We’re fast approaching the 2017 Tour de France, which begins with an individual time trial in Dusseldorf on 1st July. Twenty-two days later, the participants will finish with the customary final stage at the Champs-Élysées. In between, there are any number of gruelling stages both on the mountains and on the flatter terrain. It really is one of the ultimate sporting feats in the world to land that yellow jersey!
The past four renewals have largely been dominated by one man. Chris Froome, the lead rider for Team Sky, has proved to be head and shoulders above the competition. The Brit was a convincing winner in 2013 and 2016, while he also collected a yellow jersey in 2015. Incredibly that year, he was also the King of the Mountains, illustrating that he’s a complete all-rounder on the bike.
Froome’s preparation is in the final stages for the latest Tour de France. Despite missing out on a fourth Critérium du Dauphiné title earlier this month, he was only 90 seconds behind eventual winner Jakob Fuglsang and seems to be in good shape for the big event in France.
That is certainly the view of Team Sky Sporting Director Nicolas Portal, despite the fact that Froome’s previous three wins in the Tour have come after winning the Critérium. He claims that the 32-year-old is “on the way up” and that he should be peaking come the beginning of July.
"We came here to try to win, and we saw Richie (Porte) was super strong, and now we can see Fuglsang was clearly very strong too," he said.
"Froomey is on the way up, step by step to the Tour. For sure he's going to progress. He finished the race really well here, making some hard attacks and some long pulls.
"Obviously it didn't work out with the victory, but we've done a really good job here. We're all looking forward to the Tour and there's more to come."
That said, it’s strange that Froome has remained off the winners’ rostrum for the whole of 2017 going into July, something that means this could be the cyclist’s toughest challenge to date. Victory in the Critérium has previously been the benchmark for Froome and Team Sky, and there are signs that 2017 won’t be plain sailing.
The Kenyan-born rider has struggled to piece together consistent performances, with Froome hoping that a potentially stronger team than his rivals will help him during the various stages of the Tour. Team Sky are blessed with talented riders, and it will be hard to pick the final line-up following the most recent event.
Michał Kwiatkowski, Pete Kennaugh and David López were all impressive at the Dauphiné, with Geraint Thomas, Mikel Landa, Wout Poels and Sergio Henao going hard to land a place in this impressive team who will be focused on delivering a yellow jersey to their colleague. Several of them have experience of producing the goods in the Tour before.
Froome is trading at 2.30 with the bookmakers to win his fourth Tour de France title, something that would be a remarkable feat. There used to be a time when British cyclists could only watch on with envy at what was happening at the top of the leaderboard, but Bradley Wiggins and now his former team-mate are correcting that.
That said, no cyclist is ever a certainty to win this prestigious event, with fortune required when it comes to avoiding crashing during any stage. There’s also the ugly possibility that injury could prevent someone from going all the way.
In 2014, that fate occurred to Froome, who sustained a fracture to his left wrist and right hand during one of the early stages. The right hand injury wasn’t keenly felt by Froome before the left wrist gave way, illustrating the high pain threshold experienced by these athletes.
However, even if Froome steers clear of accidents, there is a viable opponent in the 2017 Tour de France who goes by the name of Richie Porte. The star rider for BMC Racing Team sounds very bullish as he aims to win his first yellow jersey, and he could be the main rival to the current champion.
The bookmakers are undecided over who to make their favourite, with Porte having been highly impressive during the recent Critérium du Dauphiné, and the Australian is seeking out a kind of revenge after missing out on that particular title. After that particular event, he suggested that Froome was out to deny him the victory, with he and Alejandro Valverde looking to isolate Porte at every opportunity.
“It was me against everyone for a little bit,” Porte said. “Valverde and Froome obviously didn’t want to see me win the race. That’s racing, but you don’t forget that for July.
“Obviously you could see they were ganging up on me. It would’ve been handy to have a few more team-mates there. They attacked the absolute hell out of us from the start. I found myself in a position with no team-mates. There were guys who preferred me not win the race instead of going for it themselves.
“I don’t know what you can learn from that. I think it is swings and roundabouts. Maybe I have a favour to repay come July.”
The fact that Porte became isolated in the Dauphiné and failed to win will have been particularly informative for rival teams. Pound for pound, the Aussie might be the best rider in the 2017 renewal of the Tour de France, though this is a team game where back-up is permanently required.
Froome suggests that Porte is favourite to win his first Tour, and it should be noted that some bookies agree with that assertion, with a particular operator going 2.10 about the Australian pipping the field. Others take a dimmer view of the latter’s chances and offer odds around the 3.00 mark.
The 32-year-old finished fifth in the overall classification in the 2016 Tour de France, with a Tour de Romandie victory this year outlining his credentials this summer, while there was also victory in the Tour Down Under, which was a particularly important one for the Aussie to win.
The bookmakers are anticipating a Froome v Porte tussle during the month of July, though Nairo Quintana will also be keen to make his presence felt, and the Colombian was disappointed that he didn’t issue more of a challenge to the Team Sky rider 12 months ago.
The 27-year-old was billed as the man capable of toppling Froome last year, and he initially produced some bright performances in the saddle, though the Brit was able to get the better of his rival and it often came down to the fact that the Team Sky rider had the better stamina.
What doesn’t bode well this time around is that the biggest issue for Quintana ahead of the Tour is fatigue, with the Movistar rider having planned a great deal of rest before the first stage in Dusseldorf, where he will hope to have greater energy reserves.
Quintana outlined his ability at the Giro d’Italia when finishing second, though the South American was clearly disappointed considering he led the classification going into the final day’s time trial. To be overhauled by Tom Dumoulin at the death would have been a bitter pill to swallow.
A betting spokesman feels as though only three cyclists can win La Grand Boucle, with the front three in the betting market better equipped than any other competitor.
He told us: “Froome is the man to beat despite his difficulties in 2017. This man oozes class and has a depth of invaluable experience when it comes to racing over a month for the Tour de France title.
“Froome also has a very strong team surrounding him and there’s an element of doubt surrounding Porte when it comes to the time trials, especially if the BMC Racing Team don’t have the quality of Team Sky.”
Jakob Fuglsang is the fourth favourite to win the Tour, with the 32-year-old having earned his stripes when landing the Critérium du Dauphiné title in surprising fashion. The Team Astana cyclist will now be a marked man for the bigger event, having only achieved a top ten finish on one occasion and that was in 2013.
Alberto Contador is a legend of cycling, having won the yellow jersey in 2007 and 2009, though he’s failed to complete two of the last four renewals. The Spaniard failed to make an impression in the Dauphiné, though he claimed after the event that he wasn’t even thinking about competing hard and instead preferred to focus on the bigger picture.
"I preferred to take my own tempo and decided to save my legs,” he admitted after the race. “The most important thing is that I've finished this race really fresh. In the last few years, I've finished tired, empty. I think that I can now recover well in the next three days and then start my preparation again. I know that I need to work on my intensity, but at the moment it's perfect. It's not about the GC here.
"I'm happy ahead of the Tour de France. Not many guys win the Dauphiné and then win the Tour, but the condition is good. For me, it was better to go behind the leaders and in my own tempo so that I can go better at the Tour de France."