A little poetic licence has always been part of the charm of the Tour de France – the accounts of Eugene Christophe’s broken forks in 1913, for instance, or Jacques Anquetil’s rest-day méchoui in 1964 – but Chris Froome felt moved to issue a correction to the accepted version of events at last year’s race when he met the press on Friday afternoon in Utrecht.
Froome crashed out of the Tour on the same day the peloton tackled the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix en route to Arenberg, leading to the general consensus that, of the four principal contenders for overall victory this time out, he is the one most likely to concede ground on the trek over the pavé on stage 4.
Asked if he was concerned about the prospects of facing into the same terrain on Tuesday, the Team Sky rider was careful to point out that he had left the Tour before he even reached the first sector of cobbles a year ago.
“I’d like to just set the record straight for last year: it wasn’t the cobbles that put me out of last year’s race, I didn’t even see a cobble, I didn’t make it that far,” Froome said, half in jest. “With the Classics undercurrent we’ve got in this team, I’m going to be more than protected for the cobbles, but I’ve already been out there to look at them and I’m actually quite looking forward to them.”
If it wasn’t the pavé, then perhaps it was Froome’s apparent jitters that ended his hopes of defending his Tour title in 2014. He crashed three times in two successive days before abandoning last year, including what seemed a wholly avoidable spill at low speed in the opening kilometres of stage 4.
Froome had already endured a tense build-up to the race. Following as a setback at the Critérium du Dauphiné, he faced questions about his use of a therapeutic use exemption during his victory at the Tour de Romandie and about Bradley Wiggins’ absence from Sky’s selection for a Tour that began in Yorkshire.
This time around, however, Froome’s preparations – the headlines that followed his revelation of a missed doping control notwithstanding – have been rather more low-key. A victory at the Dauphiné was a boost to morale, while he arrives in Utrecht free of some of the pressures he faced as defending Tour champion.
“I think that’s definitely a big factor in how I’m feeling at the moment,” he said. “And on a personal note, I’m expecting a baby in the winter and that’s put me in a very good place. I’ve also been here and done this a few times, and I’m getting into the routine and it doesn’t feel a burden having this pressure anymore. But certainly, by not coming in as defending champion, I’ve got everything to race for this year.”
As if to showcase his more relaxed demeanour, Froome responded to a local reporter’s question on Wout Poels’ contribution to the case with humour – “He gets the coffee in the morning,” he deadpanned, before launching into a paean to the Dutchman’s climbing abilities – though he was measured when asked to describe the challenges posed by Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana, the other members of this Tour’s Big Four.
“I think Vincenzo is the one to really watch within first week, and he will look to gain time with that classics-style racing,” Froome said. “With Alberto, I’ve no doubt that he’s in amazing shape after winning the Giro d’Italia. He’s set himself the big task of the double, that’s the big challenge for him and it’s going to be interesting to see how he holds up in the third week given that he’s already got a Grand Tour in his legs.
“We haven’t seen too much of Nairo this season but I have no doubt he’s going to be up there in the mountains. Perhaps for him, the most challenging part will be the first week.”
When Froome won the Tour in 2013, it was apparent that he viewed Contador – who ultimately finished fourth overall – as his principal, or perhaps even only, rival for the yellow jersey in Paris, with even the likes of the debutant Quintana happy to settle for a podium place. This time around, however, one sense that none of the four galacticos would settle for anything less than overall victory at this point.
“The race is a lot more open in that sense, it’s not going to be a two-horse race. When you get up into the mountains, you can’t just watch one guy, you could have a list of eight guys you have to follow and that’s one of the things about this year’s Tour,” said Froome. “It’s going to be a full-on race, maybe the most contested Tour we’ve seen in recent years.”
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