In order to beat Chris Froome at the Tour de France, rivals have to isolate him, attack him, and then drop him. That’s a very tall order, one that is made even more complicated by the almost-frightening depth and experience Team Sky brings to France next week.
Flanked by powerful cobble-bashers on the flats, and swarmed by agile climbers when the road tilts up, two-time Tour champ Froome will start with the confidence of knowing he has a huge advantage against rival teams trying to take his Tour crown.
Most of the major teams have already revealed their Tour lineups, and though everyone is still waiting to see whom Movistar and Tinkoff brings, Sky is looking stronger than ever. To beat Froome, his rivals will have punch through a “Fortress Froome” that looks all but impenetrable.
“We have selected a talented group of riders with Chris as the leader once again. I know they will do everything they can to help him try to win yellow,” said Sky principal Dave Brailsford. “Every Tour is different, so that means choosing the team we believe is best-equipped to deal with the many different challenges of this race.”
Now 31, Froome undoubtedly sees his strongest Tour team ever. A quick glance at whom Sky left at home — Nicolas Roche, Michal Kwiatkowski, Leopold König, and Peter Kennaugh — confirms just how good this team is.
In what must be daunting to his rivals, “Fortress Froome” reveals no soft underbelly or a hint of a crack along its exterior.
No chinks in the armor
Sky brings brawn and experience for every facet of the race. On the flats, Froome can count on Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe and Vasil Kiryienka. The best place to avoid the costly crashes that can wipe out a year’s worth of work in an instant is at the front of the race, and the confirmed classics specialists have the muscle to fight for position to keep Froome in the safest position at every moment of every stage. Kiryienka is a beast of a rider who is capable of pulling in every scenario. A veteran of 15 grand tours, and part of Froome’s first win in 2013, his work during last week’s Tour de Suisse was beyond words.
The prospects are even more frightening in the mountains, where Sky brings five top-flight climbers who not only throttle Froome’s rivals, but perhaps even challenge them for the final podium in Paris. These riders would be leaders on any other team.
Once again, Sky tapped into its rich seam of Hispanic climbing talent its been mining over the past several years. Mikel Landa and Mikel Nieve, two Basque climbers from the steep hills of northern Spain, and Colombian Sergio Henao, making his Tour debut, will be setting a brutal pace on all the key climbs. It will be interesting to see if Sky doles out the work load, perhaps saving one or two these riders from any hard work until going into the final brutal week.
Behind these “three amigos,” there’s Wout Poels, who continues to evolve into a champion in his own right. After a hot spring that included victories at the Vuelta a Valencia and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the big Dutchman will be standing tall for Froome, going deep into the hardest climbs to chase down any would-be aggression.
Filling the hole of the departure of key helper Richie Porte (now a principal rival at BMC Racing) will be Geraint Thomas. Though he didn’t look at his sharpest at the Tour de Suisse, Thomas will be a versatile all-rounder who will be at Froome’s side at every step of the race. Now focused on stage racing, Sky will save Thomas for the most decisive moments, keeping his powder dry for the most critical moments, and perhaps even pushing him high in the GC.
And the man himself? After eking out an economical, very tactical victory at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June against Contador and Porte, Froome also looks like the best version we’ve seen yet for July.
“I feel in good shape coming into the race this year, and am fortunate to have a strong team around me,” Froome said. “This year, I am hungrier than ever for success.”
In short, Froome sees his strongest, deepest and most experienced team he’s ever seen at the Tour. Add the fact that there is a longer time trial back in the Tour menu this year, Froome is the five-star favorite to win a third yellow jersey.
Teams must constantly chip away
To get to Froome, teams will have to take it to Sky right from the beginning of the race, trying to provoke echelons, and setting a high tempo with aggressive racing in the transition stages in the first week simply to tire the legs of his supporters. Once into the mountains, teams know they cannot wait until the final climb. Rivals will have be tactically aggressive, and perhaps even take high-risk, long-range attacks (something teams are loathe to do at the Tour) to try to disrupt Sky’s rhythm, and expose cracks early in Froome’s flanks.
