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DÜSSELDORF, Germany (CT) – It’s been a popular criticism of Team Sky in recent years – that the British outfit is too formulaic, too robotic, in the way it rides Grand Tours. The sight of the the whole team lined out in the mountains, eyes glued to power meters as they tear the race apart, has been common but unpopular among fans.
So when Chris Froome put away the Team Sky playbook in last year’s Tour, attacking on the final descent into Bagneres-de-Luchon to take the stage and time on his rivals, and attacking with Peter Sagan late on stage 11, it was a breath of fresh air for fans and for the race as a whole. Here was the Tour de France champion racing on feel, rather than power numbers, and reaping the rewards of such opportunistic racing.
This aggressive stance, a willingness to take on the race, is something Froome is keen to replicate in 2017.
“What happened last year [on stage 8 and stage 11] wasn’t planned,” Froome said in a Team Sky press conference Wednesday. “That was just reading the race in the right moment and making decisions.
“I think the race this year is going to be a race that favours more aggressive riders so I’m certainly going to be looking out for those opportunities and look to ride an aggressive race if the opportunity’s there.”
In a departure from previous editions of the Tour — and from Grand Tours generally — the 2017 Tour de France has just three summit finishes. And with only two short time trials — the 14km opener in Düsseldorf this Saturday, and the 23km effort in Marseille on stage 20 — there are fewer stages than normal for the GC riders to make their mark.
For Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford, this year’s Tour parcours is representative of a trend towards a certain style of racing.
“It’s pretty obvious, I think, that whoever’s going to win this race is going to have to be pretty offensive,” Brailsford said. “We’ve seen some fantastic racing this year … the Giro in particular was pretty exciting, the Dauphine was exciting. I think that’s the way it’s going and this race has got all the ingredients it needs to continue in that vein really.
“So I think it’s going to be a pretty open and exciting race and one where you’ve got to be on the front foot. I don’t think it’s a defensive race to win — it’s got to be an aggressive race.”
One opportunity to tackle the race in such fashion might come on stage 5. While traditionally too early to see the big GC contenders giving it their all, this year’s fifth stage ends at La Planche des Belles Filles. Stages ending at this particular ski station have produced some dramatic racing in recent Tours.
In 2014, on a stage that ended at La Planche des Belles Filles, GC favourite Alberto Contador crashed and broke his leg, as Vincenzo Nibali rode to one of four victories in a race he’d ultimately win by nearly eight minutes.
And back in 2012 it was on La Planche des Belles Filles that Chris Froome rode away from teammate (and eventual winner Bradley Wiggins) to win his first ever Tour stage. It’s a day he remembers well.
“It was a really memorable victory for me,” Froome said. “Obviously it was the first victory I ever had on the Tour de France, on the Planches des Belles Filles in 2012. So I’m certainly looking forward to going back there.
“It’s not a long climb — just over 6km — so we shouldn’t see big time differences, but definitely it’s tough enough to show where all the rivals are at and what we can expect for the next three weeks.”
What Froome can expect is a handful of rivals who will be desperate to prevent him from winning a fourth Tour de France; rivals that will buoyed by a lack of results from Froome so far this year. For the first time since 2012, Froome comes into La Grand Boucle without a win to his name. Indeed, every year he’s won the Tour he’s won the Criterium du Dauphine in the lead-up. This year he finished fourth.
The man who finished second at the Dauphine, Richie Porte (BMC), is a former teammate and close friend of Froome’s. According to Froome, Porte is the man to beat at this year’s race.
“If the Dauphine’s anything to go by then Richie Porte, certainly in terms of form and condition … Richie’s going to be the man to beat and stands out as the strongest of my rivals,” Froome said.
Also battling to take the maillot jaune will be Dauphine winner Jakob Fugslang (Astana), Giro d’Italia runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), to name just a few.
If Froome is concerned by the quality of riders snapping at his heels, and indeed by his lean year thus far, he’s not admitting as much. He’s happy with his progress and his form, and has an air of confidence about him, three days from the Grand Depart.
“I feel as if I’m exactly where I need to be,” the 32-year-old said. “I think the Dauphine is just what I needed to get that extra bit of race rhythm.
“I’ve been very light on race days up until the Dauphine. I’d like to think that means I’m coming into the Tour fresher than I ever have been before. And certainly if numbers in training and feelings on the bike are anything to go by, I’m ready for the next three weeks.”