Another Sunday evening in Paris, another Tour de France. Chris Froome knows the routine by now. For the fourth time in five years, as shadows lengthened beneath the Arc de Triomphe, the Sky rider mounted the podium on the Champs-Élysées, collected another yellow jersey and delivered another winner's speech.
The tradition is a recent one, beginning in 2005 with Lance Armstrong taking a microphone to tell the "cynics and the sceptics" that he was "sorry they couldn't dream big." Froome's oratory style, of course, is rather less pugnacious, and his words are instead delivered gently and carefully, as though thanking an elderly relative for a Christmas present.
Despite an apparent reluctance to offer public displays of support for manager Dave Brailsford's position earlier this year when Sky became the focus of a UK Anti-Doping investigation, Froome seemed to have no qualms about penning a three-year contract extension with the team on the eve of the Tour. Although Froome betrayed occasional signs of vulnerability on this Tour, most notably at Peyragudes, his Sky team was as impregnable as ever, with Mikel Landa – who finished fourth overall – and Michal Kwiatkowski smothering most offensives in the high mountains. Sky's dominance was all the more startling given that Froome's key domestique Geraint Thomas was lost to crash at the end of the first week.
"I also want to thank my team, Team Sky," Froome said from the dais on Sunday. "I could not have achieved this victory without you. On and off the bike, your dedication and passion means this is a team I am proud to be a part of."
Froome's final advantage over the second-placed Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) was 54 seconds, but for much of the race, less than a minute separated the first four riders in the general classification. Yet despite the tight margins in the high mountains, it often felt as Froome and Sky were simply holding them at arm's length. Romain Bardet, Dan Martin et al struggled to land a telling blow.
"This Tour has been my toughest challenge yet. The performances of my rivals have pushed me harder than ever before," said Froome, who was grateful for Urán's help when his notes slipped from his hands. "So I want to pay tribute to all the riders for their sportsmanship over the past three weeks. We race hard against each other, we suffer together but the most special thing is the camaraderie and friendship within the peloton."
In July 2011, Froome was riding to 45th overall at the Brixia Tour, having been deemed surplus to requirements for Sky's Tour squad for the second season in succession. Six weeks later, he would place a surprising second overall at the Vuelta a España, in what was one of the most remarkable transformations in modern cycling history. Six years on, Froome has now netted four Tour victories, and he is now just one short of the record of five wins held jointly by Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.
"Each time I've won the Tour has been so unique, so different. it's been such a battle to get to this point," Froome said in a television interview immediately after crossing the line. "They're all so special in their own ways, but I think this year will be remembered for being the closest and most hard-fought battle between the GC rivals."
Speaking to France Télévisions, meanwhile, Froome insisted that he would be back at the Tour next season, and it seems unlikely that he will be tempted to ride the Giro d'Italia beforehand, despite the five-week gap between the races in 2018.
"I have a lot of respect for the riders who have won the Tour five times, because I know that it is so difficult," Froome said. "I'll have to come back next year."