There are a growing number of people out to thwart Britain’s Chris Froome in his quest for a second Tour de France. Nick Westby looks at the runners and riders in Leeds and beyond.
A MONTH ago it looked a two-horse race at best.
Chris Froome would be the man to beat and Alberto Contador would be the only man with a realistic chance of denying the Briton a second successive yellow jersey.
The two had been in strong form, demonstrating the kind of stage-race winning ability that sets Tour de France challengers apart.
Froome won the Tour of Oman and the Tour of Romandie, Contador won Tirreno Adriatico and the Vuelta Pais Vasco.
Then at the Criterium du Dauphine last month, Froome burst out of the blocks, besting Contador by eight seconds and comfortably the rest of the field to win the opening time-trial.
Then he charged up Col du Beal with Contador on his shoulder before racing away on a summit finish to claim a victory on stage two.
Froome looked invincible, Contador looked beaten but the only man who could match him.
Then things changed. Froome crashed on a descent on stage six, retained the yellow jersey as race leader, but a chink had been exposed.
Contador seized his chance the following day, getting the edge on his great rival as he stormed to victory but then he, along with Froome, got his tactics wrong on the final day when they failed to reel in the breakaway. In that number, which included three of Froome’s Team Sky team-mates, was Andrew Talansky, a 25-year-old American for Garmin Sharp, who, out of nowhere, won the Dauphine.
What had looked like a two-horse race at best has suddenly become more open.
Froome remains the man to beat in the Tour de France but there is a vulnerability that perhaps had not been before.
That defeat brought questions about the strength of his team and the strength of his back, an injury he has been nursing for much of the year.
Questions were also asked about the ability of Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo team, though they were a shadow of the team that will line up on the Headrow in Leeds on Saturday.
But it is on Froome that the spotlight shines brightest. As the sport’s standard-bearer, his every move immediately comes under the microscope.
Already in the build-up to his first Tour defence, his record as a clean rider has come under scrutiny.
Last month, a French newspaper published a report that Sky made a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) request for Froome in May.
Perfectly within Union Cycliste International (UCI) parameters that adhere to the World Anti-Doping Agency code, Froome received an exemption to use a steroid due to a chest infection.
It was taken during the Tour de Romandie, which he went on to win. There was nothing to suggest doping – the scourge of cycling – but in revealing a TUE which riders commonly receive to treat illness, the level of interest in Froome was revealed – that it is not just the riders who are eager for Froome to trip up.
The foreign media are also circling. The number of challenges he will face over the coming three weeks, through Yorkshire and into France, are, therefore, plentiful.
So as well as Contador, a two-time winner of the Tour who would have had a third yellow jersey were it not for his own murky past prompting a disqualification of his 2010 victory, who else will emerge from the peloton to beat Froome into Paris?
Talanksy has to be a challenger after his Dauphine victory.
Vincenzo Nibali is an Italian cyclist who brings a bit of bravado to cycling.
The 29-year-old Astana rider may have been out of form this season, but he finished third at the 2012 Tour de France and won last year’s Giro d’Italia.
In the absence of Nairo Quintana, last year’s surprise second-place finisher at the Tour, powerful Spanish squad Movistar are led by the veteran Alejandro Valverde.
Talansky’s fellow American Tejay van Garderen leads BMC for the first time, and as he says later on in this supplement, he is ready to lead and launch a sustained bid. What price a challenge from Lampre’s Rui Costa, fresh from his victory in the Tour de Suisse, or Australia’s Simon Gerrans at the fast-improving Orice GreenEdge?
As Quintana showed last year, there is always someone who emerges to challenge the establishment.
Froome was that man in 2012, pushing team-mate Bradley Wiggins, as well as supporting him, all the way to Paris.
In Yorkshire and beyond this month, he must be braced to stare down all-comers – known or unknown.