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Analysis: It’s Chris Froome’s Tour to lose

If Froome is close to his old self, the 2014 Tour de France course suits him even better than did the 2013 edition, which he won handily

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Simply put, the math is bad. Very, very bad.

Unless your name is Christopher Froome.

One look at the 2014 Tour de France route is all it takes: Froome is the only top-shelf favorite, and the race has to be looked at as his to lose.

Oh, sure, all of us media types will make cases for other riders because it’s what we do to stave off the competitive boredom of a dominant rider and team — the woeful finality of it all — but the bottom line here is that if Froome is close to his old self, this course suits him even better than the 2013 edition, which he won handily.

Of course, all sorts of things can happen between now and the grand depart in Leeds, England, and on the road thereafter. Froome could get sick. He could crash. His Sky team could decide to back Bradley Wiggins (highly unlikely, and would take a major incident), or he could just be … slower.

But it’s hard to conceive of a 2014 season in which Froome is any less focused, any less fast, any less dominant at the Tour de France. At least, in the twilight of a stellar 2013 season.

What makes him the hands-down favorite?

There are five summit finishes, and one very long time trial near the end of the race. Froome is very, very good at all these things. Plus he has said he is “excited.”

And why wouldn’t he be? If he were to have designed the route himself, he probably would have included another flattish time trial and excluded just one stage. But more on that later.

The mountains

One of the summit finishes in 2014 is the scene of Froome’s first-ever Tour stage win, La Planche des Belles Filles. There, in support of Wiggins in 2012, Froome chased down a late move from BMC’s Cadel Evans and annihilated the final ramp’s 20 percent grade. It was on that stage that Wiggins’ Sky team lit up the peloton like a house afire, torching the GC hopes of weaker teams.

Last year, Froome was the Tour’s best climber, hands down. L’Alpe d’Huez was the only place he appeared vulnerable and lost meaningful time, due to a bonk. Other than that, he was a model of efficiency and, at times, aggression.

Recall the first mountain stage of 2013 in the Pyrenees, up Ax 3 Domaines. He put more than a minute on Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and 1:45 on Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff). BMC’s Evans and Tejay van Garderen both had their Tour dreams obliterated in one day.

Look for a similar statement to be made on the Belles Filles climb when the race barrels into the Vosges after a perilous first week. It’s a short but steep climb, and Froome could take, conservatively, 25 seconds or a bit more if Sky is able to turn the screw as remorselessly as it did in 2012.

A punchy climber like Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) could also take the stage, but that likely wouldn’t worry Froome; five summit finishes lurk in stages 10-18. In the Alps the peloton will climb Chamrousse and Risoul on consecutive days, and neither will worry the top climbers.

In the Pyrénées, the purest of climbers will have to attack Sky to factor in Paris — a 54km time trial awaits the day before the ride into the City of Light, which will hugely favor Froome. That means a rider like Rodríguez must carry minutes —three may not even be enough, frankly — into the time trial. Last year’s runner-up, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is capable of a strong time trial, but is nowhere near as reliable at this point in his blooming career as Chris Froome.

The venue for aggression couldn’t be better, however. There’s a tough stage ending atop Pla d’Adet, and the revered Hautacam as a last chance to slay the favorite. That sounds all fine and good. But when we’re talking of “pure” climbers, we sometimes forget that Froome is as pure as it gets. He may have broken Contador forever in last year’s Tour stage up Mont Ventoux, where he dropped the Spaniard like a stone, taking 1:40. Rodríguez was 1:23 back on the same day.

If we’re honest, it’s not hard to conceive of Froome leading this Tour by minutes, even before the final time trial. If that’s the case, those 54km would serve more as coronation than competition.

The Nibali factor

We’re not overlooking Vincenzo Nibali. Froome won’t, either.

Assuming the Astana rider elects to focus on the Tour only — and why wouldn’t he, after winning the Giro d’Italia this year and finishing second at the Vuelta a España? — he would be one of the few riders to pose a legitimate danger.

In 2012, the Shark was really the only man to come out and duel with the Sky boys, though Froome marked his late attacks in the Pyrénées. That year, he was the third strongest man in the race (which is exactly how he finished in Paris, while riding for Cannondale).

Nibali’s time trialing has improved, and he beat Froome at the 2013 iteration of Tirreno-Adriatico for the overall. In the race’s admittedly short TT (just under 10km) he lost only 11 seconds to Froome.

Nibali also climbs very well, but perhaps not well enough to dispatch the defending champ. And while much is made of the Italian’s descending prowess — which is prodigious — in an aggressive 2012 Tour thanks to Contador’s descending madness, Froome proved up to the charge of reading a race and letting lieutenant Richie Porte do enough work to keep him in contention.

The clock

If they can’t catch Froome in the mountains, he may be gone for good come the race of truth, that 54km stage-20 time trial from Bergerac to Périgueux.

In last year’s first TT, from Avranches to Mont-Saint-Michel, Froome put just over two minutes on Contador, and slightly less on Valverde. Rodríguez was more than three minutes back. And that was in just 33km.

It’s true that this test came early in the 2013 Tour, with Froome fresh. Things may be different next year, in that the lone time trial comes on the Tour’s second-to-last day, and everyone in the race will be tired. The climbers — Rodríguez and Quintana, namely — will have had to attack in hopes of carrying an advantage of more than two minutes into the race against the clock, and Froome may feel the effort of having to mark such attacks.

Last year’s second time trial from Embrun to Chorges was hillier than the first and just 1km shorter. This was a better reflection of the general classification, with Froome winning, Contador second, nine seconds back, and Rodriguez third at 10 seconds.

Much closer, sure, but Froome was still superior.

The cobbles

There is of course that one thing, outside of all the other things that may happen to keep the favorite from winning. Actually, that one thing is thousands of things: cobblestones. Tour organizer ASO has mercilessly, thankfully, included a stage with sectors of hallowed pave. This is something no GC rider would ever hope for; they mean panic, vulnerability, luck and chance, all things most GC riders really hate.

Stage 5 from Ypres to Arenberg features nine sectors of stones, totaling 15.4km of bumpy, potentially hazardous roads.

Froome doesn’t sound worried.

“I don’t think I’m any worse than Nairo Quintana or Alberto Contador on the cobbles,” he said shortly after the route was announced. “I probably won’t be able to follow the likes of Fabian Cancellara or Tom Boonen, but as long as I’m within the group of the GC riders, or it could even be somewhere we take time. It’s an exciting challenge to take on.”

Take time? Maybe. It’s not far-fetched to imagine Froome actually stealing time from most GC men on the cobbles, outside of Contador, whose tactical prowess is superior, as seen with his Saxo-driven jailbreak in the crosswinds last year.

Sky will likely bulk up for this stage and for the Tour’s first week. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Geraint Thomas are strong enough on the cobbles to shepherd Froome, as are possible selections Ian Stannard and Bernhard Eisel. Once Sky’s lineup comes out, it should be easier to tell whether they’re planning to survive the granite or force the issue on the flats.

With all these things together, Sky and Froome will be hard to beat. But it’s bike racing, right? And anything could happen, right? Right?