A winless campaign, question marks over his form, and a team boss facing a seemingly endless interrogation over his credibility – winning this year's Tour de France is without doubt Chris Froome's and Team Sky's toughest challenge yet. But as the three time winner packs his bags for Dusseldorf he tells Cyclingnews that he is up for the fight and on track.
The most noticeable and flagrant issue facing Froome ahead of this weekend's Grand Depart surrounds his own form. Not since 2011 has the British rider endured such a long spell without victory. Mediocre results through the spring and early summer have only compounded the matter. June's Criterium du Dauphine offered a glimmer of hope to suggest that Froome's condition was moving in the right direction but the race also brought into stark contrast just how far Richie Porte and several others were ahead of him.
That said, Froome and his coaching staff have remained resolute in their belief that he will peak for when it matters most - in July, before holding that form for a Vuelta a Espana challenge spanning August and September. Having finished second three times in Spain, this is the season in which the 32-year-old is hoping to attain the elusive Grand Tour double. In order to do so he has staked his claim by starting the season in a slower fashion. If not winning throughout the first six months of the season was part of the script, then Froome has learned his lines perfectly.
"I've certainly not questioned my preparations," he tells Cyclingnews in a phone interview.
"I've done everything possible to be ready for July. I've put in all the hard work and the training. Everything has gone in the right direction. My weight is right and everything is where it needs to be. Other people have upped their game and Richie is one of them. He's having the season of his career so far and he was the strongest at the Dauphine on both the climbs and in the time trial. As a result of that I'd put him down as the favourite for July."
Whether labelling Porte as the outright favourite is a true indication of Froome's genuine beliefs, or whether the soundbite – first uttered by Team Sky's leader on the final stage of the Dauphine - is little more than mind-games remains to be seen. However, Froome appears keen to ratchet up the pressure on his former teammate, in the nicest, and politest possible way, of course.
"No, no mind games," he says. "Genuinely, I think Richie's the guy to beat this year. Not to write-off the other contenders, as until anyone loses time we all start with a chance of winning."
The relationship between Froome and Porte promises to be one of the most fascinating subplots in this year's race.
Ever since Porte flew the coop from Team Sky at the end of 2015 and landed in BMC's nest, the pair have been pitted against each other. When Froome continued to dominate in 2016 all appeared rosy, but this season, as the Australian draws closer into Tour contention, the further the pair grew apart. They still reserve the right to call each other 'Froomey' and 'Richie' in the press to suggest that the embers of their bromance still burn, but their ambition is both a similarity that brings them together and a distinction that sets them apart.
"We're still good friends off the bike," Froome insists when asked about the final Dauphine stage in which Porte accused him of riding against him rather than seeking the win.
"We'll always have rivalries on the bike but we've spoken about it. He was disappointed and understandably so, losing the Dauphine the way he did. It wasn't due to bad form or not being strong enough. If anything he showed there that he's the strongest guy in the peloton at the moment.
"I certainly don't see it that way," Froome adds when asked about whether Porte had a case when it came to criticising Froome's Dauphine ride. "I was trying to do everything I could to win for Team Sky, and I wasn't going to leave it until the last mountain in order to try and do that, given the shape he was in.
"The Dauphine was just what I needed in terms of that preparation and the intensity," he adds.
"The last few days were so intense and that wasn't something that you could replicate in training. I certainly went as deep as I could and certainly the lights went out for me on that last climb. The Dauphine has always been a race that's full on and people pitch up very close to their Tour shape."
"No bluffing, no bluffing," he serves up when asked if he has purposefully held back during June.
"What you see is what you get. If I could have won the Dauphine I certainly would have, but I think I'm where I need to be in terms of the Tour. I've come into the season knowing that I was going to try and be ready for this summer and potentially going on to the Vuelta, if everything goes to plan. Coming into this period of the season a bit fresher has worked for me."
Porte isn't the only rider standing in Froome's way. Romain Bardet, Alberto Contador, and Movistar's double act of Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde are all headliners in their own right. Yet even the Tour de France route appears to be conspiring against another run-away victory for Team Sky.
