When the Tour de France last started in Brest, back in 2008, a 23-year-old Chris Froome was on the start line, making his debut in the colours of Barloworld. A lot has happened in the intervening 13 years – not least four yellow jerseys – but Froome believes he has come "full-circle" as he prepares to start his ninth Grande Boucle in the same corner of Brittany.
The 36-year-old is making his return to the Tour after a two-year absence following his career-threatening crash at the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné but has acknowledged he has not yet rediscovered the form that might enable him to target a record-equaling fifth title.
Instead, Froome heads into the race with the twin ambitions of supporting Israel Start-Up Nation leader Michael Woods through a new role as road captain, while also using the 21 stages to try and take the next step in his return to past powers.
"I’m really excited for this year’s start, especially given Brest was where I first discovered the Tour back in 2008 as a neo-pro. It’s come full circle for me now," Froome said during a pre-race press conference.
"In a funny kind of way, I’m heading to the Tour de France with a similar mindset as back in 2008. I’m looking to gain something through racing the Tour de France. Hopefully, it will be a stepping stone for me to get back to my former level of racing. I’m really happy to be on the start line this year and to be putting my recovery process behind me."
Froome also highlighted another parallel related to 2008, noting that he’ll be doing plenty of bottle fetching over the next three weeks. Placing second overall at his second Tour de France in 2012, he has spent the last 10 years in a leadership role, receiving that support from selfless teammates as well as shouldering the pressures that come with it.
Now, the champion’s mentality must switch back to that of the subservient, but it’s one he says he’s looking forward to.
"For me, it feels great to be able to give back now, in a very different way to the team. Typically going into the Tour de France I’ve got a lot of pressure on my shoulders as a GC contender, but that’s not the case this time.
"My only focus is on the guys around me and trying to do the best job possible to support them. For almost the last decade now, I’ve been going into the Tour de France with the team doing a similar job for me, and it feels great to be on the other side now and to give back a bit."
Froome has had a difficult season so far, as problems linked to his 2019 injuries – which included a broken right femur and elbow – have persisted. Since joining Israel Start-Up Nation from Ineos Grenadiers in the off-season, he has strung together five week-long stage races but has finished no higher than 47th.
Froome acknowledged that progress had been slower than hoped but insisted he is still on the right path.
"Like everyone else, I would have hoped the process would have been faster but it is what it is. I'm seeing improvements, I'm seeing gains. For this season, I definitely had to take a step backwards in order to go forwards."
Froome explained that, while he appeared to be going stronger this time last year, muscle imbalances between his left and right legs had caused knock-on problems, and his winter was largely focused on rehabilitation work.
"Since addressing that, I'm feeling a lot better. I'm confident the actual recovery from the accident is behind me, and now it's about regaining the racing form and condition, and getting back to my former level.
"It's certainly not through lack of trying that I haven't got back to my previous level yet. I'm extremely motivated. Being with a new team has invigorated me and coming back to the Tour de France will do the same."
The Tour, Froome added, has been the beacon of light at the end of the tunnel when putting in the hard yards.
"That thing motivating me has been to get back to the Tour de France. From the moment it was made clear to me that I could make a full recovery, I knew I'd do everything in my power to do that. So it's special to be able to do that now.
"I've missed being there the past two years. The first year, I watched it from a wheelchair, but it wasn't a feeling of wishing I could be there; there was actually a feeling of enjoying being a cycling fan again. I knew all the characters, the politics, the ins and outs of the sport, and I thoroughly enjoyed just watching and being a fan."
Now back at the race, Froome will line up with no expectations in terms of results but hasn't completely extinguished the competitive flame, suggesting it would be 'a dream' to win a stage.
"If you'd asked me three years ago, I wouldn't have said [a stage win] ranks anywhere on my list of priorities," he said. "It's nice to have but when the GC is your sole focus it doesn't change anything, and it's not defining in terms of your career or palmarés. But now it's obviously a different scenario."
A different scenario, but the same one as back in Brest all those years ago.
As Deputy European Editor, Patrick is responsible for Cyclingnews' long-form and in-depth output. Patrick joined Cyclingnews in 2015 as a staff writer after a work experience stint that included making tea and being sent to the Tour de Langkawi. Prior to that, he studied French and Spanish at university and went on to train as a journalist. Rides his bike to work but more comfortable on a football pitch.
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