There's no denying that Chris Froome starts the 2016 Tour de France as favourite. There may be less time trialling but the fact remains that the defending champion lines up as the one expected to be in yellow again at the end of the three weeks. However, hope remains for those who wish to replace him on the top step of the Paris podium. As last year showed, he can be vulnerable in the final stages and this season hasn't seen the all-conquering form we are used to from Team Sky at every stage race they lined up in.
The weather hasn't been kind to them with Geraint Thomas, Mikel Landa, Wout Poels and Froome himself all suffering in the rain and the cold at some point in the build-up races, so the invincibility and confidence won't be the same as it was previously. The pursuit of minimum body weight comes with consequences – less resistance to poor conditions and fewer reserves to fall back on when forced to go deep are the main ones. More bad weather at the Tour will be a worry for them, given how they've coped so far.
No such worries for the main challengers, though. Both Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador endure wet and miserable much better, but they can't count on the weather being on their side so they are going to have to race smarter if they want to stop Froome from winning his third Tour.
They are going to have to be more ruthless, too. In fact, all the GC contenders are going to have to remove the Sky threat first before they can realistically race amongst themselves for the win. It might not seem very fair, but competitions aren't. As long as Movistar, Tinkoff and co. accept some of the GC responsibilities – when they could just as easily say to Sky, "You're the favourites, it's up to you" – then they'll end up with the same outcome: the one where Sky set the tempo and then Froome rides away from them inside the last three kilometres and takes a minute on the next guy.
Instead, Quintana and Contador are going to have to force Sky and Froome into doing more work in situations where they would previously helped them out. The same goes for the BMC pairing of Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen. They aren't individually as strong as Chris Froome so their only chance is to race together, and put Froome under pressure on terrain where it suits them more.
If Fabio Aru or Thibaut Pinot attacks, it's not up to them to chase it down, but that's the kind of squabbling that's tended to happen. The other contenders have fought for the minor places when the responsibility to chase wasn't theirs. And it's generally happened after the first mountain top finish where Sky have dictated and Froome has delivered a 15-minute burst of power that no-one could match. Hopefully they'll learn, otherwise stage 8 and the climb of the Col d'Aspin could be the end of many a favourite’s hopes.
This Tour route is more suited to Contador's characteristics than any of the recent editions have been, but he also knows Movistar and possibly Astana have better climbers than Sky, so he has to race smart and he undoubtedly will. He has to hope Quintana does too. The Colombian can afford to watch and wait a bit more, but his team are going to have to gamble some days and that might be by being willing to lose by not riding, by not chasing.
With no prologue and no team trial the race is more open and less predictable than usual, the teams who want to take on Sky and Chris Froome will have to place them under pressure from the very first day, and the next, and the next...
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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