Chris Froome has warned that this year's Tour de France route and the limited amount of time trial will ensure a very close race as he fights to win a fourth yellow jersey and move closer to the select group of five-time winners.
Froome was confirmed as Team Sky's team leader on Thursday and can count on the support of a veritable super team of support riders that includes Geraint Thomas, Michel Kwiatkowski, Sergio Henao and Mikel Landa. However Froome has yet to win a race in 2017 and was only fourth at the recent Criterium du Dauphine. He claims he has followed a "slow build-up" to the summer. He is hoping to peak for the vital third week of the Tour de France and could go on to ride the Vuelta a Espana.
He knows he faces a serious challenge from former teammate Richie Porte (BMC), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) and many others as a change in Grand Tour generations appears likely.
"It would just be incredible to win a fourth Tour. A lot of people say it's just another number, but each Tour to me tells a different story. It's a different battle in terms of getting that yellow jersey and then trying to hold on to it. Each Tour is so unique. To get a fourth victory would be incredible," Froome said in a video interview provided by Sky.
"I do want to try and be up there with the guys who have won multiple Tours. They are seen as part of Tour de France history, and it's a goal for me to try and be up there with them."
Froome completed some final recon rides with several teammates in the Alps last week. He has often gained time on his rivals in the time trials but went on the attack on the descents last year to carve out his winning margin on Bardet and Quintana. We can expect more of the same this year, with Froome enjoying 'mixing it up' even on flat stages.
"I don't think this year's course necessarily suits me as well as previous Tour de France courses have. I say that because of the lack of mountain top finishes and also the lack of time-trial kilometres. Having said that, it means that it's going to be a lot closer race and a lot more exciting for the fans," Froome said.
"I'm going to have to make sure I'm absolutely at my best and to take advantage of any situations out on the road.
"If I look back at last year's Tour and some of the gambles I took, and some of the risks I took in terms of going for it on the descent, going for it in the crosswinds with Peter Sagan on a flat stage which would typically be a bunch sprint, it does make things more exciting, even for me. It's fun and it does bring the racing alive."
Key climbs and major rivals
Froome knows he will have to be vigilant from the start in Dusseldorf on July 1 until the parade stage in Paris on July 23. He crashed out of the 2014 Tour de France in wet conditions and always tries to avoid the aggressive racing in sprint finishes by riding, protected by his teammates, at the front.
"I don't think this Tour will be won and lost on a single stage, but a combination of three weeks put together," he said.
"At the end of the day the goal is to win and it's not necessarily about how you win.
"This year I think the real key stages are going to be the Izoard mountain top finish (stage 18), which is the biggest mountain top finish in the Tour this year, at over 2,000 metres. It's a massive climb. Stage 8 or 9 is also a hard stage with the final climb up the Col du Chat and descending down into Chambery - I think that's going to be a key stage."
Porte and Bardet were aggressive on the Mont du Chat climb during the Criterium du Dauphine and Froome names them amongst his biggest rivals.
"It's difficult to name just one rival. I think there are several guys who are in with a shot of winning the Tour de France this year. Richie Porte is one of them, so is Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet, who was second last year. You can never rule out Alberto Contador either. I'm certainly going to have my work cut out for me.
"I think the route really suits a rider like Bardet, and he showed last year that he has to be taken seriously. He's definitely one of the guys to look out for. Quintana's always said he goes stronger in the second Grand Tour, so I expect he'll come to the Tour very strong.
"I've said for a long time that Richie has got the potential to win the Tour de France, it's just a matter of time until everything works out for him."