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Robert Millar blog: Froome and the Tour de France gunfight

By:
Robert Millar
Published:
July 02, 2014, 12:23 BST,
Updated:
July 02, 2014, 21:09 BST
Race:
Tour de France

A look at the challenges facing the defending champion

Chris Froome (Team Sky) struggles to close the gap to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Saxo)

Chris Froome (Team Sky) struggles to close the gap to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Saxo)

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One thing Sky might want to consider obtaining for Chris Froome before he begins his Tour de France title defence in Yorkshire is the latest development in personal care, the Happiness Blanket. Unlike the one from last century by Charlie Brown, which just kept you warm and cosy, the new, all-singing, all-dazzling marvel comes with fibre optics and bluetooth technology to battle stress. I was thinking that once linked into the Sky bus mood lighting, Froome could have the perfect environment based on his brainwave responses – blue for calm, and red to prepare for some of the daily aggression he'll be receiving.

Every Tour is different – the riders, the route, the circumstances of the race dictate that – and for the dossard numéro un that's undoubtedly going to be the case. If he thought he was stressed during the last two editions, then this time around he's going to be in altogether much more toxic atmosphere.

Froome’s season up until now hasn't been that convincing, certainly not anything like as stellar as 2013 when he swept up all before him. Much like his predecessor Bradley Wiggins, the season after the big one hasn't been plain sailing. There have been glimpses of the Froome to be feared but they've mostly been in print. Sure, the first two days of the Dauphiné were impressive but then he fell off and the others pounced on his misfortune. Sky are being tested like never before as the rival teams have caught up in the planning department and they are confident enough to take the boys in black on.

Confidence might not seem like a characteristic lacking in Chris Froome’s make-up, but you have to wonder how much self-belief he's going to need to cover up that things haven't been going his way lately. With just 19 days of racing in his legs, will that be sufficient to beat Alberto Contador and the newly-crowned Italian champion Vincenzo Nibali? They'll both take any opportunity to attack Froome, whatever the terrain, and that's something which he is never going to have any control over.

Not that the Sky man won't do the same to them, he'll just do it less elegantly.

Froome's biggest problem, though, is going to be the constant bombardment from the media over the Tour de Romandie TUE. Every day there'll be someone wanting to know if he'll be using or has used an inhaler on the race, and if so, then, is that because he's got a touch of bronchitis, or is it exercised-induced asthma? And you can't blame them because the squeaky clean image of Sky took a knock when the affair emerged. Add in the Tramadol accusations from Michael Barry and there's smoke to be imagined by the pack of wolves that inhabit the press room, and they are at their happiest when there's a fire to report on and flames to be fanned. The Bradley Wiggins removal will be a topic when in Britain and if there's a weakness in the team it'll resurface for that occasion, but the drugs theme will be a constant nag.

The TUE ambiguity is another case of cycling shooting itself in the foot again with practices that appear distinctly questionable to the outsider. In the layman's eyes you're either ill or you aren't. Taking medication and suddenly being healthy enough to beat everyone looks bad.

The non-selection of Wiggins has, along with the timely publishing of Froome's autobiography The Climb, brought attention to the personality behind the calm, thoughtful exterior that the 2013 champion presents to the world. It isn't an entirely rosy picture either. Quiet and reflective on the outside, but hiding a ruthless streak and relentless need to succeed on the inside, it's the classic description of a top athlete, the ones who'll do everything they have to do in order to win.

Froome is no different in that respect, as almost everyone who inhabits the top level in sport has those characteristics, but it's not exactly a complete or likeable person that's been portrayed. Most authors try to balance the bad with something good, typically finding a story with an aspect of soft and cuddly to it. So when Froome tells us he grew up feeding his pet snakes with other people’s rabbits, it’s strange to say the least. I can understand the killer instinct when competition is involved, but I can't be alone in thinking the pet animal story is a tad bizarre.

You're also reminded of something lacking in the likeable stakes when watching Chris Froome perform. The dangling head, the flailing arms and sticky out knees I've seen in person and thought ‘how does that work?’ but clearly it does, or has up until now. Actually I thought something less printable but kids might be reading. Most people like a bit of style, a bit of flair and that's what Wiggo had in abundance for Sky the sponsor. By contrast, the images coming out of Froome and the cycling team are of a uncaring drive for results and a sense that you're only ever as good as your last race. I thought things had supposedly moved on from that American style of governance but apparently not.

Chris Froome still remains the favourite for the 2014 Tour de France but I can see things being much more interesting this time around. The Deputy might have run the old Sheriff out of town but there's still the gunfight to deal with.
 

Author
Robert Millar

Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey. Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.

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