Team Sky leader on the challenges of being defending Tour winner
Chris Froome appeared as calm and collected as ever as he began his final countdown to the start of the Tour de France in Team Sky's hotel on the outskirts of Harrogate.
Froome arrived in Yorkshire on Wednesday and immediately sat down for a series of media interviews. Team Sky will attend the usual pre-race press conference on Thursday afternoon in Leeds, but Froome seemed to want to make an extra effort to be open and honest after coming under fire in recent weeks about using his asthma inhaler during the Criterium du Dauphine and after revelations that Team Sky requested a questionable TUE to treat his cough before the Tour de Romandie.
Froome starts the Tour de France as defending champion this year, a new and different situation for the Kenyan-born Briton. It has not been a simple or linear build up, with his training and racing affected by his early-season back problem, his illness in April and the recent headline grabbing controversies.
"It's definitely been a very different build up for me this year," Froome said to several international media at the Tour de France, including Cyclingnews.
"There's a lot more pressure building up to the Tour. My life has changed being the Tour de France champion. But I feel I'm in a very privileged position, especially as I'm at Team Sky and that I've got the backing of such a strong team. All nine guys are really capable guys and [we have] probably the strongest team we've fielded for the Tour de France."
"This year I've had more challenges to get ready for the Tour. I've had more problems with illness and crashes in Dauphine, which knocked me back, but I feel I've come through that now and I'm happy to be starting the race and be in condition that I am."
Froome did not talk specifically about the absence of 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins and their difficult relationship. However he made a point of saying that Team Sky's line-up was the strongest ever seen.
"It's normal for every bike rider to have ups and down. All nine riders here have highs and lows and challenges. But I think as we are now, were ready to start on Saturday and I think the team is extremely ready for this. Each one of those guys had to work hard to get into the Tour de France team. We're ready."
Froome admitted that his crash in the Dauphine left him battered and bruised and did affect his final training for the Tour de France. He hopes it will be a blessing in disguise and leave him fresh for the final week of the Tour.
"I felt for a good week that I was struggling to pedal the way I was before the crash and it did take a big hit on me," he said.
"I think it's always a big knock when you crash like that. You are forced to recover. But I look at it as if it's a small blessing so that I'm fresher going into the second and third week."
"I don't think it's meant anything, I've held back on the training and emphasised recovery a little more. But in the last five or six days, I feel like myself on the bike and am feeling really good. I'm sure I'll ride myself [into form] as the race progresses."
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Ready for the doping questions
Froome appears ready to face his rivals on the road and any possible questions and attacks from the media and whoever doubts his ethics and stance on doping.
He politely laughed off suggestions that some parts of the media and especially the Journal du Dimanche, who broke the story and caused controversy about his TUE request, will be his biggest enemy during the Tour.
"Seriously - I do have some big competition in Contador, Nibali and Valverde but I also know I always have a big job to do with the media, with keeping that side of things in control," he said.
"It's nothing new to me having tough questions coming to me. I like to think I'm as open as possible and try to give a good impression of how cycling has changed for the better since our predecessors."
"My integrity is extremely important for me. When that is challenged in the media, that's when I feel that something is going wrong and that I need to sit down with people and lay all the cards on table and tell it as it is. I feel I've always done that and told people where I stand, especially my view on doping."
An example of Froome's stance on doping arises when he is asked if he thinks Lance Armstrong should be replaced in the roll of honour for his seven victories.
"I think those seven TDF titles should probably remain as they are, given as it's so difficult to work out who the first legitimate winner is for those Tours. That now part of the sport's history and that's going into history books," he said.
Best case scenario
Froome and Team Sky's race staff have obviously studied the route of the Tour de France in detail. He has ridden many of the key stages and the team is ready to face the multitude of difficulties the road and their rivals will throw up. However with such a difficult route, especially in the first week, Froome's strategy appears to be to limit his losses due to crashes and mishaps in the hope of gaining time in the mountains and perhaps sealing victory in the stage 20 time trial.
"It's a very open race, especially the first week. I wouldn't be able to say who will be in yellow," he said.
"For British Cycling, I hope we can win early with Mark Cavendish, that would be really special for the British fans, given that we don’t have a sprinter in our team."
"It's going to be difficult race to control and who knows which team will take control early on. I think everyone will have the same approach: try to stay out of trouble and stay at the front but it's not physically possible for 200 riders so it's going to be interesting."
"My ideal scenario would be to get through the first week and be able to say 'we've put the more dangerous stages behind us and not lost time', that would be my perfect scenario."
"Beyond the first week, the race is going to be decided in the mountains. I've got more focus on the final time trial on stage 20. My biggest goal is to make sure that if I'm not in yellow, then I'm within striking distance of it by the final time trial."
He refused to reveal if he will go on the attack in the mountains or ride defensively and await the time trial.
"It's very much a case of reading the race out on the road, seeing exactly where we are in relation to our rivals," he said.
"If there's a need to go on the attack early or if it's more sensible to hold on until the final time trial, that's a question and at the moment no one can answer it. We need to get through the first week and see where everyone is and take it from there," he said.
Froome is ready for anything in this year's Tour. He knows it is very unlikely that the racing will follow a predictable pattern, with Contador, Nibali and others likely to look to attack him whenever they can.
"I think both Alberto and Vincenzo have shown that they're very opportunistic racers and will always race the race, not only on the climb but also in the crosswinds, on the descents at any points on the Tour de France. I think that's what I expect," he said.
"But that's how we'll approach every day of racing too. We'll go into the race expecting them to do something and so we have to be ready. We're also going into the race thinking everyday will be a new opportunity and we'll make the most of it."
Not the big favourite
Froome will start as the Tour de France wearing number one. Yet after his difficult start of the season and his recent crash in the Dauphine, he refused the tag of favourite or the idea that everyone will be riding against him.
"I don’t see it like that. I feel like that sometimes but we've got some big champions in this year's Tour," he suggested.
"If you look at Alberto's season up to now, I think he's still leading the UCI rankings, so that shows he's done well. I definitely wouldn't say he's the underdog and I'm not the clear favourite. I'm coming in as defending champion but I don’t think that makes me the number one favourite. There are a few guys who where who will be fighting for the win."
"I'm one of the contenders, that's how I see it. I'm in the race for the yellow jersey but I wouldn't say I'm head and shoulders above anyone else. This Tour is a very open race."