11. He has added to his advantage in the two time trials and ridden defensively on the climbs – because that is all he has needed to do.
It has meant less scrutiny of his times up those climbs – and therefore less suspicion about his performances, since the suspicion has always focused exclusively on his ability to climb faster than others. It probably hasn’t been a deliberate strategy on his part, but it has reduced some of the white noise of doping suspicion that accompanied his wins in 2013 and 2015.
Much of the disapproval this time has been about his team, and their strength. A list of team budgets published by L’Equipe highlighted the disparity between Team Sky, with their €35m budget, and the smallest team in the race, with their €3.5m.
But the gap between Sky and some of the others isn’t so big that it explains the way they controlled the race. Their eight workers – three men for the heavy lifting on the flat roads, five for the mountains – were better prepared, better organised and seemingly more willing to sacrifice for their leader. As Froome said in his press conference yesterday evening, one of them, the Colombian Sergio Henao, was prepared to miss the birth of his first baby. His son was born last week, but Henao told the team he wanted to help the yellow jersey all the way to Paris.
In the end the last real stage, from Megève to Morzine, passed without any of the drama that the race has witnessed over the past three weeks. It rained and the roads were wet and treacherous but Sky’s grip on the race was never threatened.
A big breakaway formed early in the stage and, from it, four riders, including Vincenzo Nibali, fought it over the climb and descent of the Col de Joux Plane, with Ion Izagirre winning in Morzine.
“There were all those emotions coming down those final descent,” said Froome. “There was suspense, trying not to put a foot wrong, but coming into that last kilometre with my team-mates around me, I felt happiness and relief after three weeks of putting everything on the road.”
“I feel so privileged to be in this position [of having] always had team-mates around me in this race,” Froome continued. “We’ve been far and away the strongest team in this race and I’m incredibly grateful for that.
“There have been moments when we’ve really taken on the race, on the descent [into Luchon] and in the crosswinds [to Montpellier] sprinting with Peter Sagan.”
Froome revealed that he will make a rare competitive appearance in London next Sunday, riding the RideLondon Surrey Classic before flying to Rio for the Olympic Games, where he will be one of the favourites for the road race and time trial.
Looking further ahead, Froome said that he hopes to be competitive at the Tour de France for perhaps five or six more years. He is 31 now. “It’s such a special race,” he said. “It would be my dream to keep coming back to the Tour de France for the next five, six years if I can, with the best opporuntiy to fight for victory again.I can’t say that the novelty of winning is wearing off. It’s just such an incredible feeling and an amazing event.”
“It’s every cyclist’s dream, the biggest honour there is in our sport,” Froome continued. “I hope I can be back next year to fight again.”
Beside Froome on the podium in Paris will be the young Frenchman, Romain Bardet, and Nairo Quintana, the Colombian who finished second to Froome in 2013 and 2015. It has been, by his standards, a hugely disappointing race. Only seconds behind Quintana, in fourth, is the revelation of the Tour, Adam Yates, the 23-year-old from Bury who will win the white jersey of best young rider.
But fourth overall is an even more impressive achievement. Perhaps in the absence of anyone else who seems able to challenge Froome, Yates could emerge. “It’s hard to say,” he said, “anything can happen. I’ll keep working hard and training hard, I’m sure I’ll be back in the future to go that one step further.
“I see that Froomey is a big step ahead, but most of the other guys are close. So it’s just about having the legs and looking for the ways to gain time on your rivals.”