Chris Froome (Sky) has wasted little time making history. He may have risen to the top of his sport relatively late, and very suddenly, but he has since gone about building a palmares that establishes him as one of the all-time greats of the sport.
He already belonged to an elite club, as one of only eight riders to win the Tour de France three times, but on Sunday he distinguished himself further. The i's will be dotted and the t's crossed, of course, on the processional final stage to Paris on Sunday, but Froome sealed his fourth title in the Marseille velodrome on Saturday.
He now stands just below the very top bracket, with Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain the only riders to have won five Tours.
"It's a huge honour just to be mentioned in the same sentence as the greats of Tour de France history like that," said Froome, sitting down in Marseille for the winner's press conference that traditionally takes place the evening before Paris.
"To win it once was a novelty – to be a Tour de France winner was massive – and then to come back a second time made it count even more, and to try to do consecutively was the big drive for me. Now, to do it three times consecutively and now take a fourth title … it's … I never dreamed of being up there up with and being mentioned in the same sentence as the likes of Eddy Merckx, or coming close to Anquetil and Indurain. It's amazing to be in his position. It's such a privileged position.
"I definitely have a newfound appreciation for just how difficult it is for those guys to have won five Tours de France. It's certainly not getting any easier each year, and this year was certainly the closest race of my Tour de France career."
His victory margin would attest to that. 4:20 in 2013, 1:12 in 2015, and 4:05 in 2016, this time he won it by less than a minute.
"We knew it already," said Froome, who has always maintained that the nature of this year's route, with its scarcity of set-piece summit finishes and time trialling kilometres, would make for an open contest and a race of fine margins.
And perhaps the most curious thing about this Tour is that Froome always looked like the eventual winner, without ever really imposing himself on the race. In 2013 and 2015 he blew the opposition away on the first summit finish of the race, while last year he did so in the two time trials.
This year, he opened up an advantage in the time trials that bookended the race, but never made a significant gain in the mountains – in fact he mostly lost time there. In that regard, the fact that he didn't win a stage is significant – only six other winners in the race's history have failed to do so.
Even Merckx, speaking on the eve of Marseille, suggested that Froome's victory would lack 'prestige' if he didn't win the time trial.
"No, not at all," Froome countered. "Given the parcours we had, it was always the tactic to race a three-week race and not to go out with the aim of blowing the race apart and smashing it for the stage win.
One of the lines Froome trotted out repeatedly in his pre-race media commitments was that this Tour would be his 'greatest challenge yet'.
He was, of course, referring to the route and the competition, but there was also a sense that non-race-specific issues would add to the web of complications. The 2015 Tour was dogged by innuendo and speculation over the credibility of Froome's performances and, while the atmosphere was much more tranquil last year, the controversy resurfaced over the winter with a string of damaging revelations relating to Team Sky.
"I haven't had any involvement in that. My focus has very much been on getting ready for the Tour this year. It hasn't really featured for me," Froome, who signed a new contract on the eve of the Tour, said curtly.
He wanted no distractions, and perhaps that's why Sky refused to hold press conferences with him on the rest days. The team has always had a curious approach to the media – often hostile while trying to appear welcoming – but this was to break one of the sacred traditions that goes with the maillot jaune.
"Rest days are meant to be rest days," Froome said, hardly endearing himself to a room full of journalists. "A big press conference is not conducive to recovery, and I felt as if it really helped me this year, being able to switch off on my rest day. That's what those days are there for. Otherwise, they'd be called media days."
Out on the roads of France, Froome, who was received frostily in 2015, did little to enhance his popularity. He was booed on the stage to Le-Puy-en-Velay, and again in Marseille, where the Stade Velodrome made for an uncomfortable echo chamber for the jeers.
"I think it's perfectly normal, with a Frenchman [Romain Bardet] in second place, 23 seconds behind me on the start line," Froome said, laughing it off. "Being in the centre of Marseille, finishing in the football stadium, it's not something I'm going to take personally. I'll certainly forgive them for that."
The Tour de France is no popularity contest, though, and Froome – even if he seemed in some way diminished this year – has truly mastered cycling's biggest event. Previous Tours may have seen resounding statements of pure physical strength, but over time the technical side of his game has developed immeasurably and made him into a leader, who, with over 50 days in yellow under his belt, is an incredibly tough nut to crack.
"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," said Froome, now 32. "I've definitely improved my descending and my positioning in the bunch. Tactically, I think I've still got more to learn. Hopefully as a rider I'm still improving."
If he's to be believed, there will surely be fifth member of the 'number-five club' before what we can now definitively term the Froome era is out.
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