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Chris Froome (Sky) finished off the job Sunday up Risoul high in the French Alps, riding everyone off his wheel to sew up the Critérium du Dauphiné, putting an exclamation point on his nearly flawless run-up to the Tour de France.
Even though Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale) held on out a breakaway to win the stage, Froome pounded the nail in the coffin to win for the ninth time this season.
Froome’s 2013 season has been impeccable: He’s won four of five stage races he’s started. The lone blot was Tirreno-Adriatico in March, when eventual Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali and horrible weather conditions got the best of him. He still finished second.
At the Tour of Oman, Critérium International, Tour de Romandie, and the Dauphiné, Froome has proven a consistent and worthy winner. In addition to the overall, he’s also won one stage in each race.
With Sir Bradley Wiggins sitting out this Tour, Froome will have the full support of Team Sky, which will enter July even more confident and stronger than ever.
Froome will take the pole position in Corsica on June 29, and by all measures, it looks like almost no one will be able to stop him.
“I don’t consider myself the favorite for the Tour,” Froome said. “I have won the Dauphiné, and other races, but the counter is back to zero when the Tour starts. There will be six to seven main contenders for overall victory.”
Team Sky will bring an even stronger team to the Tour than last year’s squad that delivered Britain’s first yellow jersey for Wiggins.
Of last year’s starting nine, Wiggins, Mark Cavendish (now Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Michael Rogers (now Saxo-Tinkoff) won’t be back. Others, such as Bernard Eisel, Christian Knees and Kanstantsin Sivtsov, are on the bubble. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Richie Porte are all but assured of a ride in July.
Newcomers, such as Vasily Kiryienka and David Lopez, bring more firepower in the mountains in what’s a dramatically more difficult Tour route than last year’s.
Sky won’t have Cavendish to worry about this year, so it will bring a team completely kitted out to keep Froome out of trouble and in the game.
With Porte upping his game dramatically this season, capped by victory at Paris-Nice, it’s not farfetched to imagine a repeat of last year’s one-two GC romp, with Froome and Porte potentially finishing on the final podium together in Paris. They’ve already done it at Critérium International and the Dauphiné.
“The team is stronger and stronger every day,” Froome said. “This has been a good test ahead of the Tour, against teams we will be racing against at the Tour.”
So who or what could stop Froome?
Though sometimes cycling seems scripted, it’s anything but. Just ask Wiggins, who bounded into the Giro full of confidence only to limp out with his body, morale and Tour hopes in tatters.
A crash, illness, or a bad day can derail Froome at any time. His longtime bout with bilharzia — a rare water-born disease he picked up in Africa — continues to dog him and sometimes flares up at unexpected moments.
And despite his spectacular spring, Froome has yet to win a grand tour. He came out of nowhere to finish second in the 2011 Vuelta a España, and finished second again to Wiggins in last year’s Tour. He fell flat at the 2012 Vuelta, finishing a distant fourth.
The first grand-tour win is always the hardest, and the doubt will remain until he punches across the line under the lights on the Champs-Élysées on July 21.
Will it become a question of Froome beating himself? Bad luck, a bad day, or a case of the nerves? Or will there be someone up to the task of knocking him back?
Though Froome likes to say there are a half-dozen favorites for victory, Public Enemy No. 1, at least as far as Sky is concerned, is Alberto Contador.
The “pistolero del Pinto” seems to be lacking some gunpowder of late, only winning one race all season (a stage at the Tour de San Luís in January) and finishing a distant 10th overall at the Dauphiné, 4:27 back.
But Contador is the one rider with the experience, the engine, and the courage to attack Froome and Fortress Sky.
Despite what appeared to be a relatively minor crash Sunday, Contador comes out of the Dauphiné expressing satisfaction with how things went.
“The balance is good, very good. My sensations are good, regardless of how the GC stands,” Contador said Sunday. “I believe that I will arrive in optimum condition for the Tour. I am not going to say if it’s better or worse than other years; that’s something to see in the race. But I am at least as good as other years.”
Now 30, Contador remains the best grand-tour rider of his generation.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, he knows how to win grand tours. Counting the past eight grand tours he’s started (including the DQs in the 2010 Tour, 2011 Giro and Tour), Contador won seven of those. He was over-raced and under-trained in the 2011 Tour, yet still mustered fifth.
Despite his clenbuterol case and back-dated two-year ban that also saw him disqualified from the 2010 Tour and the 2011 Giro, Contador still has five grand-tour wins on his official palmares; two Tours, one Giro, and two Vueltas.
Contador is clearly betting everything on this year’s Tour. There are some doubts about his level following his 2012 comeback, but the Spanish attacker is going all-in for the Tour.
At Saxo-Tinkoff, he will boast his best support ever, with the likes of Michael Rogers, Nicholas Roche, and perhaps Roman Kreuziger stepping up to help the Saxo standbys of Chris-Anker and Nicholas Sorensen, and Spanish allies Jesus Hernández and Benjamín Noval.
Under normal conditions, Contador is the lone rider who can go mano-a-mano with Froome in the time trials and the mountains. Based on results this season, however, Contador is either holding his cards very close to his chest, or he’s well off Froome’s level. This week at the Dauphiné, he suggested he is at only “75 percent” of his full strength, leaving himself a slender window of three weeks to try to make up that difference.
Froome, meanwhile, has been riding with Wiggins-esque consistency all season, and Sky director Nicholas Portal pegged Froome at “95 percent” of full strength.
As one of the fiercest competitors in the peloton, Contador will show up determined to reclaim what he considers his yellow jersey.
Behind Contador, there are, just as Froome suggested, a half-dozen contenders for the yellow jersey.
Among those are Cadel Evans and Tejay van Garderen. The BMC tandem will be an unknown factor for the Tour. BMC brass is sticking to its guns, and publicly declaring the aging Evans as the horse it’s backing for the Tour. That’s partly out of respect for the 2011 winner, and partly on not wanting to put too much pressure on van Garderen.
Evans has already stated that if he’s in the same form he was in last year’s Tour, when he rode to a frustrating seventh, he will cut van Garderen loose. Van Garderen, bolstered by his first stage race victory at the Amgen Tour of California, will be looking to improve on his fifth-overall finish last year. Whether BMC can seriously threaten Froome and Sky remains to be seen.
Behind them is the unlikely tandem of Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana. The former is the 33-year-old “green bullet” who, like Contador, was discreet at best during the Dauphiné. Quintana, the 24-year-old Colombian sensation, will be making his Tour debut.
The pair will hope to limit the bleeding in the time trials, and then try to apply some heat in the climbs. Whether either has the chops to drop Froome and gain significant time is a major question mark.
Others, such as Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Ryder Hesjedal and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Robert Gesink (Blanco), and perhaps Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard), will all be trying to do the same thing.
As it stands now, Sky enters the Tour stronger, more experienced, and deeper than last year. And everyone knows how that story ended.