There must have been a sense of déjà vu for Chris Froome as he sat down on the shores of Lake Thun in Switzerland for his press conference on the second rest-day of this Tour de France. It wasn't the sparkling blue waters or snow-capped Alpine backdrop that rang a bell, but rather his status as leader of the Tour de France as it enters its denouement, with a commanding buffer over his principal rival.
Froome won the Tour in 2013 and 2015 and both times was in yellow on the second rest-day. Nairo Quintana, second on both occasions, was 3:10 in arrears at this juncture last year and 2:59 this time around. Bauke Mollema may nominally be Froome's closest challenger here at 1:47, but the main trepidation is reserved for the Colombian.
Not that he is really causing much trepidation at all. "It has to be pretty discouraging for some of the other guys," Froome said of his rivals and their inability so far to weaken this almost-unfairly strong Sky team's vice-like grip on proceedings.
Some are saying Froome has the race sewn up but, while there's much to be confident about, there will be a creeping concern in the back of his mind. En route both of his Tour crowns he faded noticeably in the final week, the buffer he had built up proving sufficient but distinctly eroded by Paris. Quintana, conversely, tends to get stronger as a Grand Tour goes on, stamping his authority on 2014 Giro d'Italia in the final week and nearly toppling Froome on Alpe d'Huez last year.
"From myself personally I feel as if I'm more ready for this third week than I have been in previous editions," said Froome.
"Starting the season early helped that, and having a quieter run-in to the Tour helped that. At the beginning of this race I said my personal ambition is to be at my best in the last week and I think I'm on track for that.
"I wouldn't say the best is yet to come but I certainly feel as if I'm not like I was in the two previous editions – hanging on in the third week."
The final week this year is an exclusively mountainous affair, with summit finishes at Finhaut-Emosson and Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc sandwiching the uphill Megève time trial, before the GC race culminates with the Col de Joux Plane and the white-knuckle descent into Morzine.
Needless to say, it's all fertile ground for a pure climber like Quintana.
"Last year he made up a lot of time in the final week and I expect he'll be one of the main guys looking to put us under pressure these next few days," said Froome, who reckoned it was hard to say if his rival is weaker than he was last year.
"We've always seen that he's been good in the third week of Grand Tours and I don't expect that to be any different."
Movistar – and here's the déjà vu again – have led a conservative race so far, with attacks few and far between. Indeed, Quintana has only made one real attack, on Mont Ventoux, and he was rapidly brought to heel by Woet Poels and soon dropped by an acceleration from Froome himself.
"One of the reasons we haven't seen these massive attacks from other people is that the level of fatigue is right up there – everyone is nailed," said Froome, explaining that the first two weeks have been "full gas".
The other reason? The strength of Sky's line-up – most of whom could be leaders in other squads, according to Froome. That topic has certainly been the cause for quite some head scratching at Movistar about their chances of winning this race.
"I feel we're in control," said Froome, noting he had eight fit and healthy riders around him. Indeed, this will be the first time he heads into the final five days of the Tour with a full complement of teammates.
Will they just defend and control the race all the way to Paris? Going by Froome and Brailsford's comments that will certainly be the case on Wednesday, but they vowed to take opportunities in the final couple of days once the time trial has made for a clearer complexion.
The race situation may bear a striking resemblance to 12 months ago but there has been a marked difference in the atmosphere that has surrounded Froome thus far, with little of the toxic suspicion generated by the Briton's performances and power data last time out.
"The fans have been great, the fans are what make this race," he said, though he did acknowledge the loud boos that greeted him on the podium on Mont Ventoux after the shenanigans on the wind-swept 'Giant of Provence' last Thursday.
"Sure, there are pockets of people standing together who boo and they're very loud. But you go to a football game and I'm sure some people who don't like the other team will boo at the other fans. That's sport. It's unfortunate, it doesn't look good for the sport, but at the same time there are thousands upon thousands of people who do come out there to support the riders and the race and that's amazing to see."
Froome was flanked at the press conference by team principal Dave Brailsford, and they both argued that the style of his racing this year have gone some way to endear him to fans and silence those they like to refer to as 'pseudo-scientists'.
A daring downhill attack off the Col de Peyresourde and an unlikely late crosswind split with Peter Sagan in Montpellier – yielding a sum of 35 seconds – have gone some way to breaking the unimaginative and metronomic tag the team has acquired over the years.
"People aren't asking the same questions as they have in the past, but it's difficult to ask for power data if you're going down a hill and dropping everybody," argued Brailsford, who revealed details of Froome's testing so far in the race, with 13 hotel visits on top of his daily post-stage tests while in yellow.
"If anything, this year I've demonstrated how much I still have that hunger, that desire to still win this race," Froome stated.
"From the first two weeks I feel I've taken every opportunity possible, attacked on descents, in crosswinds, I've time trialled as hard as I can to be in this position. It feels like I'm giving this race my all, it means so much to me."
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