CHRIS FROOME can seem an unlikely favourite for the Tour de France, given that he has yet to win one of cycling’s Grand Tours, but there is no denying, or begrudging, the British rider’s status as the 100th edition of the race begins today in the only one of the 96 French departments that it had never visited.
In fact, the unlikelihood of Froome as odds-on favourite would have been rivalled until recently by the notion of the Tour visiting Corsica. But the Grand Depart, where the Tour will spend three days of increasing severity, is deeply symbolic given that one of the race’s early achievements was to help unite such a disparate, geographically varied country.
That it has taken until now owes to complications ranging from political tensions to logistical challenges, but both have been overcome – the latter thanks to a huge boat that is acting as a floating race HQ – to set the scene for an event that is still licking its wounds after its most decorated champion, Lance Armstrong, was charged with doping and stripped of his seven titles last autumn.
The 100th Tour begins, then, with only 92 listed winners, and with Armstrong air-brushed from history. But that didn’t stop him re-emerging on the eve of the race with an interview in Le Monde in which he appeared to suggest that it remains impossible to win the Tour without doping.
A closer examination of his words, and Armstrong’s own clarification on Twitter, confirmed that this is not what he meant – he said that it was impossible ‘in my era’ – but it was enough for a cloud to threaten the blue Corsican skies.
Froome is one of those who insists that the sport has changed since Armstrong, and that he wouldn’t be winning races, and starting as favourite, if it hadn’t. He is naturally shy and soft-spoken – certainly no rival to Bradley Wiggins in the soundbites department – but, on the eve of the Tour, he did become animated when asked about his team, Team Sky’s, calculated approach to racing, which some have described as ‘boring.’
The Sky way, as they demonstrated when supporting Wiggins to his win last year, is to pack the front and set such a tempo on the climbs that nobody can attack, or at least sustain an attack. Or as Wiggins said last year, if a rider was able to sustain it, it would likely be because they were blood doping.
The charge against Sky is that it is an effective strategy, but hardly exciting, devoid of the ‘panache’ so beloved of cycling fans. “If you want exciting racing,” said Froome, “then you can go and get some DVDs from ten, 15 years ago, and watch Lance and his buddies racing up climbs.
“I think the racing is exciting if you understand what’s going on,” he continued. “Maybe [those who say it’s boring] don’t quite grasp what’s happening in the race.”
Besides, last year was perhaps an exception. There was a shortage of real rivals to Wiggins, Froome and Sky – no Alberto Contador, no Andy Schleck, and only a mediocre Vincenzo Nibali and disappointing Cadel Evans, the 2011 champion. This time, Froome doesn’t expect a repeat of last year’s march to victory (‘Promenade des Anglais’ as the L’Equipe headline put it on the final weekend), not least because Contador is back and threatening to cause carnage in the mountains.
“I think our rivals are going to be trying to come up with different ways to beat us,” he says. “I still believe that the way we ride, it forces our opposition to do things they wouldn’t necessarily want to do. Or it forces them to ride in a way that doesn’t suit them.
“But we’ve seen this year that we have different cards to play in the mountains with Richie [Porte] and myself.”
Indeed, while Wiggins is not the kind of rider who can take off uphill, the man who is likely to be Froome’s number two this year, Richie Porte, certainly is. Porte is an explosive climber from Tasmania, as well as a neighbour, training partner and good friend of Froome – which could also be significant as a mountainous Tour reaches Mont Ventoux and then the Alps, where there will be three brutal stages in the final week.
Porte has even suggested that he could do what Froome did last year, staying with his leader all the way up the climbs and perhaps riding on to the podium himself. He is more outspoken than Froome – “there isn’t a lot that goes through Richie’s mind that he doesn’t vocalise,” says Froome – and will prove a useful ally, as long as Froome maintains the form that has taken him to four stage race victories so far this season.
For his part, Froome admits he isn’t a natural leader, and struggles with some of the demands. “I wouldn’t say I enjoy being in that position, but I know that it comes with the territory if you are trying to win the Tour de France,” he said.
“I like to think I’m approachable as a leader, down to earth, and that I lead by example on the bike.”
The Kenya-born, South Africa-raised 28-year-old’s transformation from journeyman pro to Tour favourite has been remarkable. A big factor was a diagnosis of the health problems that dogged him in 2010 and 2011. The cause of those was bilharzia, a parasite he thinks he picked up while fishing in Kenya, which has responded to treatment, but remains a threat.
“I had always been frustrated that I could do these great things in training but never really be able to take that potential out on the road,” says Froome. Bilharzia, he explains, “feeds on red blood cells so your immune system’s always slightly lower, your recovery’s not quite so fast, so I would do a really hard training day and I’d be absolutely nailed at the end of it, but I would put that down to the training.” While a British rider is odds-on to win overall, a familiar name is also favourite to win today’s opening stage, which, for the first time since 1966 should end with a bunch sprint. If Mark Cavendish does win, it would mean the first yellow jersey of his career.
“The fact the winner of the stage will wear yellow means it’s special,” said Cavendish. “But whether it’s for yellow or just for the stage, it doesn’t change anything for me.
“The goal for me at the Tour is to win every sprint. You can’t put any more pressure on yourself.”
Roche confident of Contador win
IRELAND’S Nicolas Roche is hoping to play his part in defeating Chris Froome at this year’s Tour de France.
Roche, son of former Tour winner Stephen Roche, will line up in a support role behind Froome’s main rival for the yellow jersey, Alberto Contador of Spain. Although the recent form book suggests Froome is a runaway favourite ahead of the two-time Tour winner – returning to the event this year after a doping ban – Roche is confident Contador can win.
“I definitely hope so,” the Team Saxo-Tinkoff rider said. “Everyone on the team is thinking that way, we’re all here with that purpose.
“We know it’s going to be a very difficult task because Team Sky are so well structured, they’ve been doing it for two years now where they just keep rolling and doing whatever they want in a race, imposing their own tactics.
“It will be a hard task for us to find the right tactics to unbalance them but I do believe Contador can beat Froome.”
To break the often metronomic pace Team Sky are renowned for creating at the front of the peloton, Roche believes Saxo-Tinkoff must counter with waves of attacks.
“How to break their rhythm exactly I don’t know yet, but for sure it’s not by staying behind them,” he said. “Sooner or later you have to attack.
“It’s the only solution. There’s no point staying behind into the final kilometre and then watching Froome accelerate away.”