Tour de France 2017: Why this could be Chris Froome's toughest test
Last Updated: 01/07/17 6:20am
Chris Froome is targeting another Tour de France title - but his fourth yellow jersey could be his toughest to win yet, writes Peter Smith.
While the bookmakers have the Team Sky leader listed as favourite - and his recent dominance of the three-week race should not be forgotten - even the Briton himself has highlighted the scale of the task he has on his hands.
"I genuinely think this year's Tour route presents the biggest challenge to me that I've faced in my career to date," he said this week.
Four minutes separated Froome and his nearest challenger in last year's edition but few expect him to enjoy such a comfortable advantage over his rivals this time around.
Froome's Tour winning margins
2013: 4mins 20secs
2015: 1min 12secs
2016: 4min 5secs
His opposition are numerous and formidable - Nairo Quintana, Richie Porte, Romain Bardet, Fabio Aru and Alberto Contador - but Froome's main concerns will lie with the 3,540km route ahead of him and his own form.
Firstly, the course doesn't play to his strengths. Froome has built his past Tour successes on stunning displays in the high mountains and dominant time trial performances. But the 2017 Grande Boucle is made up of just three summit finishes and fewer time trial kilometres than ever before.
In a bid to draw daring attacks and unexpected results, race director Christian Prudhomme has got creative. "I dream of an unpredictable Tour de France, where the race can be at stake on any given day," he said at the course's unveiling.
This novel approach - a rejection of the defensive tactics so often employed at the world's biggest and most important cycle race - is sure to provide some thrilling stages.
And Froome, of course, has the potential to thrive on that uncertainty. After all, it was he in the yellow jersey, perched on his top tube and pedalling in bizarre fashion as he attacked on the descent to Bagneres-de-Luchon, in last year's Tour. A few days later he teamed up with green jersey wearer Peter Sagan for a remarkable, unexpected break on the flat.
But Froome also lost any chance he had of winning the 2016 Vuelta a Espana when he was ambushed by Quintana and Contador on a short, punchy stage to Formigal last September. It's that vulnerability his rivals will target.
Spaniard Contador, in particular, is the master of such moves and knows unpredictability will be his most dangerous weapon against the might of Froome's Team Sky.
Those assaults, though, only stick when the rider has the form to deliver them with the power required to hold off a peloton of pursuers in their prime. Froome, without a win in nearly 11 months, is yet to show that condition this season.
That's not to say the 32-year-old is going into the Tour a long way behind his opposition - but how his form will be in the key moments in France is, at present, unclear.
After an underwhelming showing at the Tour de Romandie at the end of April, lightly-raced Froome finished fourth in June's Criterium du Dauphine, a week-long event seen as a key preparation race for the Tour. His performances clouded the narrative.
While a well-paced climb of the Mont du Chat and daring descent down the other side was almost rewarded with a stage win, Froome - who has won the Criterium in each year he's won the Tour - surprisingly shipped substantial time to former lieutenant Porte in the time trial before cooking himself on the final mountainous stage in a bid to claw back his losses.
Afterwards, the 31-year-old insisted he remains on track and, regardless of the result, will have sharpened his fitness ahead of the Tour.
That may well be true and with another tilt at the Vuelta on the horizon, Froome's plan has been to avoid peaking too soon this season.
Timing is everything. But it will take three weeks to find out whether Froome has measured his preparations to perfection and can conquer the doubters - and the Tour - once more.
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