Maillot jaune overwhelmed with enormity in final kilometers
On Sunday, as night falls in Paris and the crowds gather on the Champs Elysees for the final curtain call of the 100th Tour de France, Chris Froome will cross the line and claim overall victory.
Of course Froome must navigate the final 135.5 kilometres safely from Versailles, but baring accident he will assume the customary position on the top step of the podium.
In his winner's press conference, located two kilometres from the summit at Annecy-Semnoz, the relief and raw emotion were clear on Froome's face.
"To sum it up, for me, what this represents, the journey I've taken to get here from where I've started, riding on a little mountain bike on dirt roads back in Kenya to be right here in yellow, in the Tour de France, the biggest event on our calendar, it's difficult for me to put into words," he said, the fragmented alliance of words perhaps an indication that a Tour title had not quite sunk in yet.
"This really has been an amazing journey for me," he replied with after his second question.
"The race has been a fight every single day, cross-winds, rain, mountains, good days, bad days, the team has come under pressure on different days."
It seems like an eternity has passed since his slip on the opening stage, but since then he has blanketed this year's race with his own personal dominance. Alberto Contador briefly threatened, while Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez found themselves racing for second and third for most of the race. The much vaunted ‘Spanish alliance' of course never materialised and Froome's could even let his two main rivals dance away on the final climb of the race, such was his advantage.
At times, on the rare occasions when's Sky's blue line of defence was breached, as they were on the road to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, Froome single-handedly managed the situation. In other instances, as with Alpe d'Huez and Ax 3 Domaines, Richie Porte proved his worth with key displays.
"On one occasion I was left at the front on my own and there were other days when I had teammates with me right until the end. The Tour really has had everything thrown at us and I think it's only fitting for the 100th edition, it really has been a special edition this year."
The Vuelta boost
Froome's rise through the ranks of professional cycling has been rapid, and that is partially why some doubt his performances, despite the reassurances from Froome and his team that he is a clean legitimate winner, and that health issues were the central explanation as to why he has been a late bloomer in the sport.
The 2011 Vuelta certainly marked a watershed moment in Froome's career. Up until that moment he was a rider of promise, but one who struggled to put together a string of results over week long stage races, let alone the Grand Tours. When he signed for Sky in its debut season in 2010, Geraint Thomas and John-Lee Augustyn [former teamates of Froome at Barloword] were looked upon with just as much if not more hope. Froome certainly didn't have 'Grand Tour winner in the making' written all over him.
The Vuelta, in his second season with Sky, changed everything. He climbed to second overall and relegated teammate Bradley Wiggins into third. Froome may even have won that race had Sky raced differently [he finished 13 seconds behind winner Juan Jose Cobo].
"I think the first time that I thought I could be a GC rider, to contend in races like the Tour de France, was during the 2011 Vuelta. Up until then I found it very difficult to keep my performances consistently high throughout a stage race," he said.
"I would have good days and showings of what I was able to achieve, but I was never able to back it up. That Vuelta was the first time I was able to do that. That gave me a lot of confidence and belief in myself, that I do belong in the group of riders at the front of the general classification."
After the Vuelta, Froome played understudy to Wiggins at last year's Tour, picking up second overall, a stage win and the nod from Dave Brailsord that he would lead the team come next July.
Since then Sky has stamped its authority on the stage racing programme. There have been blips, the Giro d'Italia and Trentino stand out, but the majority of races have bent to the team's will and Froome's power.
Handling the doping questions
Froome has faced obstacles off the road as well as on it during this year's race. The innuendo, the speculation, and the assumptions have been undercurrents that have sailed through all of Sky's press conferences during this race. Questions surrounding former team doctor Geert Leinders and a new zero tolerance policy on the team came up since last year, while the arguments over power data, VO2 Max and transparency promise to rumble on as cycling looks to establish credibility post USADA's investigation into Lance Armstrong and the US Postal Service team.
Sky has certainly been at pains to stress their clean stance, doing more than other teams in releasing data but Froome accepts that the yellow jersey, now more than ever comes with a responsibility, both to shoulder the lion share of doping questions but also the targeted ones that a winner must accept for his own performances. All the while as a number of rivals have perhaps been given easier rides.
"It has definitely been a challenge. It's understandable, 100 per cent understandable given where the sport has come, the history of the sport," Froome said.
"I think whoever was going to be in this position, whoever was going to be win the yellow jersey was going to come under the same amount of scrutiny, the same amount of criticism from journalists and fans. I accept that, I completely understand. I'm also one of those guys who have been let down by the sport and I just hope that through winning this year's Tour I'll be able to help change that. I know it's going to take a lot more time, but we're willing to try and do everything it takes to show that the sport has turned around.
"It hasn't taken away from the happiness. It's made it more challenging, but if anything that makes it more of a reason to celebrate. It's another obstacle that I think I've overcome, myself and my teammates."
This evening though, as Froome and his teammates head to Versailles they will toast their win: a second title in the bag for Sky, a company that asks its subscribers to 'believe in better.'
"Everyone keeps telling me that this is life changing, but I don't wish to change and I hope things don't change too much for me," Froome said.
"I would have loved to have ridden away and tried to win the stage today but I didn't have the legs in the last 2km and I also felt overwhelmed with the feeling that I'd actually done this."
This Tour certainly had drama and excitement, even if the likelihood of a Sky victory increased with every pedal stoke after Ax 3 Domaines. As Brailsford has made clear, this was always going to be Tour in which the winner would have to face questions over both the past and their own performances. And as Froome's beacon-like yellow jersey crosses the line under the night sky in Paris, each spectator must decide if they – in this post Armstrong era - believe in better and if they believe in the best at this year's Tour.
- Tour de France
- Tour de France 2013