Chris Froome shines on Tour de France warm-up but can he really replace Sir Bradley Wiggins?
Team Sky rider is in top form but supplanting injured team-mate as nation's favourite will be tough
On yesterday's opening stage of the Critérium du Dauphiné, Britain's Chris Froome crossed the line in fifth place, clearly in top form for the Tour de France's key warm-up race, and with his red-hot favourite status both for following Sir Bradley Wiggins' wheeltracks in the Dauphiné – which Wiggins won last year and 2011 – and onwards into the Tour intact.
So far so good. But given Wiggins is no longer racing in France this summer, the yet-to-be-resolved big question is whether Froome will be able to fill his dual role of Sky and (hopefully) Tour leader as brilliantly as the Londoner did in 2012.
With expectations of a repeat Tour victory for Britain un-nervingly high, Sky have been relentlessly grooming Froome for next month. As team director Sir Dave Brailsford told The Independent in February when discussing how they would work with Froome: "If you want to try and win the biggest race you try and make it business as usual by the time you get there, you don't turn it into an epic.
"The best thing to do, and this is something we've learned back from the earliest days of building towards the Olympics, is treat it [the Tour] as if it's just another bike race."
Hence Froome led the squad – and won – at the Tour of Oman, the Critérium International and the Tour of Romandie earlier in the year. As Wiggins himself put it, "that's half the battle."
But no-one needs reminding that in terms of pressure and media attention, the Tour has an intensity like no other race. And while in the Grand Tours since 2011 Froome has achieved remarkable results in the Vuelta a Espana and the Tour, he has mostly been in Wiggins' shadow.
All of which means that to the wider public, Froome is far less well-known than "Wiggo", who prior to his Tour breakthrough in 2009, netted a series of medals at Olympic Games stretching back as far as Sydney 2000 – Wiggins' double gold for Britain in Beijing was only bettered by Sir Chris Hoy – and was correspondingly famous.
Froome is far less familiar a face in other ways, too. While Wiggins' most-repeated quote is that "kids from Kilburn aren't supposed to win the Tour," Froome may have a British passport and English parents, but he is also an idol for African cycling – he was born in Kenya and raised in South Africa. He has also lived in mainland Europe, currently based in Monaco (which Wiggins, incidentally, once described as a 's***hole' ) since turning pro in 2008.
In terms of his commercial attractiveness, Froome – invariably courteous, mild-mannered and self-controlled – has few of Wiggins' more unpredictable edges, and if an impulsive racer at times, seems to have less of the Londoner's raw spontaneity off the bike. It is hard to imagine Froome "doing a Wiggins" and jumping onto a car roof to celebrate with the public should he win the Tour, for example, or blasting out 'That's Entertainment' at a party after winning BBC Sports Personality of the Year or describing internet trolls producing doping innuendo as "f***ing w***ers." Froome's girlfriend, Michelle Cound, in fact, has out-eclipsed his public profile at certain points, being a key part of the so-called "Wags-war" when she and Wiggins' wife Cath had a stormy Twitter debate earlier in the year.
All of which – in the media's eyes, at least – perhaps makes Froome's ability to perform on the bike even more critical. And there in 2013 Froome is currently turning up trumps. His superior climbing ability to Wiggins was at times embarrassingly evident in last year's Tour, and his blazing acceleration in the high mountains – that may well net him this year's Tour – have been an in-house speciality since he turned pro.
Most importantly, while Wiggins' experiment with the Giro d'Italia has cost the Briton dearly, there have been no question marks over Froome's motivation, his tenacity or his simple, straightforward ambition: to win the Tour and to go on winning it. Should Froome live up to the expectation that Wiggins and Sky have created, too, that will be just as remarkable as Britain's breakthrough victory last July – and at 28, there is plenty of time left in his career for Froome's personality to shine through.
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