Tour de France: Chris Froome in for bumpy ride as he tries to retain title

Form – his own and Contador’s – and the route stand in the champion’s way

leeds

Chris Froome’s battle to become the 12th rider in the Tour’s 111-year history to make a successful defence of his title finally gets under way today. But while it is certain that Froome and Team Sky – the squad having fielded the winner of the previous two Tours – will get the warmest of send-offs from the public in the three British stages this weekend, Froome’s three-week path to Paris looks considerably more challenging than last year.

It is not just that there are questions over Froome’s condition this month which were in no way present in 2013. This year’s Tour route itself does no favours to the Kenyan-born Briton’s bid for a repeat win, either.

From Stage 2 in Yorkshire, through the Vosges and Jura mountains, to the same chain of Pyrenean climbs where Sky – although not Froome – fell apart in last year’s race, the 21-stage, 3,664-kilometre route is crammed with potential for ambushes by his rivals.

Historically, the more unpredictable the terrain in a race or the more unpredictable the attacking, the more Team Sky, usually ruthlessly capable of crushing the field on set-piece treks through the mountains, have tended to find themselves on the back foot.

That was most clearly the case on Stage 13 of the Tour last year, where Froome, caught out by a mass attack by his rivals, lost time on the theoretically unthreatening flatlands of central France to two top challengers, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador, who went on to finish second and fourth respectively in Paris.

On top of that, one of the sport’s top specialists in surprise attacks, last year’s Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali, will be returning to the Tour for the first time since 2012 – with the aim of winning. The Astana man was not only the one rider seriously to attempt to put Bradley Wiggins in difficulties in July 2012, finishing third in Paris. In Italy’s second biggest race, the Tirreno-Adriatico, last year, Nibali beat Froome, thanks to ripping up the script on a rain-soaked day on treacherous climbs in the Apennines. Then when Wiggins showed weakness on the waterlogged crash-strewn stages of last year’s Giro, Nibali – en route to victory – was merciless. Wiggins, injured, ill and demoralised, opted to quit.

“The Tour route is not as good for these kinds of surprise attacks as the roads in Italy,” Nibali told The Independent. “Sky are an immensely strong team. But Sky have one weakness: sometimes a surprise move can disturb them and divide them.”

The high point of the Tour’s unpredictability, though, will arguably be one everybody has been talking about since the route was unveiled last October: Stage 5, over the cobbled farmyard back roads of northern France, terrain usually used exclusively in the Paris-Roubaix Classic – widely rated the toughest one-day race of them all.

With nine sections of pavé – as the cobblestones on these rural tracks are called – to tackle, accidents, crashes, punctures and mechanical incidents will multiply. Put simply, the overall favourites will be dreading that stage – and should Froome run into trouble there, the sporting ghost of Wiggins, controversially absent from Sky’s line-up and probably the only Grand Tour expert who is so comfortable in such terrain that he volunteered to race Paris-Roubaix this April, could return to haunt the British team with a vengeance.

And so it goes on. For every tough stage that Team Sky will feel they should dominate – such as Stage 10’s ascent to La Planche des Belles Filles, where Froome won in 2012 – there are at least as many that will place the British squad on the defensive. Stage 17 to Pla d’Adet in the Pyrenees, for example, is crammed with short punchy climbs of exactly the type where Sky were in trouble last year.

As if that were not enough to lengthen the odds on Froome, even the most diehard Team Sky fan would admit his build-up to full Tour condition has not been as straightforward this year as he would have liked. Purely on a physical level, back injuries and chest infections, coupled with a bad crash in the Critérium du Dauphiné, his final warm-up race, have made for a rocky approach road to the Tour.

That may end up being an advantage. If he has recovered fully from his injuries, Froome will be that much fresher for the Tour, and his rivals initially more willing to give him room for manoeuvre – which they may later regret.

On the down side, Froome’s challengers will be feeling much more optimistic than in early July 2013. Coming into the Tour then, Froome was already head and shoulders ahead of the field. An all but unbroken run of stage race victories stretching back to February was a huge psychological boost.

This time, Froome has had two stage race victories, in the Tour of Oman in February, and the Tour de Romandie in May. The latter, curiously enough, is a good omen: it has been won by all three Tour champions since 2011. But after a dominating performance in the first half of the Dauphiné in June – which he won hands down in 2013 – he slumped to 12th overall at the finish. 

Compare that build-up to that of Contador, winner of the Tour in 2007 and 2009 and widely tipped as Froome’s top rival. Never less than second in any of the stage races he has taken part in this year, including second in the Dauphiné Libéré after twice dropping Froome, the Spaniard appears to be in stunning shape.

“Froome remains the reference point, of course,” Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team manager, Philippe Mauduit, said this week. “But Alberto is closing the gap.”

Contador himself has said his plan is to be “stronger than ever for the Tour”. And yesterday he confirmed that he was in “much better shape” than last year.

“I’ve said this lots of times, but at the risk of being repetitive, the rider who’s shown in the last two years that he has been the strongest is Froome,” Contador said. “He’s the  No 1 favourite.

“Have I got better form than last year? Definitely. But I don’t know whether it will be enough [to beat Froome]. And there are plenty of other riders out there who can also have a huge influence on the race.”

While concerns about the course, the strength of his rivals and Froome’s race form may have increased, one question that looks to have solved itself for Sky is the concern about his back-up team.

Sky’s nine-rider Tour line-up may be lacking such stellar figures as double Tour stage winner Edvald Boasson Hagen, Pete Kennaugh – instrumental on the climbs last year – Sir Bradley Wiggins – no introduction needed – London’s all-rounder Ian Stannard – injured – and top Colombian climber Sergio Henao – who fractured his knee recently. But it is a sign of the British squad’s strength in depth that even without such top riders they can produce an equally impressive alternative line-up, with all-rounders of the talent of Australian Richie Porte and Welshman Geraint Thomas more than able to pick up the slack.

Will that strength of support be enough to help Froome defend his crown, though?

“I’d rather have a strong leader and a weak team than the other way round,” Sir Dave Brailsford said last year as Froome forged towards victory in Paris and his team-mates faltered.

Whether Brailsford and Sky now have to adapt to exactly the opposite scenario to last year will be one of the most intriguing questions of the 2014 Tour.

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