The 2013 race winner has navigated through the first nine stages without a hitch, even gaining time on all his main rivals during a series of stages where most would have expected the Team Sky leader to suffer.
After a mediocre time trial Froome has asserted his dominance on the race and is enjoying his second spell in the yellow jersey. His closest rival is Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) is at twelve seconds, while Giro d’Italia champion Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) is fifth overall at 1:03. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) has lost time on several stages and is 1:59 in arrears but defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) finds himself outside the top ten, 2:22 off Froome’s yellow jersey.
At Team Sky’s rest-day press conference Froome met the media and the British rider was delighted with his start to the race.
“Really, coming into this race, a lot of last year was still on the back of my mind, and this first week, the big thing was not to lose any time. So to gain quite substantial amounts of time, that is the dream scenario. I have my team to thank for that. They have been there every step of the way, after all these one-day Classics I couldn’t be in a better position.”
Team Sky have measured their approach throughout the open stages of the race and came into the Tour with a strong contingent of riders suited to the spring Classics as they sought to cover up any perceived weaknesses in Froome’s armory.
“It’s been a fantastic first week,” agreed team principal Dave Brailsford. “We talked a lot about it being a series of one-day races, and there were lots of questions before we came into the Tour and the guys have answered those questions above and beyond expectations. I don’t think we could be in a better place. I’m now looking forward to the next phase of the race.”
The next phase as Brailsford alludes to is the Pyrenees followed by the Alps where seconds can become minutes and one bad day can cost you the Tour de France. Froome, though, has sailed through the opening stages and looks the strongest at this point with solid performances on all the uphill finishes so far. However the former winner is well aware that the mountains hold the key to this year’s overall challenge.
As for his rivals, Froome questioned the morale of some after Quintana and Nibali have both lost time. The pre-race expectations – based on last year – were that Nibali would be on the front foot in the first week and be in a position of control after the cobbles. In fact the opposite has played out and Nibali and his Astana team have looked questionable at times.
“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to change things, it’s a long race, there’s a long way to go, and we haven’t eve hit the mountains. I expect Nairo Quintana to start trying to gain time, but if you’re one of those big GC contenders and you’re losing time on an almost daily basis, it has to be quite a negative thing within the team and morale can’t be good," said Froome.
“I think lot of people expected Nibali to make up a lot of time on the other rivals in this first week, as opposed to Quintana where we expected him to make time in the mountains. So I expect Quintana will be the person to look out for in this part in the race. I’m in an extremely privileged position.”
On paper, at least, Froome’s closest rival is van Garderen who has ridden a race just as assured as Froome. The pair clashed in the Critérium du Dauphiné last month with Froome taking the overall win on the final day of racing.
“It’s not a surprise for me that Tejay is racing so well. He rode against me well in the Dauphine, and it was a very narrow margin. I do expect him to be up there. As it stands at the moment, he is my biggest threat.”
Although Froome can afford to ride defensively, that tactic will only work up to a point when it comes toContador, who is still finding his best form after winning the Giro d’Italia in May. The Spaniard has shown a few cracks around the edges but remains a dangerous rival given his experience, talent and ability to exploit weaknesses in his rivals.
“He’s definitely a guy who races on other people’s weaknesses,” Froome said.
“He waits for a moment when you’re exposed, and takes full advantage of that. He’s lost a small amount of time, but he’s someone you can’t just let get up the road. You have to give him that sort of respect.”
As for his own form, Froome added: “I’m in a different position to two years ago. In 2013 I came into the race, I had won pretty much every race before hand, and I did feel once I was past the half-way mark in 2013, I was almost just hanging on to the finish. This year I’m a lot fresher, a lot more mentally prepared, I feel as if I’m getting stronger in this year’s race.
“Now it’s up to other teams to put pressure on, this is the heart of the race now, we’re going to be see who’s done their homework, this is where the real race for yellow truly starts."