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Former world number one and Eurosport analyst Sean Kelly has said that he considers Team Sky and Chris Froome will start the Tour de France under pressure, with cracks visible for the first time in three years.
The team dominated the Tour de France in 2012 with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, and again last year with the latter. It also took a number of other victories in both seasons. This year has been a more rocky one, however, with a number of riders suffering crashes and illnesses, Wiggins and Froome showing ongoing signs of tension, the 2012 winner being told that he won’t ride the Tour, and then losing out the chance of forcing himself into selection when he crashed out of the Tour de Suisse.
Froome has also had things rougher than in the past, with a back injury hampering him in the Volta a Catalunya and a crash affecting him in the Dauphiné. He had been leading the race but slipped back under the weight of attacks from his main Tour rival Alberto Contador.
“We have seen that Sky are maybe not as dominant as they were two years ago and last year,” Kelly told CyclingTips. “If you look at last year, they were probably more dominant in the early part of the season. This year they haven’t been doing that.
“For sure I think they will be under more pressure. It is certainly going on and on and on this year for them. Right from the beginning they have had problems with crashes and riders not going well and viruses and all of that. So it is ongoing. It is going to be a concern for Sky, definitely.”
He said that in addition to Sky having possible confidence issues as a result of this, other teams will also believe that the team is beatable, giving them additional motivation. “The other teams are going to be thinking that there is a chance there. Sky have had their problems and they will think that perhaps this is the year where they can possibly break them. They will certainly aim to test them and put them under pressure.”
Froome rode strongly in the first half of the Critérium du Dauphiné, winning the opening time trial and also taking victory on day two. However he crashed on stage six and while he was able to reach the finish and maintain his yellow jersey, he had no answer the following day when Alberto Contador attacked to take over in the Maillot Jaune.
He was even more fragile on the final mountain stage, having no answer when Contador surged clear and eventually finishing twentieth on the stage and twelfth overall.
Froome exited the race with a result far different than the one he was hoping for. It is difficult to know how much the crash affected him; had he not fallen, would he still have been as strong as he was on stages one and two? Or, alternatively, is there a chance that Contador’s form was on the up anyway and he would have been able to attack the Briton regardless in the final two stages?
“That is the question,” said Kelly, when presented with the two possible scenarios. “Bike riders…when things don’t go right, they are good at coming up with excuses. He is going to use that one. That is the big question – did the crash affect him, or was it that he wasn’t in good shape anyway? I think we have to remember this year he hasn’t been racing as much and he has had his problems as well.
“Maybe he might get better as we come to the Tour, that is also possible. We will see. Considering everything, it is going to be an interesting Tour. Contador is really going to try and break Froome and break Sky, that will be the tactic.”
Looking at the Spaniard, he has been on strong form for most of the year. He won a stage and took second overall in the Volta ao Algarve, picked up two stages and the overall in Tirreno Adriatico, was second in the Volta a Catalunya, then won a stage plus the overall in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
More recently he was second to Froome on stage two of the Critérium du Dauphiné, then dropped the Briton and took over the race lead on stage seven. He looked set to take the overall classification and most likely would have done so had he had a stronger team; instead, he was ambushed by a long distance move containing Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky, and came up short in his effort to haul the break back solo.
He finished second overall but will have emerged from the race knowing that he was likely the strongest rider, and also that he had been able to drop Froome on two different days.
Kelly believes the Spaniard will have plenty of self-belief for the Tour. “I think were are seeing a different Contador this year. First of all, there is the way he is approaching the season. The Dauphiné is an important one too as he saw that Froome is breakable. When guys see that, it gives them extra motivation…it certainly will for Contador.”
Contador won the Tour de France in 2007 and 2009. He was also first in Paris in 2010 but lost that title after testing positive for Clenbuterol, He returned from a suspension and took the 2012 Vuelta a España, then went to the Tour last year hoping to fight for yellow.
He wasn’t on the same level as Froome, though, and ended up fourth in Paris. Kelly points out that Contador had an all or nothing approach in the race, attacking multiple times in the final week in a bid to try to snatch victory. Had he not done that, he says, he likely would have finished on the podium.
“He races to win…that is the type of rider he is. He is aggressive, he goes on the attack. He missed the podium last year but it certainly wasn’t a disastrous Tour for him. He had a pretty okay race.
“This year he is putting Froome under pressure and dropping him. He has seen that Froome can be broken and he can crack.
“In addition to that, the Tinkoff Saxo team is riding very well. They have a real strong team. Last year we did see that when they attacked on the day with the echelons, they really caused problems for everybody. They are a team who can ride on the flat stages, but also who have guys who can ride in the mountains and protect Contador pretty well.
“I think if you put all that together, it points towards a very exiting Tour.”