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The Tour de France kicks off in Dusseldorf, Germany on Saturday, July 1. In the lead-up to the Grande Boucle, we’ll be counting down the top-10 GC contenders this week. Here is rider #1. Want to brush up on the other contenders? Read up on riders #10-7, riders #6-3, and rider #2.
Three-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome is well aware that the image of the yellow jersey running up Mont Ventoux will be the enduring moment of the 2016 Tour. No bother for the Brit. He is already starting to cast an eye toward joining the race’s five-time champions.
With help from our friends at L’Equipe, we caught up with the defending champion to talk about his memories of 2016, his greatest rivals, and what he expects from this year’s course.
What is your strongest memory of the 2016 Tour de France?
The moment that remains imprinted in my memory and, I think, in that of anyone who is interested in the Tour de France is the Mont Ventoux stage and the chaos that followed the crash that Richie Porte, Bauke Mollema, and I had when we hit a motorcycle. I’m not about to forget that incident. Afterwards, the race commissaires gave me the same time as Mollema, making an exceptional decision in circumstances that were equally exceptional. In hindsight, I still think it was appropriate and just, from a sporting perspective, even though the days that followed showed that I didn’t depend on that moment to win.
The images of you taking to your feet and running will go down forever in the history of the Tour.
Yes, I’m constantly reminded of it. I realized the impact of this image when I met fans in Australia, South Korea, and Japan during the off-season and shared some really nice moments on the bike with them. You don’t often see a cyclist running. I’ve seen those photos turning up in magazines, on the Internet, etc. I’ve also seen some imaginative comments, such as those from the organizers of a 10-kilometer running race in Spain who invited me to take part. I can laugh now, but it was a moment of pure madness. I quickly realized that my bike wasn’t in working order and I knew that my team car was a long way behind. And I didn’t even slip when I was running, despite the cleats on the soles of my shoes!
What else do you recall about the 2016 race?
The two stages on which I had the most fun: the descent towards Bagnères-de-Luchon, which was something different and unexpected for many people, and a few days later, on the road into Montpellier, when I escaped with Peter Sagan in the crosswinds. On that occasion, I didn’t win the stage, but I loved that moment.
It was pure instinct and quite different from the image that Team Sky presents the rest of the time. Was there nothing premeditated about it?
No. I was lucky enough to get this opportunity because the night before that second Pyrenean stage I had a 54-tooth chainring put on instead of the usual 53, which came about when Nicolas Portal, my team director, showed me a map and stressed that the descent from Val Louron-Azet wasn’t all that technical and would be done at high speed on long straights. I foresaw the possibility of having to get back across to Nairo Quintana if he had distanced me on the climb. But the urge to attack came to me just as I went over the summit.
And what about the stage to Montpellier?
Peter Sagan made the first move. I saw him go and said to myself: “Why not, I have nothing to lose? I must go for it.” In hindsight, I’m really pleased that I had the guts to go on the offensive rather than sitting back and waiting to defend my yellow jersey. It’s the kind of cycling that many would like to see every day, but it’s rarely possible. It’s true that Team Sky’s most common tactic is to impose a tempo at the front of the peloton that discourages my rivals from attacking me. This doesn’t necessarily produce the best spectacle but, from our point of view, it is the ideal way to keep events under control.
You have joined the band of the three-time Tour de France winners, which includes Philippe Thys, Louison Bobet, and Greg LeMond. What do you know about them?
Not much more than the fact that they won three each.
Haven’t you wondered why they didn’t win any more Tours?
In all honesty, no.
The first two were affected by the world wars, while LeMond had his career interrupted by a hunting accident. What could prevent you from joining Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain on the list of five-time Tour winners?
Firstly, my opponents. Then, you have to remember that my career has also been marked by highs and lows. My emergence was set back by bilharzia contracted in Africa. I could have won my first Tour in 2012 and not in 2013 if Team Sky’s tactics had been different. [The team favored Bradley Wiggins – Ed.] I fell in 2014, which could still happen to me again just as it could happen to others, even though you try to minimize the risk of this by riding at the front. I also started high-level racing at an older age than usual.
Up to now, nobody has ever won his fourth Tour de France at 32, your current age. But you already occupy a prominent place in history having worn the yellow jersey 44 times, which puts you in fifth position in this ranking. A year ago, you said you weren’t chasing records. And now?
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I have to admit that my perspective on things has changed a bit. I’m not too far away from the five-time winners. Joining them on the Tour’s palmarès has become an additional source of motivation, but first I have to win a fourth Tour before thinking about the fifth. Whatever happens, and regardless of my upcoming results and whether I win or not this year, I still feel relatively young and I hope to race for another five or six years at the highest level. Winning five Tour de France titles would be huge but I don’t want to think like that. I’m not obsessed by my number of Tour victories but by my career as a whole. If I can arrive at the start line physically capable of playing a leading role in every year that I’ve got left as a racer, I will be satisfied. Beyond that, there are all of the imponderables.
Which of your opponents do you monitor most closely?
Nairo Quintana has made me suffer in the mountains for four years now and he demonstrated during the last Vuelta that he is capable of beating me, thanks to a tactical coup. Alberto Contador is still capable of winning the Tour de France. He’s a defiant man who I will have to keep an eye on as long as he remains in the peloton. He has the mental strength, experience, and motivation, and a change of team can only do him good because he was obviously not happy at Tinkoff. I’m also aware that Romain Bardet continues to progress, and I know better than anyone, because he was my teammate, that Richie Porte is very, very strong.
What kind of race are you expecting this year?
I hope it will be a very exciting edition but with only three summit finishes and a really small amount of time trialling, there will be very few opportunities for the riders who are contesting the overall classification. I’m delighted that the first difficulty comes very quickly, on the fifth stage, as this reduces the risk of crashes at the start of the Tour and will provide structure to the race. I’m even more delighted that it is at La Planche des Belles Filles, where my Tour story really started with my first stage victory in 2012.
How do you manage to keep the same motivation for your preparation now that you’re a father?
Getting motivated for the Tour de France isn’t really difficult. You just have to think of the atmosphere that reigns there and summon up the images of fans, the noise of helicopters in your head … My son Kellan, who was born in December 2015, gives me even more desire to succeed. His presence in my life really fulfills me. I love my job, which stems from a teenage passion. I am always looking forward to the next Tour de France.
THE SCORE: 39/40
Tall and lean, Froome doesn’t possess the fluid style of a pure climber. However, he has an exceptional power-to-weight ratio for the mountains. This year, the first summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles is actually the location of his first Tour stage victory in 2012. The last summit finish on the 2017 route, on the Izoard, should suit him just as well.
TACTICAL SENSE: 9/10
Team Sky simplifies things by opting for the steamroller tactic, setting a hard rhythm in order to eliminate its opponents. Froome relies on his earpiece and power meter, which is hardly instinctive. As we saw at the 2016 Vuelta, he can be caught out when more sophisticated tacticians (such as Alberto Contador) strike.
TIME TRIALS/FLATS: 10/10
Whether long or short, flat or hilly, Froome is the best time trialist among the favorites. In addition, we also know from last year’s Montpellier stage (when he was second behind Peter Sagan) that he is capable of gaining vital seconds that have a psychological benefit.
TEAM STRENGTH: 10/10
Assembled to enable a British rider to win the Tour, Team Sky has won four of the last five editions, the first of them with Bradley Wiggins in 2012. The richest and most methodical team in the peloton, capable of allowing its riders to rest on certain days, can fall victim to a lack of popularity.