Chris Froome says he's ready to face Tour de France challenge
Team Sky rider is poised to win the Dauphiné as his Tour preparation remains firmly on track
With just three weeks to go until the 100th edition of the race begins in Corsica, Chris Froome insists he is fully prepared to succeed team mate Sir Bradley Wiggins as Tour de France champion.
In an interview with British Eurosport, the 28-year-old spoke of how the experience of leading stage races this year – he’s won the Tour of Oman, Criterium International and Tour de Romandie, and is leading the Critérium du Dauphiné, which concludes this weekend – has served him well to cope with the challenges of cycling’s biggest race.
“The races I’ve done have been really useful. One in terms of building the team around me and also getting used to the team leadership position and adapting to the different roles and responsibilities that comes with that,” he explained.
“Then of course trying to get the results to back up everything we’ve done along the way so it’s been a really worthwhile exercise.
It’s a similar path to that which Wiggins followed last year, with the post-stage protocols such as anti-doping controls and race leader’s press conferences in those early season races meaning that they became much less of a distraction by the time the Tour came round than they might otherwise have been.
Froome acknowledges that the experience is helpful, but the Tour will ratchet the pressure up even further.
“It’s been great to be in the leader’s position in the other races this season, I’ve really enjoyed it,” he reflected.
“However I don’t think it compares on any level to what it’s like at the Tour, but it’s definitely been a good experience nonetheless.”
There’s also the pressure of being team leader, and referring to that specific role, he acknowledged: “It is quite a difference. I found in the past you can basically look after yourself, and you only really need to make decisions for yourself.
“Now it’s a whole different ball game, I’m thinking about all my team-mates around me, trying to make sure they’re all looked after, and that everything is working for all of us not just myself.
“You’re the guy who basically has to put your hand up and accept responsibility if something isn’t done right, and make sure it’s done properly.
“But the biggest difference that comes with it is the pressure from the media, and being out there for the fans. There’s a lot more expectations on your back, so that’s something I’ve been getting used to, but I can’t say it’s all bad.
Last year’s Tour, of course, saw much speculation about a rivalry between Froome and Wiggins and speculation that at times the former was feeling reined back by team orders.
Last week, it was confirmed that Wiggins is out of the Tour due to his recovery from the illness and injury that brought his Giro d’Italia campaign to a premature end.
Until then, it had seemed that Sky’s biggest problem this year might come from within their own team, with the defending champion’s declarations that he might seek to defend his title at odds with the team’s public position.
Froome didn’t dwell on that supposed falling out with Wiggins last year, instead looking at what he had learnt from the race.
“I think last year I was in a very privileged position,” he said. “I was at the front of the race without having to deal with too much.
“I was doing a fair amount of media last year, being second in the Tour, but it’s definitely very different when you’ve got the yellow jersey on your back. There’s only one way to really find out what that’s like and that’s to be in that position.”
Only one big-name GC rider has got the better of Froome in a big stage race this year, Atsana’s Vincenzo Nibali, who beat him to successfully defend his Tirreno-Adriatico title.
As befits someone who is enjoying by far the best season of his career, Froome is delighted with where he is, however.
“I think each race which I’ve done this year has been a test and a way of checking exactly where the form is at and the level of competition.
“Each time I’ve come out feeling very happy and confident about where I am, but not necessarily feeling the need to go out and win every race.
“It’s the same thing now going into the Dauphiné, I don’t think I’ve got the pressure to have to win it.
“But getting a good result and being there or thereabouts with the contenders does leave you coming away with a very good feeling, and you think ok I’m in the right place and I’m in the running.
“Having said that it’s a bit strange all these races building up to the Tour because with the results you know that everyone isn’t quite at their 100% level yet like they would be at the Tour.
“So I’m expecting everyone to come out absolutely flying there.”
Alberto Contador has said that Froome is the rider he most fears, and while the Spaniard, who missed last year’s Tour de France due to his ban, got the better of the Briton in September’s Vuelta, so far this season it’s the Team Sky rider who is getting the results.
