Froome in for bumpy ride as he bids to retain title
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 Froome and Team Sky will get the warmest of send-offs in the three British stages this weekend, Froome's three-week path to Paris looks more challenging than last year.
It is not just that there are questions over Froome's condition, but this year's route does no favours to the Briton's bid for a repeat win, either.
From Stage 2 in Yorkshire, through the Vosges and Jura mountains, to the same Pyrenean climbs where Sky – although not Froome – fell apart in last year's race, the 21-stage, 3,664km route is crammed with potential for ambushes by his rivals.
Historically, the more unpredictable the terrain 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 last year, where Froome, caught out by a mass attack by his rivals, lost time on the flatlands of central France to Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador, who went on to finish second and fourth respectively.
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.
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. Back injuries and chest infections, coupled with a bad crash in 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.
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 Critérium de Dauphiné in June – which he won hands down in 2013 – he slumped to 12th overall at the finish.
(© Independent News Service)