Which teams have the firepower to do it? Froome’s top four rivals — Movistar, Tinkoff, Astana and BMC Racing — bring equally impressive teams to the fray.
On paper, Movistar has similar firepower to Sky. Though it hasn’t confirmed its Tour Nine, team captain Nairo Quintana will see impressive help on the flats from Jonathan Castroviejo, Imanol Erviti and Fran Ventoso (one of Quintana’s trusted allies), and then in the mountains, he will count on Dani Moreno, Ion Izagirre, Jesus Herrada, Winner Anacona, and Alejandro Valverde. Last year, Movistar was the only team strong enough to unmask Froome, and attack him one-on-one. Quintana’s three-surge attack on Alpe d’Huez — with Anacona waiting up the road and Valverde countering late — is a playbook on how to get to Froome. Two early accelerations by Quintana put Froome’s goons into the red, and then a final acceleration shed everyone except Porte. It was the Tour’s final climb, and Froome was nursing a minor chest cold as well as a comfortable lead, but Quintana and Movistar take confidence from last year’s Tour. Sky certainly has taken lessons as well, and that’s why Froome keeps insisting he’s been on a slow boil in the first half of 2016 in order to hit top form for the final week of the Tour. Twice runner-up to Froome, Quintana believes his “sueño amarillo” is closer than ever to coming true, but he will need to get to Froome earlier in this Tour than he did last year if he seriously hopes to win.
Tinkoff always bring a solid team to the Tour, but the bigger question mark is Contador himself. Despite taking an early lead at the Dauphiné, Contador couldn’t fend off Froome, who methodically dismantled the veteran Spaniard via positioning and a few pointed attacks. Contador will stubbornly attack during the Tour, and Froome is loathe to give Contador any serious rope (he’s learned how hard it is to take back time from their battles in the Vuelta a España), but so far, it seems Contador simply cannot match Froome’s unrelenting rhythm in the decisive climbing stages in July. Contador’s bested Froome at the Vuelta, but he’s never done it when it counts at the Tour. At 33, this could be Contador’s final serious challenge for the Tour, so maybe he will be willing to risk everything rather than race conservatively. If anyone can do it, Contador is the rider who could be the big disrupting factor in Sky’s playbook.
Astana brings Fabio Aru as its leader in what is his Tour de France debut. The precocious Italian is quickly building an impressive grand tour record (never worse than fifth since his Giro debut in 2013), and last year, he came close to the Giro-Vuelta double as runner-up at the Giro and winner at the Vuelta. The Tour, however, is another kettle of fish. Despite one stage win, he was the Dauphiné’s nowhere man, and will be under huge pressure to consistently match his more experienced rivals in the 24-7 pressure-cooker of the Tour. He will be backed by enviable support, including Jacob Fuglsang and 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali. Aru packs plenty of self-confidence, and he’s proven a dangerous rivals in the climbs. A win seems like a stretch.
And finally there’s Porte, the Tour’s great unknown who is at the center of the powerful BMC Racing team. One of the few squads that knows what it takes to win the Tour, BMC is spreading its bets between Porte and Tejay van Garderen. Neither has been able to deliver in the Tour. On paper, van Garderen’s two fifth-places are better than Porte’s track record, but there’s a sense that Porte could be Froome’s top challenger, especially if Quintana somehow goes off the rails. The scrappy Tasmanian largely matched Froome at the Dauphiné, and as a close friend and former teammate, he might have the key to get inside “Fortress Froome.”
In the Tour, the strongest rider almost always wins, but having a near-impenetrable wall around you certainly helps. That certainly doesn’t mean it will be a cakewalk, and the Dauphiné proved that the competition is tighter than ever, but someone will have to do something extraordinary to beat back Team Sky and take down Froome during the 2016 Tour.