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Tour de France

Determined Froome ready for all Tour challengers

To win his fourth yellow jersey Froome has to be at his absolute best. A tricky course and ample rivals will ensure it is a close race.

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DUSSELDORF, Germany (VN) — With three yellow jerseys inside four years, this Tour de France stuff should be old hat for Chris Froome.

Yet on the eve of the 104th edition of the Tour, Froome, 32, is expecting his toughest fight since he emerged as Tour’s latest dominator in 2013.

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“This is going to be the biggest challenge of my career to date,” Froome said. “I know it won’t be easy.”

Why? After going winless so far in 2017, Froome is revealing some chinks in his armor. Rivals sense the time is right to strike. And starting Saturday in Düsseldorf, he’s facing nearly a dozen riders with realistic chances of hitting the Tour’s final podium.

Led by Australian attacker Richie Porte (BMC), Colombian climber Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and French sensation Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), a new generation is keen to muscle its way onto the podium when the Tour ends July 23 in Paris.

“He’s got the track record, but Chris is obviously the one with the biggest target on his back,” said former teammate Porte, who’s emerged as Froome’s most dangerous rival this year. “He’s the defending champion, but it’s not going to be between just him and me. It’s more than a two-horse race.”

The vibe is certainly different coming into this year’s Tour. For the past three years, Froome roared through the spring racing calendar to demoralize his rivals. In contrast, Froome hasn’t been able to deliver early knockout performances this spring. His rivals sense an opening.

Another factor against Froome this month is an atypical Tour route that is short on the grueling climbs and long time trials, where he usually turns his challengers into mincemeat. This year’s 21-stage route features only three mountaintop finales, down from the usual five or six. It includes just 36.5km of time trials, about half of what’s in a typical Tour route.

That will only complicate things for Froome. Instead of taking early gains against the clock and defending them in the mountains, Froome realizes he will have a more complicated road to the yellow jersey, and might have to make adjustments.

“I think this year is going to be a race that favors more aggressive riders. So I am certainly going to be looking for those opportunities,” Froome said. “The level of my rivals, and the course we’re racing on this year, means it could be a very open race.”

If you’re a fan watching on TV, that’s exactly what you want to see: attacks, counter-attacks, and dynamic changes in leadership. In short, a real dogfight on two wheels for three straight weeks.

But if you’re the sport’s highest-paid cyclist on the richest team that’s won four of the past five yellow jerseys, an open race is the last thing Froome wants.

“I think it will be one of the tightest GC races we’ve seen in a long time,” said Orica-Scott sport director Matt White. “There should be some interesting tactics over the next three weeks. You can’t just wait for the big climbs.”

The easiest way to win the Tour de France is to control the race and tamp down anyone who dares to go off script. A rider like Froome doesn’t want surprises. That means Sky packs its nine-man roster with riders who normally would be captains on other teams. His henchmen, with the likes of rugby-loving Geraint Thomas, swaggering Basque climber Mikel Landa, and charming former world champion Michal Kwiatkowski from Poland, have been described as “Fortress Froome.” They race so hard and so fast that Froome’s rivals are usually beaten into submission before even having a chance to attack.

Well, at least that’s how it’s worked so far. After watching him struggle this spring, Froome’s rivals are licking their lips.

“Anything can happen in this Tour,” said Quintana, twice second to Froome. “We have to be daring. It will be a Tour with a lot of movement, a lot of tactics.”

Yet his soft approach to July is also part of a larger plan. On Friday evening, Froome confirmed a three-year contract extension through the 2020 season with Team Sky. He’s clearly thinking long-term.

Following a very busy and successful 2016 season— when Froome won his third yellow jersey in July and then scored his second straight Olympic medal in time trial in August and raced to second at the Vuelta a España in September — Froome took a gentler approach into this year’s Tour. And if Froome did reveal a weak spot in his three Tour wins, it’s that he was open to late-race attacks deep in the mountains. In 2015, Quintana almost pick pocketed him with a final-mountain stage attack on Alpe d’Huez. A weary Froome hung on to win the Tour by 1 minute, 12 seconds.

So Froome took it a bit easier this spring so he could be at his best during the Tour.

“I am coming into the Tour fresher than before,” Froome said. “I felt in the past in the third week that that’s when it gets tough to hang on.”

While his rivals might be putting on a brave face, even a less-than-fearsome Froome starts Saturday as the clear favorite. He’s won three of the past four Tours — he crashed out early in 2014 and did not finish — and Spain’s Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), who last won the Tour in 2009, is the only other rider in the race who’s won the yellow jersey.

Winning the Tour entails surviving 21 harrowing days of racing across France and other countries — the 2017 Tour starts in Germany for the first time since Berlin in 1987 and loops through Belgium and Luxembourg — enduring the rain, heat, wind and sometimes snow of French summer, avoiding crashes, and climbing up and over the highest paved roads in Europe. And then having the legs and mind to beat everyone else.

Sky has done it sublimely for five straight years, beginning in 2012 when now-retired Bradley Wiggins won Britain’s first yellow jersey. If anyone is doubting Froome’s resolve, they’d be wrong. He has the chance to win a fourth yellow jersey, and everyone in the Tour’s century-long-plus history who’s won four continued to win a record fifth title (that’s if you don’t count Lance Armstrong’s scandal-tainted seven straight wins).

“A fourth Tour title, that’s what I am after,” Froome said defiantly. “I feel the level of my rivals is even higher this year, and on a difficult course. The hunger hasn’t got any less. I am more focused than ever.”

Froome realizes that to win his fourth yellow jersey he will have to be at his absolute best. To get past him, his rivals know they have to be even better.