With the clock ticking towards next month’s Grand Depart, champion Chris Froome has predicted a “breathtaking” opening to this year’s Tour de France.
Froome’s Team Sky dropped into the Broad Acres to reconnoitre the key parts of the Yorkshire-based opening two stages, which are likely to shake the race up to a much greater degree than is normal in the annual 3,656km endurance test.
The opening couple of days are always tension packed, with 190 riders jostling for position on narrow roads, but usually they are relatively flat and designed to culminate in a bunch sprint.
This year, while stage one from Leeds to Harrogate should suit Mark Cavendish, giving the British sprinter an opportunity to claim the leader’s yellow jersey for the first time in his Tour career, the second day features several testing climbs and teams containing a genuine contender for overall victory will need to be at action stations from the off.
Froome has not raced in Yorkshire before, but after a brief taste of what he will be up against in little more than a month’s time he is both impressed and wary.
“It has been really important for us to come over here for a few days and see what we are up against for these first few stages,” said the 29-year-old, who headed to Yorkshire from an altitude training camp in Tenerife. “After seeing the route, I think it is going to be a magnificent spectacle.
“I have been blown away. I had no idea, it is just beautiful. Genuinely, the countryside in the Yorkshire Dales is absolutely stunning, breathtaking.
“I could have been in the middle of Tuscany or somewhere. It is beautiful and I had no idea that was what we were going to be cycling through.
“It is going to be a tough start for us, stage one and stage two. That early in the race it is going to be quite difficult, but it is an amazing place to have a bike race. It is going to be absolutely stunning and the racing is going to be full on from the start. Typically, those first few days are always quite stressful as a bike rider, because there are so many guys in contention for the yellow jersey right at the beginning.
“Everybody starts on the same time and has an opportunity of getting into the yellow jersey, so there’s a lot of pushing and shoving and guys taking risks they would not normally take to try and get pole position.”
The pressure will be on Cavendish in the opening stage. His mother is from Harrogate and has a flat close to the finish line on The Stray. Expectations are he will win the stage and take the race lead, but his former team-mate Froome does not see it being that straightforward.
He said: “I expected it was going to be designed for Cav, but having seen it, it is actually quite hard. It is hard to find a piece of flat road, it is always undulating up and down and left and right.
“Even for Cav I think it is going to be a tough start and the second stage (from York to Sheffield) is hilly.”
Of his aims for the Yorkshire phase of the race, Froome said: “Hopefully, I will be near the front, but not winning stages or in the break-away, I wouldn’t expect at that stage. The biggest objective for me will be to get through the first few stages unscathed and not lose any time to my rivals. There’s a saying, the Tour can’t be won here, but it can be lost and that is quite apt.”
The next time Froome turns a pedal in Yorkshire it will be for the start of the race on July 5. Having experienced what it will be like to roll out as a home favourite, he describes the public’s reception as “heart-warming”.
He said: “People have been coming over and wishing us good luck everywhere we go. Myself and my team-mates have been receiving really warm welcomes, wishing us all the best for July. It makes me really proud to be coming back here.
“It really feels as if local communities have pulled together to make this the start that the Tour deserves. It is a special race and for it to be here is massive for British fans, especially given the growth in cycling.
“At the start of a three-week, 21-stage bike race, for us to have that kind of send-off from a home crowd, I don’t think as defending champion I could really ask for much more.”
Comment: P10 main section.