Yesterday, Contador attacked inside the closing 2km of Stage 5 of the Dauphiné and briefly built an advantage on Froome, but the latter reeled him in inside the closing few hundred metres and rode to the stage win and the race lead.
Nevertheless, Froome remains convinced that the Saxo-Tinkoff rider is the man to beat: “Contador is the one that stands out to me as the biggest threat. He certainly likes attacking that’s for sure, he’s not going to give you the race on a platter.
“I don’t know if that will work to his detriment, or if he attacks enough that will put us under pressure, but that’s where all the fun comes in I guess.
“It’s been interesting reading opposition up until now, but I’m sure they could say the same about us, maybe that we’ve got quite a predictable style of racing. I wouldn’t say it’s a good or bad thing, but everyone has to come up with their own tactics.”
The 2013 season has seen Team Sky employ the tactics for Froome that served Wiggins so well last year in mountain stages, setting a tempo at the front of the group containing the overall challengers that makes it hard for rivals to attack.
It’s a style of riding that has seen the team attract criticism for riding to the readings on their power meters and thereby takes the excitement out of racing and draws unfavourable and sometimes innuendo-laden comparisons with US Postal.
There’s little doubt it works, however, and Froome insists it’s up to his competitors to find a way of countering Sky’s approach.
“It keeps things within measurable range and it makes it easier to gauge our efforts,” he says. “I think it’s a style which is a lot more calculated, it then opens the door for the other teams to come up with their counter plans. Personally I think it’s quite exciting.
Speaking of this year’s Tour de France, Froome says: “I think it has to be broken down into little sections. I personally try and break it down into 21 single day races.
“There are definitely sections of the race which can be separated from the rest. I think Corsica can be taken as a three-day block. Perhaps we need to ride a little differently over there to stay out of trouble and survive those first few days.
“But it’s very much going to be taking each day as it comes, and dealing with each day one at a time.”
He sees the fact that the Dauphiné includes some sections that will figure on the route of the Tour this year as an advantage.
“That’s one of the great things about the Dauphiné this year, it does incorporate some of the crucial moments of the Tour route.
“It will be great for us to get a feel for the Alpe d’Huez, ok we will only have to do it once [it features twice on Stage 19 of the Tour – ed], but we’ll definitely get a feeling for what it’s like at race pace, and that small tricky decent afterwards which could also be quite decisive.
“I think the flat time trial in the middle of a stage race will be a good indication of where everyone’s at form wise,” he adds.
The Tour isn’t just the world’s biggest race in terms of its prestige and the media attention that it garners, but also the way in which it is raced, a fact Froome appreciates makes it unique.
“I think it’s just the magnitude of it” he explains. “You know that every pro team is going to be sending their strongest nine guys to do the absolute maximum possible.
“Every team will arrive with a different agenda, not all to ride the general classification, some will target different competitions or different stages.
“As a bike rider in the peloton at the Tour, for me it just feels at least 3 or 4km faster than any other race we do.
“Whether that comes down to the calibre of the riders there, or the pressure from the media and the fact that the whole cycling world is watching that one event. It’s just a special event, and it makes it that bit harder.”
Froome will take to the start in Corsica as undisputed leader and the favourite to succeed his team mate Wiggins on the Champs-Elysées podium.
It’s a situation that might weigh on some riders’ minds, but Froome is doing his best not to let it get to him.
“It’s something I prefer not to think about,” he insisted. “At the end of the day I know I can only do my best. I can only make sure I give my 100% and that I am in 100% condition getting there.
“The fact that people are talking about me as one of the favourites, I think I have to just put that to one side and just get on with it.
“If I spend too long stewing over what people are saying and their expectations I probably wouldn’t make the start in Corsica!”
Of course, he will be there at the start, and with Wiggins absent, he’ll most likely also have the number 1 on his back.
As runner-up in Paris 12 months ago, and only the absent Nibali so far able to have got the better of him in a stage race this season, his status as favourite is justified.
As ever in the Tour, luck may play a part - Froome himself lost 90 seconds to a puncture on the first road stage last year - but as things stand, there seems little more that Froome can do to be ready for the three weeks that could change his life.