There has been plenty of suggestion that Chris Froome’s not quite his usual self. There have even been whispers that Froome might not actually win the Tour de France for a fourth time.
Doubts about the bookie’s favourite have emerged as a result of a number of factors: the ASO’s flat and fast route, the arise of Richie Porte, a rumoured fallout with Team Sky and the fact he is yet to win a race in 2017. But are any of these factors heavy enough to stop Froome from rocking up on his Pinarello, winning the first mountain stage, topping up his advantage on an Alpine descent and riding into Paris with a bottle of beer?
Let’s address the most wild rumour first; Froome’s problems with Team Sky. Rightly or wrongly, it’s been a rough year for Dave Brailsford’s army of winners. A debate over the use of TUEs for Bradley Wiggins in 2012 led to a thorough strip search of Team Sky’s history. It shouldn’t have had anything to do with Froome but that’s easier said than done when you’ve won three of the four subsequent Tours.
Froome dodged questions with ninja-like precision and even went silent when asked to publically back Brailsford. Days after his show of Twitter non-support stories surfaced that he wanted to leave to join BMC. I’m not sure how much stock should be put in these reports. Would BMC really relegate Porte – this season’s superstar – back to a number two role?
More importantly, whilst he may have grown frustrated with the dirt thrown on Team Sky, Froome hasn’t fallen out with any of his teammates. He’s been backed by a strong squad at the Tour and I don’t envisage any problems with team harmony.
The Tour’s route has been described as ‘anti-Froome’. The lack of a huge mountain stage certainly brings into play the punchier climbers but Froome is too good to fear stage profiles. He fixed his aversion to cobbles in less than twelve months, proved in Spain he can handle the sharpest of climbs and has recently developed into a fantastic (if not fantastic-looking) descender. He went down the Dauphine’s Mont du Chat with bizarre recklessness.
The most troubling factor is Chris Froome’s form; no wins in 2017. When Froome rose to the top in 2013 he had nine wins by July, including four GCs. He had quieter starts in 2015 & 2016 (almost certainly due to his participation at the Vuelta) but on both occasions won the Criterium du Dauphine.
The recent Tour warm-up was responsible for the biggest stir-up of the form book. In the two previous editions Froome used the Dauphine’s late mountain stages to cruise to the top of the GC. The margins were small (to Van Garderen and Bardet respectively) but one thing was clear – Froome was the best.
In this year’s race that wasn’t the case. Out-climbed clearly by Richie Porte, Froome was unable to control a race heavily attacked by Jakob Fuglsang, Fabio Aru, Romain Bardet and Dan Martin. Fourth place doesn’t represent a bad performance but clearly suggested Froome was not at his normal level.
Despite all this, Froome maintains he is feeling fresh. Perhaps a simple explanation for his lack of wins is an increased desire to win the Vuelta Espana at the end of the year. We know Froome is a massive fan of the race but has he taken a risk with his Tour preparation?
Porte’s form has perhaps come as a surprise. Froome will know a lot about the Tasmanian but has never had trouble following his attacks. However, this time around, Porte has the ability to loosen Froome’s grip on a fourth Tour victory.
It’s going to be close – but I give the edge to Froome. Sky will get the job done. Again.