IT IS rare for a cyclist who has never won one of cycling’s Grand Tours to be odds-on favourite for the Tour de France.
Yet that is the position Chris Froome finds himself in, just six days before the 100th edition starts in Corsica, the only one of the 96 French départements the Tour has never visited.
In Nice this week, just across the water from Corsica and along the coast from his home in Monaco, Froome met the media and admitted to nerves. They owed less to the prospect of starting the Tour as favourite, and more to the business of talking about it.
“I’m pretty nervous right now,” he said, with an edgy laugh. “But next week we are starting this bike race which is over 3,000 kilometres long, three weeks, it’s pretty daunting. But I think we are in a pretty good position. We are lining up certainly as one of the strongest teams, and that gives us a lot of confidence.”
It is the Team Sky way to talk of ‘we’ and ‘us’ rather than ‘I’ and ‘me’ but Froome, in lining up as undisputed leader, has already scored a significant victory. The ‘we’ does not include Bradley Wiggins, who picked up a knee injury at the Giro d’Italia.
The frosty relationship between the Sky pair makes that something of a blessing for Froome, and his status in the team appeared to be confirmed on Friday when Wiggins admitted that he may have ridden his last Tour, and that “natural selection” means Froome “looks like he’s going to be there for a few years to win a few Tours maybe”.
Physically it does seem that Froome, who has won four stage races this season, is on another level to his opponents – and that if he resists complacency and avoids bad luck, in particular on the narrow, twisting roads of Corsica, then he can become Britain’s second Tour champion.
The only question is whether the 28-year-old, born to British parents in Kenya, educated at one of South Africa’s most prestigious private boarding schools, St John’s College in Johannesburg, feels British, Kenyan or South African? “I feel like I’m flying the flag for Britain this year,” he says. “And given the enormous energy and support we had at last year’s [Tour], through the Olympics and into this year, it is mindblowing. It’s great to see how many people are behind us.”
If Froome can deal with the dangers of Corsica, the challenge of Alberto Contador and the possibility of complacency, a fourth challenge is likely to confront Froome in France – suspicion. Apart from the fact that it is the first Tour after Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven titles, there are few riders who will start this year’s race who have not been directly or indirectly affected by doping, and Froome is no exception. He made his debut the year he began to represent Britain, 2008, riding for the small South African team, Barloworld.
One of several doping cases that year involved his Spanish team-mate, Moisés Dueñas, who tested positive for EPO halfway through the race. “That was quite a shock to me,” says Froome. “I’ve never actually seen Dueñas since then, after seeing him marched out the hotel in handcuffs.”
Froome showed few signs that year of being a future Tour contender, and his transformation, which came with his second place at the 2011 Tour of Spain, after treatment for a parasite, bilharzia, that had been attacking his red blood cells, has aroused some suspicion. A French coach, Antoine Vayer, claimed in a recent report that some of his – and others’, including Wiggins’ – performances fall into the suspicious category.
“It is hard not to get angry over reports like that because it almost feels that the better we do our job, the more people think we’re doping,” says Froome.
“There is still a lot of scepticism out there and a lot of fans who have been let down. I sympathise with that. I am one of those fans who was also let down. But I think we are now in a position where we can show that the sport has changed. I certainly know how I work for the results I get and I know that my results aren’t going to be stripped in five, six, seven years’ time.”
“I’m expecting to have to answer questions about doping,” continues Froome. “But personally, being able to get the results that I’ve got shows to me that cycling has really changed. If people are doping, it’s not working – they’re not winning races any more, that’s for sure.”
Reminded that riders tested positive at the Giro, he adds: “But it’s just not accepted any more. It is clear that those guys are acting on their own. They are the minority, the absolute minority, and it’s great that the tests have picked them up.”