Chris Froome won his fourth Tour de France by less than a minute and without winning a stage; a rare combination that indicated that the Briton's superiority was lower than ever during his Grand Tour career at Team Sky.
In 2013 and 2015, Froome dominated the race with attacks in the Pyrenees and on the slopes of Mont Ventoux that distanced his rivals and put him and Team Sky firmly in control. That did not happened in 2016 and Froome never looked the strongest climber in the race this year either. This year Froome carved out his winning margin of 54 seconds on Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) and 2:20 on Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) in the two time trials in Dusseldorf and Marseille. He actually lost time to his rivals on the three mountain finishes and even lost the yellow jersey to Fabio Aru in the Pyrenees but still went on to win the yellow jersey in Paris.
Team Sky are convinced that their secrets for continued success are adaption to the race route and continual development so that Froome can gain time on his rivals whenever possible.
"One of the intriguing things about the Tour is that it's never the same. That's one of the challenges for us. We have to adapt his strengths to meet the demands of the race," Froome's trusted coach Tim Kerrison explained.
"Chris is not only the strongest, all-round rider, he's also adapted to the way the Tour has changed over the years. He can perform in a Tour that has over 100km of time trialing, as he did when he finished second in 2012, and he can perform and even win a Tour that has less than 40km of time trialing, like this year."
"There are Tours that have cobbled stages, crosswinds and steep punchy finishes. We need to adapt his condition and his training each year to respond to the demands of the race."
Froome has dominated in the mountains and in the time trials in the past. Now he is fortunate to have by far the strongest team to help him control his rivals and resolve difficult situation such as his mechanical problem and crashes. Nobody else had the support of the riders of the calibre of Michal Kwiatkowski and Mikel Landa. Or the vortex skinsuits developed thanks to many expensive hours in the wind tunnel. The strengths of Team Sky and their latest marginal gains were enough to gradually soften up and defeat their rivals on the long road to Paris.
Froome explained that was the master plan.
"This was very much a three-week race and very much a Grand Tour in essence," he said.
"Giving the parcours we had, it was always the tactic to race a three-week race and not go out with the aim of blowing the race apart and smashing it for the stage win.
"It was always about three weeks of chipping away on every stage and making sure there weren't any massive losses on any given day. I did suffer in the Pyrenees and I lost 25 seconds on that stage to Peyragudes. I'm extremely grateful that it wasn't any worse. Normally when you have a bad day in mountains, you can lose minutes."
Froome is now 32 and Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain had already won their fifth Tour de France and were in the declining years of their careers at this point. Froome argues that he started racing Grand Tours much later in his career compared to the greats ahead of him who won five Grand Tours. He believes he is still improving as a rider, even if he may no longer be physically dominant.
"I'm definitely getting older. But at the same time each year I like to think I'm still learning and developing as a rider and becoming a complete rider. I've definitely improved my descending and my position in the bunch. Tactically I think I've still got more to learn. Hopefully as a rider I'm still improving," he said.
Froome talked of racing the Tour de France for another five years and he clearly wants to join the exclusive club of five-time winners. Kerrison is convinced Froome can to be competitive in 2018 and beyond.
"Hopefully we can keep going at this level for another couple of years. That's the plan. Of course we'll take it one year at a time and adapt again to whatever the course throws at us."
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