Tour de France 2017: Froome's Yellow Jersey by default?
It's hardly been his most convincing preparation, writes Jack Houghton, but an absence of viable alternatives make this year's Tour de France Chris Froome's to lose.
"Porte is reported to have gone back to his home in Monaco after the Dauphine to spend time with his family whereas Froome, for example, packed straight off to Sestriere for more altitude training..."
What chance of Chris Froome making it four?
By Froome's own admission, he knows little about the history of the sport of which he sits atop. In a recent interview, when asked about three cyclists of old who he joined on three Tour wins last year, he admitted to knowing nothing about any of them. He's not viscerally immersed in the lore and legend of cycling like so many of his counterparts; he's an altogether different character. But, also by his own admission, he has started to think about his legacy and, with Armstrong's seven wins now expunged from the record books, is chasing the five wins that will secure him a post in antiquity alongside Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain.
Unfortunately, Froome's 2017 season does not suggest he has the form of a man about to take another step towards greatness with victory in this year's Tour which starts a week today, Saturday July 1. Without a win since last September, it's been his slowest start to a season, and, if he does go on to Tour glory, it will be the first of his victories not preceded by a win at the Criterium de Dauphine. There are other reasons to doubt his chances. He looked weak at the Tour de Romandie, citing "small back issues". Although unhurt, he was involved in a harrowing hit-and-run incident while training around Monaco. Richie Porte took 47 seconds out of him in the short time trial of the Dauphine. But, most significantly, the abiding image of 2017 so far is of Froome languishing on mountain stages as his high-profile competitors - the likes of Simon Yates and Richie Porte - ride away from him. Add to that the controversy surrounding the UK Anti-doping inquiry into Team Sky and British Cycling - in which Froome is not implicated in any wrongdoing, but which must be a psychological annoyance nonetheless, as he is constantly dogged by questions about it - and Froome does not look like a rider simply awaiting coronation: this will be a scrap for the [2.70] favourite.
Can Richie Porte beat Froome?
Richie Porte has had the most successful season in the pro peloton and looked most impressive, but his psychology seems ill-equipped for Grand Tour team leadership: he is reported to have gone back to his home in Monaco after the Dauphine to spend time with his family whereas Froome, for example, packed straight off to Sestriere for more altitude training. What's more, Porte has yet to ever put the three weeks of consistent form together required to win a Grand Tour. As a friend in cycling fandom asked the other day: "I wonder which stage Porte will lose five minutes on this year?" The answer might be Stage 9 from Nantua to Chambery, which sees seven categorised climbs, including three super-cats, all of them steep and gnarly; and if not then, stages 17 and 18, which will see riders going over 2,000m four times in two days, may make Porte wish he'd had his pre-Tour holiday in the mountains. The [3.30] available on Porte looks poor value.
What of Nairo Quintana?
Bursting on to the Grand Tour scene in 2013, it seemed a matter of time until Quintana won a Tour de France, but after two further near-misses, he's starting to look like a rider who will rely on Froome losing the Tour, rather than one who has a strategy to beat the three-time winner. He certainly doesn't have singularity of purpose. His decision to ride the Giro - the death knell for Yellow Jersey hopefuls in recent years - smacked of a rider who lacks the belief and the approach to take on the might of Team Sky in France, and the way he was outridden by Tom Dumoulin in all departments in Italy will do little for Quintana's confidence. Quintana's team, Movistar, have argued that he is a rider who performs better in his second Grand Tour of the year and point to his Vuelta victory last year as evidence; but that victory came about because of Team Sky's immense tactical ineptitude, rather than through Quintana's physical superiority. If Quintana is still in contention in the final week, he could push Froome close, but his odds of [8.50] look about right.
Is there anyone else?
Following the lead of Quintana, most of the interesting GC-contenders who could have challenged Froome in the race to Paris, instead decided to target the Giro, perhaps seeing that as their better chance. How many of Vincenzo Nibali, Thibaut Pinot, Adam Yates, Ilnur Zakarin, Steven Kruijswijk, Tom Dumoulin and Rui Costa will make the start in Dusseldorf remains to be confirmed. What is likely, though, is that any of them that do will be focused on stage wins rather than the three weeks of constant pain required to win the Yellow Jersey.
Elsewhere, the plan all year was for Jakob Fulsang to be Astana's Tour rider, whilst Fabio Aru was to target the Giro. That plan was scuppered when Aru missed the Giro with a knee injury, and the team recently announced a joint captaincy approach to the Tour. Fulsang seemed to have recaptured some of his best during Stage 6 of the Dauphine and, of the pair, is most interesting at around [34.00] to Aru's [27.00]; however, how successful joint captaincies ever are in a Grand Tour is questionable.
Lesser-known, Primoz Roglic, who rides for LottoNL-Jumbo, is a former ski-jumper who has had a surprisingly quick impact in professional cycling, especially in the time trial. Whether his climbing is quite up to three weeks in a Grand Tour remains to be seen, but he is an interesting contender at likely triple-figure odds.
That leaves three riders of interest: Alberto Contador, Simon Yates and Romain Bardet. Contador will undoubtedly play a leading role in the narrative of this year's race. He will be ever-present in the lead-group on the big climbs, and will attempt to orchestrate a tactical coup to unsettle and potentially unseat Chris Froome. His powers are waning, though, and even odds of [24.00] seem on the short side.
Simon Yates changed his schedule in April when his team, Orica-Scott, began to doubt the form of Esteban Chavez and wanted a rider who could be prominent in the Tour GC come July. The team's public position is that the pair go into the race as joint leaders, with Yates targeting the White Jersey, but given recent form, it must be Yates who carries their main hopes and, therefore, the support of the domestiques.
Romain Bardet was second in 2016, and his solo ride to victory in Saint Gervais was the most impressive piece of riding on offer at last year's race. His time trialing is weak, though. He lost 44 seconds to Froome in the 2015 prologue, which is not dissimilar to the opening effort required in Dusseldorf this year. Add to that the second, short, flat time trial on the penultimate day, and Bardet could be seen to be starting this race with an effective 90-second handicap. As talented as he is in the mountains, he's not good enough to overcome that.
Where does all this leave us?
It's Froome's to lose, and given that he will likely take time out of all his competitors (except Porte, perhaps) in the opening Prologue, and that he will likely further that lead on Stage 5 up to La Planche des Belle Filles, the Tour could, effectively, be over in the first week, with Froome and the Sky Train riding defensively from there on in. Simon Yates is value for a podium finish.
A back-to-lay of Chris Froome at [2.70].