Fewer summit finishes, less time trials. That’s the take-home from the launch of the 2017 Tour de France today in Paris, and a route profile which gives Chris Froome an additional hurdle in his bid for a fourth title.
The Briton gained time on all of his GC rivals during the time trials in this year’s edition and acknowledged that with just 36 kilometres solo in 2017 versus 54.5 in 2016, things will be more difficult.
“Only one time trial at the end with 23 kilometres long, plus a prologue of 13 kilometres,” Froome said on Tuesday, weighing up what he had seen minutes earlier during ASO’s route presentation in Paris. “So, very light on time trial kilometres. That is certainly going to make it more challenging for me.
“But that is the nature of the game. I am going to have go away now and get my head around, obviously, how to get myself ready for a big battle in the mountains.”
Froome would certainly have liked a greater chance to use his TT strength. However he did get one motivational boost from the inclusion of what was a previous-successful stomping ground.
“It is a nice surprise to see La Planche des Belles Filles in there on stage five,” he noted. “It’s relatively early on, so hopefully the race will settle down and not be too dangerous. Hopefully we will see less crashes when compared to recent editions.
“Obviously for me La Planche des Belles Filles holds some pretty special memories. It was my first Tour stage win back in 2012, so I am looking forward to that.
“Just as general observation, [there are] only three summit finishes in next year’s Tour. I think that opens the race up to be very aggressive elsewhere. People won’t just be waiting for the summit finishes to try to make their moves.
“There are certainly tough mountain stages that don’t necessarily end uphill, so that is going to lead to very aggressive racing.”
One of those is stage nine to Chambéry, which includes the Grand Colombier climb plus the fearsome Mont du Chat. Although this last featured back in 1974, the steep gradients helped Raymond Poulidor to drop Eddy Merckx before the summit.
His rivals will hope that they too can take advantage of the slopes to weaken a more recent multiple Tour winner.
Asked about the climb, the Briton said that he had never ridden it before. Indeed, he said that he didn’t know anything about it prior to Tuesday. “I have just heard about it today for the first time,” he stated.
“It sounds as if it is very steep. That could certainly be quite a spectacle up there.
“What I think racing on steeper climbs does is being able to use your team a lot less. Obviously drafting on a 20 percent climb isn’t going to help you. It is more about riding a pace that you can sustain all the way, while at the same time you want to gain time on your rivals. You can see quite big time losses on steep climbs.
“As we have seen in the Vuelta, it does lead to very exciting racing.”
“The motivation side of it couldn’t be stronger for me”
In presenting the route, Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme said that he hoped the nature of the course would help stop the dominance of one team. He didn’t specifically name Froome’s Sky squad, but it was clear who he was referring to.
While Froome acknowledged that the Mont du Chat could well be more of an individual effort, he was unconvinced the same will hold true throughout the race.
“Sure, on that finish [note – it’s not actually a finishing climb, but is followed by a descent – ed.] in particular with really steep gradients, it is not going to be so much about the team train, if you like, and neutralising attacks.
“But there are a lot of other stages that do finish on longer climbs and do have longer, less steep climbs in them. Again, having a strong team will be crucial. Especially if it is a more tactical race in the sense that people might be attacking a bit further out to try to get the jump on other guys.”
One thing that Froome made clear is that he is fired up to take a fourth win next July. Some riders get complacent and lose hunger after a certain number of pro wins. In contrast, he said that his motivation remains as high as ever.
He added that watching the 2016 Tour highlights at the launch was a further source of encouragement.
“It is certainly an interesting one for us as bike riders [to see the highlights],” he said. “I don’t think we reflect much. You are always looking to the next thing.
“So to have been sitting there today and watching those images from this year brings back a lot of emotions. It has given me the appetite now to go away and into the winter, and start really thinking about next year. I am really eager to get into it now.”
“The motivation side of it couldn’t be stronger for me. I have won the race three times now, and I still want to win it. I am eager to get back there already.”
Giro bid in 2017?
In recent weeks there has been speculation around a possible bid for the Giro d’Italia. This seemed unlikely due to the near 20 year gap since the last time the double was achieved [Marco Pantani in 1998 – ed.], and also because of the difficulty experienced by riders attempting it in recent years.
Alberto Contador is one who has suffered in the Tour after winning the Giro and, much as Froome said he likes the idea of doing the Giro, he said on Tuesday that it won’t be anytime soon.
“Especially at this point in my career, I think the focus is going to be on the Tour de France,” he said. “I know it is the 100th edition of the Giro. I haven’t seen what the route is going to be like, so no decision has been made in that regard.
“But certainly just an observation…it does seem to be very hard to back up a Giro/Tour double attempt. And certainly in my experience of being a lot closer with the Tour and Vuelta, that might be the path again for next year. Certainly I think at this point the Tour takes preference.”
One possible issue for Froome to deal with next year is crowd and media reaction to his team. In 2014 he complained that Sky were not treated fairly by the public, with suggestions that some aggressive spectators were spitting at the team and also throwing liquids which may or may not have been urine.
In recent weeks Sky has been facing negative press due to leaked details of three corticosteroid injections for Bradley Wiggins between 2011 and 2013, including just before his Tour win in 2012. There has also been the delivery of a mysterious package to the-then team doctor Richard Freeman on the day Wiggins won the 2011 Critérium du Dauphiné.
Froome was asked if he was concerned about a possible negative reaction from fans next July.
“Well, this year in France we were received in a great way,” he answered. “I love racing in France. Hopefully it won’t be any different next year.
“It is obviously nine months away so I don’t want to speculate about what it is going to be like. But certainly I am looking forward to being there and hope that we can put on a great race.”