Chris Froome is 24 hours from becoming Britain’s second winner of the Tour de France, and the second in succession after Bradley Wiggins’ historic victory last year.
The result was all but confirmed on the penultimate stage, finishing with the brutally steep climb to Semnoz in the Alps, as Froome, Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez broke away.
Quintanta won the stage with a late attack, but Froome was not far behind in third, and these three will stand on the podium in Paris. The big surprise was the collapse of former winner Alberto Contador, who will finish fourth.
The story of the day, and revelation of the Tour, was Quintana, the little Colombian climber in his first Tour. Only 23, he broke down in tears afterwards, saying: “I dreamed this day would come but I never imagined it would come so soon.”
But the story of the Tour is Froome, who, as tradition dictates, will sip Champagne on the road from Versailles to Paris, and be led by his team on to the Champs-Élysées, to complete a quite remarkable journey.
It is sobering to realise that Froome only became aware of the Tour de France when he watched it on TV in 2004, when Lance Armstrong beat Ivan Basso, and Froome, at home in Johannesburg, found himself cheering Basso, because he was the underdog.
Four years later Froome was riding the Tour himself, finishing a distant 84th. Another five years on and he is on the brink of winning it.
It has been a meteoric rise, and there has been an equally remarkable transformation at Team Sky, one that would have seemed unimaginable a year ago.
Then, the pecking order was firmly established: Froome had to sacrifice his ambitions to support Wiggins, the golden boy of British cycling, with Froome the outsider. Yet almost without anybody noticing, Froome, in placing second to Wiggins, managed the second greatest performance ever by a British rider.
Now, Wiggins is not riding the Tour, perhaps not even watching, while Froome’s status as leader is likely to go unchallenged for the duration of the new contract he has agreed, but not yet signed, with Sky, running to the end of 2016.
Where does this leave Wiggins? A year ago he was the toast of Britain and the cycling world, then a Knight of the Realm. Now he is training alone in Majorca, preparing for the Tour of Poland, which starts on Saturday.
When Froome rode his first Tour, in 2008, it was for Barloworld, a South African-based team. By then he had flashed across the radar of British Cycling, having been spotted by the former national coach Doug Dailey, though the fact he represented Kenya at the 2006 world championships meant he had to wait three years before he would be eligible.
Froome qualified through his grandparents, who came from Tetbury in the Cotswolds, though he never stepped foot in the country he now represents before 2007, when he rode the Tour of Britain. The following year, aged 23, he cut an awkward figure at his debut Tour. He was different to many riders. Froome was diffident, polite and flattered by a journalists’s attention. But his team was a shambles. If Sky are the Manchester United of cycling, Barloworld was a pub team, and a badly organised one at that. And they were plunged into chaos on the morning of 16 July, before the 11th stage, when one of their members, the Spaniard Moisés Dueñas, was kicked off the race after testing positive for EPO.
When police searched his hotel room they discovered “a mobile pharmacy.” Speaking at the stage start in Lannemezan, Froome appeared shocked and shaken. “The guy is facing a jail sentence and I hope that’s what he gets,” he said of Dueñas.
“To have something like that so close to home was unbelievable – I never saw it coming,” he continued. “You just feel that you’ve been cheated by one of your team-mates.” (Dueñas didn’t go to jail. He served his ban and now rides for a small Spanish team.)
Barloworld announced the immediate withdrawal of their sponsorship, leaving Froome, Geraint Thomas and Steve Cummings in limbo. Yet it was also during the 2008 Tour that Sky announced a new partnership with British cycling, and it was rumoured they would be backing a project Dave Brailsford had been working on, to set up a team.
“Thinking about it gives me goosebumps,” said Froome of the prospect of a British pro team.
He showed a glimpse of promise in that Tour, on the stage to Alpe d’Huez. He was in the break and finished 31st at the summit, but in a curious foreshadow of the problems he suffered on Thursday’s stage, when he suffered from “hunger knock” on Alpe d’Huez, he neglected to eat enough. “I won’t make that mistake again,” he said at the time.
In Paris, at the conclusion to his debut, Froome reflected: “I’d have liked to have been at the front more, but I’m happy to finish my first Tour, especially in such difficult circumstances.”
A little over a year later, when he agreed to join the new Team Sky, he said: “I’d like to become a GC [general classification] rider in the future, but I have a lot of steps to take before I get there. And I’m quite happy to fulfil my role as a team player in the meantime.”
Still he cut an awkward figure, a square peg in a round hole; eager to do a good job, but still, as he acknowledged, with much to learn; still, as Shane Sutton described him, “a rough diamond needing a lot of polish.”
Froome insists that another reason for his gradual progression, and for the fact he is winning now, is that the sport is cleaner. When he joined Sky he recalled his introduction to the Tour in 2004, when he cheered Basso, who was later suspended for doping: “I had heroes when I started but invariably they ended up involved in some drugs scandal, so I’ve given up on that idea.”
Suspicion has surrounded some of Froome’s performances, too. But he is adamant his results will stand the test of time, and that any teenager watching this year’s Tour, in South Africa, where he was educated, Kenya, where he was born, or Britain, the country he represents, will not have cause to say, at some point in the future, that they too have given up on the idea of heroes.