When Chris Froome stands victorious on the final podium of the Tour de France today, for some there will be a distinct sense of déjà vu – and not just because this time last year he was standing in exactly the same spot, albeit one step lower than the winner, Sir Bradley Wiggins. Froome rides for the same team, after all, and the predictions that Froome would win the Tour began almost as soon as the team-mates had stepped off the Paris podium last July.
It is true Froome’s journey to Britain’s and Sky’s second straight Tour win has featured key ingredients in common with Wiggins: most importantly a second menu of harsh, lengthy training camps at altitude in the Canaries and a season-long, consistently strong race condition through the spring. Like Wiggins in 2012, Froome has been unquestionably more on song than his rivals ever since he began piling up the wins in February, let alone during the Tour itself.
Instead, the differences between the 2013 and 2012 Tours for Sky have been in the level of team support that Froome has been able to rely on – much lower at some, but not all, points than Wiggins last year – and the level of aggression Froome has had to show in the mountains in order to win. This has been a more open, unpredictable Tour, and instead of the lines of blue-black Sky troops which guided Wiggins over an umpteenth mountain pass (headed by Froome, and his key mountain wingman, Richie Porte) last year, this time round Froome has been much more isolated. And therefore more vulnerable to attack.
Fate has not been on Sky’s side at times either. They have lost key riders through injury or exhaustion and had others on the back foot, such as Geraint Thomas, riding with a cracked pelvis. Last year they lost Konstantsin Siutsou early on, but that was the extent of their injury list.
Partly as a result, when the racing turned aggressively against Sky – as it has done on far more occasions this year – Froome has found himself riding alone. On one occasion, in the Pyrenees, Spanish squad Movistar threw away the opportunity of a lifetime by failing to attack Froome more aggressively. On another, on the road to Saint-Amand-Montrond, a collective ambush by Alberto Contador’s Saxo Tinkoff squad saw Froome lose 69 seconds – perhaps the one time in the race when he was really in danger.
Fate has not been on Sky’s side, either. Their lead team car had an electrical blackout a few kilometres prior to the crucial Alpe d’Huez climb, forcing sports director Nico Portal to stop and change vehicles.
The consequence was that when Froome’s blood-sugar levels suddenly plummeted on Alpe d’Huez and he radioed through to Portal for a much-needed energy gel, the Frenchman was still trying to catch up with the lead group. Getting desperate, Froome raised his hand repeatedly signalling trouble – and his rivals, seeing he was in difficulty, promptly tried to attack. Luckily for Froome, they were in even greater trouble. “If that’s a bad day, I’ll take it,” he said.
Ultimately, the weak moments in Sky’s progress towards their second Tour win have not cost them. Apart from his Alpe d’Huez wobble, Froome has always been on top of this game, and his overall lead as he heads into Paris is over five minutes, the greatest since Lance Armstrong’s in 2004. And at several crucial times when Froome has needed a team-mate, a Sky rider has been there.
Though events have conspired to put Froome more at risk than was Wiggins, he has been more aggressive, with devastating rides on Ax-3-Domaines to take the lead, again in the Mont-Saint-Michel time trial and once more on the Ventoux. And that was always Sky’s plan.
“We really looked at how we won last year with Wiggins and then studied the 2013 route, looking at the opportunities to take time. And we saw it was much trickier,” Sky’s manager, Sir Dave Brailsford, said. “So we decided to go a little more on the offensive compared to 2012, try and take time on the climbs, and get more of a time margin to be able to handle the risky stages better.”
He denies it has been a more difficult Tour. “I wouldn’t call it that. We’re getting more attacks. But we’ve been more offensive too, doing things perhaps that other teams didn’t expect,” he said.
Can we say, given the extra intensity of this year’s race – from Contador’s high-speed downhill attacks to Saxo-Tinkoff’s mass attacks and the long-range mountain assaults by Colombian Nairo Quintana – that Froome’s win is more of an achievement than Wiggins’s?
In some ways, perhaps, but Wiggins’s victory had its own major challenges. Taking a first win in the Tour for a team means going into wholly unchartered waters, and in 2012 neither Sky nor Wiggins had reference points. For both to be so totally on top of their game, in that case, had its own huge merits.
This year’s victory represents no such breakthrough for British cycling. The trail was already blazed. Nor does Froome have Wiggins’s past as one of the greatest track riders of his generation, and the years of grinding hard work that Wiggins had to go through to morph into a road-race specialist.
Rather, Froome’s mutation into the world’s No 1 rider – as he will be officially ranked after today’s victory – is impressive enough for different reasons, starting with his unconventional background in Kenya and South Africa, countries with a very limited tradition of bike racing, and continuing with his own huge cycling talent and dedication.
But Froome winning the Tour de France is part of a bigger development that began with Mark Cavendish and continued with Wiggins: Britain’s unprecedented emergence as a world power in cycling, something inconceivable even a few years ago. The only question now is: will it continue?