"There are a few aspects to it," Froome explains. "One is that the rivals I'm up against are stronger than in previous years and secondly this year's course presents the biggest challenge to date in my Tour attempts. This year's route has so few time trial kilometres; it's quite a big challenge. I see myself as a strong all-rounder so this year's Tour is about the climbs but there are so few summit finishes so it does present the toughest challenge I've faced to date."
ASO's rather understandable stance is to try and design a parcours that provides every rider with a chance to shine but to also ensure, if they can, that the race remains exciting until the last. If that means nullifying Froome's favoured form of assault of attacking on first mountain summit before adding to his advantage in the time trials, then so be it. It might be unfortunate for Froome in this instance but if a rider is to win a Tour – as Froome has done three times – then mastering the terrain is part of the process.
"I don't feel that ASO are playing it against my skillset but I do think that they're going to look at the Giro and see that time trialling made it such an exciting race to watch and the dynamic that you can have, against the guys who can time trial amazingly and the guys who can climb amazingly. I hope that in the future we do see a more all-rounded race, which is what a Grand Tour is about. It's about being able to do everything really well. I hope going forward that they have more time trials.
"I definitely see that as a massive challenge. This year I'll have to be better than I've ever been in the mountains. I've had to really focus on that and those stages, over the time trials."
While Froome has to juggle the on-bike pressure that comes with being the defending Tour de France champion, the reality is that he and Team Sky's added challenge comes off the bike, where questions and incomplete answers continue to shroud the team.
It would be myopic to suggest that the team's problems surrounding their credibility and transparency start and finish with the revelations from the Fancy Bears 2016 leaks - which uncovered that Bradley Wiggins was injected with powerful corticoid steroids on the eve of several high-profile races. The common factor in every one of Sky's controversies has been Dave Brailsford. Once portrayed as a hero of British Cycling and Team Sky, the chair of a Select Committee last year described Team Sky under Brailsford leadership as lacking in credibility - while former employee Steven de Jongh questioned his former boss's long-term position.
This season Brailsford has ignored questions, dodged journalists at races and tried to keep a low profile, all despite Team Sky's previous commitment to openness and transparency. A duck and cover strategy might be best for Brailsford's own profile but it has left his riders – who had no part to play in the Fancy Bears leak, Jiffygate, testosterone deliveries, Wiggins' TUE use and missing laptops - facing public scrutiny and the ultimate, and laughable, indignity of having to Tweet their support for their leader after questions were raised about his future in March.
Brailsford's role should be to dissipate tension, not attract it, yet his continued presence leaves his riders, and most importantly Froome, facing not just the usual level of Tour opposition but continued pressure off the bike.
At times, this has tested the relationship between Froome and Brailsford. Froome was slow to declare his support for his beleaguered boss back in March when one rider on Team Sky told Cyclingnews that several members of the squad had discussed asking Brailsford to step down. The three-time Tour winner has declared several times that he wants answers in light of the Fancy Bears revelations.
With the Tour de France just a few days away, those feelings appear to have subsided. A new and improved contract for Froome is in the works, with both rider and Brailsford well aware that a peaceful race will benefit both parties.
"He's been at all the races with us and my relationship with him is good. It's been successful over the last few years and I don't see why that can't continue," Froome says.
"I've been out of the media a lot more," Froome adds when asked whether the negative press over the last year has been a distraction. "All my focus has been on July. I've not paid too much attention to it and any free time I do have, I'm with an 18-month old son at home. That takes up all the rest of my time.
"I don't know what [Brailsford's] been like with the journalists but it's business as usual."
Whether Froome can resume business at usual at the Tour de France this year remains to be seen. The form might not have been there in the first part of the season but few would write off the three-time winner before a pedal has been turned in anger.
He, unlike Porte and several other rivals, know how to get the job done at the Tour – a quality Froome will have to fall back over the next three weeks. Luckily for him Froome also knows from experience how to deflect and absorb difficult questions, a skill that will be just as necessary this time around.
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