History beckons for Chris Froome when he starts the Tour de France, which begins in the Vendée on Saturday, with No.1 on his back. In what could be a febrile atmosphere, Froome will be bidding for his fifth Tour, equalling the record held by Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.
He will also be trying to win his fourth Grand Tour in a row and his second of the season, after the Giro d’Italia at the end of May. No rider has done the Giro-Tour double since Marco Pantani in 1998.
That was a World Cup year, of course, which could be no coincidence. Then, as this year, the Tour was shunted back a week to minimise the clash. It meant an extra week’s recovery between the Italian and French races, which helped Pantani and could also help Froome.
But few remember the 1998 race for Pantani’s double: it was the Tour that almost didn’t make it to Paris as doping revelations, most infamously the Festina Affair, reduced it to farce.
There’s quite a difference between the scandals that hobbled the 1998 Tour and the case that has dogged Froome since last year’s Vuelta a España, and which remains unresolved at the time of writing. But the headlines are essentially the same, and so is the potential penalty: a doping ban, which became a possibility when Froome went over the limit for salbutamol after stage 18 of the Spanish tour, his urine containing double the permitted dose of the asthma drug.
Salbutamol cases can be long and drawn out. It took eight months and a year respectively to settle the cases involving two Italians, Diego Ulissi and Alessandro Petacchi. In each case the verdict appeared to accuse the cyclist of negligence rather than cheating, though each was given a ban. There have been others in which athletes have been cleared.
When Froome was told of the case against him, or when it was leaked almost three months later, he could have removed himself from competition, but he was entitled to carry on racing and did, insisting that he did not take more than the permitted dose and had therefore done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, he has been racing beneath a cloud, with a possible suspension – and the loss of his Vuelta win – hanging over him like the Sword of Damocles.
It became a moot point for most of the Giro, during which Froome crashed twice, was out of sorts and seemed to fall out of contention. But his extraordinary performance on stage 19 turned the race on its head. He wore the pink jersey into Rome but was barely in the spotlight all race – when he was, it wasn’t as a potential winner.
The Tour could be very different, even if there remains a chance that Froome’s case could be resolved in the coming week. He told Sky Sports this week that he “fully expects to be exonerated”. But even if he is cleared, the cloud will not simply dissipate. While Froome will declare that a line has been drawn and that everybody should move on, many will be reluctant to. If he is in yellow, he will be interrogated about the salbutamol case and subject to the suspicion that arises from his performances and the controversies that have swirled around Team Sky for the last couple of years.
Two of Froome’s opponents in France, Tom Dumoulin and Romain Bardet, have directly or indirectly criticised Froome for carrying on racing with his case unresolved. And the retired French legend Bernard Hinault has gone further, calling on other riders to strike in protest at Froome riding the Tour (Hinault may be forgetting that in the 1980s he staged his own protest at “excessive” drugs tests). There has been some hostility towards Froome and Team Sky in recent years. We should expect more this year.
Team Sky are one of the last squads to confirm their eight riders, though Gazzetta dello Sport did the job for them on Friday, naming Froome as leader and Geraint Thomas as back-up, with their 21-year-old Colombian phenomenon Egan Bernal also in the line-up. Sir Dave Brailsford, the team principal, confirmed on Friday that Froome would be leader with Thomas as a second protected rider.
Asked whether Froome was apprehensive about the reception in France, and the challenge that awaits him after his Giro win, Brailsford said that, on the contrary, “Chris relishes situations like this”.
Moreover, Brailsford added, Froome goes to the Tour on a high, buoyed by his victory at the Giro, and in the kind of form to go for a fifth win. The only unknown is the effect of riding the Giro. The third week in France will reveal whether the cost of his exertions in Italy was too high. It is a route that suits Froome. It opens with nine days in the north, with an important team time trial early on, then, on stage nine, the most difficult cobbled stage in years, with 15 sectors of pavé between Arras and Roubaix. Brailsford highlighted the approach to the first sector as crucial: it’s narrow, and there will be a fight to reach the cobbles. While Froome, Dumoulin and 2014 winner Vincenzo Nibali can cope with the physicality, it will have the small climbers waking up in a cold sweat.
While Bardet, Dumoulin, Nibali and Richie Porte are all strong challengers, the most intriguing threat is posed by the Movistar triumvirate of Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa. Quintana has twice finished second to Froome and Valverde is always strong. Landa is the joker in the pack. A Sky rider last year, the Basque was the only one who looked as though he might have been able to beat Froome. If he can survive the cobbles, and prevail in any internal battles at Movistar, Landa could be irresistible once they reach his beloved mountains.