A winless campaign, question marks over his form, and a team boss facing a seemingly endless interrogation over his credibility – winning this year’s Tour de France is without doubt Chris Froome’s and Team Sky’s toughest challenge yet. But as the three time winner packs his bags for Dusseldorf he tells Cyclingnews that he is up for the fight and on track.
The most noticeable and flagrant issue facing Froome ahead of this weekend’s Grand Depart surrounds his own form. Not since 2011 has the British rider endured such a long spell without victory. Mediocre results through the spring and early summer have only compounded the matter. June’s Criterium du Dauphine offered a glimmer of hope to suggest that Froome’s condition was moving in the right direction but the race also brought into stark contrast just how far Richie Porte and several others were ahead of him.
That said, Froome and his coaching staff have remained resolute in their belief that he will peak for when it matters most – in July, before holding that form for a Vuelta a Espana challenge spanning August and September. Having finished second three times in Spain, this is the season in which the 32-year-old is hoping to attain the elusive Grand Tour double. In order to do so he has staked his claim by starting the season in a slower fashion. If not winning throughout the first six months of the season was part of the script, then Froome has learned his lines perfectly.
“I’ve certainly not questioned my preparations,” he tells Cyclingnews in a phone interview.
“I’ve done everything possible to be ready for July. I’ve put in all the hard work and the training. Everything has gone in the right direction. My weight is right and everything is where it needs to be. Other people have upped their game and Richie is one of them. He’s having the season of his career so far and he was the strongest at the Dauphine on both the climbs and in the time trial. As a result of that I’d put him down as the favourite for July.
Whether labelling Porte as the outright favourite is a true indication of Froome’s genuine beliefs, or whether the soundbite – first uttered by Team Sky’s leader on the final stage of the Dauphine – is little more than mind-games remains to be seen. However, Froome appears keen to ratchet up the pressure on his former teammate, in the nicest, and politest possible way, of course.
“No, no mind games,” he says. “Genuinely, I think Richie’s the guy to beat this year. Not to write-off the other contenders, as until anyone loses time we all start with a chance of winning.”
The relationship between Froome and Porte promises to be one of the most fascinating subplots in this year’s race.
Ever since Porte flew the coop from Team Sky at the end of 2015 and landed in BMC’s nest, the pair have been pitted against each other. When Froome continued to dominate in 2016 all appeared rosy, but this season, as the Australian draws closer into Tour contention, the further the pair grew apart. They still reserve the right to call each other ‘Froomey’ and ‘Richie’ in the press to suggest that the embers of their bromance still burn, but their ambition is both a similarity that brings them together and a distinction that sets them apart.
“We’re still good friends off the bike,” Froome insists when asked about the final Dauphine stage in which Porte accused him of riding against him rather than seeking the win.
“We’ll always have rivalries on the bike but we’ve spoken about it. He was disappointed and understandably so, losing the Dauphine the way he did. It wasn’t due to bad form or not being strong enough. If anything he showed there that he’s the strongest guy in the peloton at the moment.”
“I certainly don’t see it that way,” Froome adds when asked about whether Porte had a case when it came to criticising Froome’s Dauphine ride. “I was trying to do everything I could to win for Team Sky, and I wasn’t going to leave it until the last mountain in order to try and do that, given the shape he was in.”
“The Dauphine was just what I needed in terms of that preparation and the intensity,’ he adds.
“The last few days were so intense and that wasn’t something that you could replicate in training. I certainly went as deep as I could and certainly the lights went out for me on that last climb. The Dauphine has always been a race that’s full on and people pitch up very close to their Tour shape.”
“No bluffing, no bluffing,” he serves up when asked if he has purposefully held back during June.
“What you see is what you get. If I could have won the Dauphine I certainly would have, but I think I’m where I need to be in terms of the Tour. I’ve come into the season knowing that I was going to try and be ready for this summer and potentially going on to the Vuelta, if everything goes to plan. Coming into this period of the season a bit fresher has worked for me.”