Stel­lar ri­vals but there’s room for Froome to seal it

The Star Early Edition - - SPORT -

DUESSELDORF, Ger­many: Chris Froome, pic­tured, may look far from his best and might say this year’s route does him no favours, but the Bri­ton is the over­whelm­ing favourite to win his fourth Tour de France crown next month.

His main ri­vals – an age­ing Al­berto Con­ta­dor, a too-cau­tious Nairo Quin­tana and an un­re­li­able Richie Porte – all seem short of the com­bi­na­tion of in­gre­di­ents needed to un­set­tle Froome’s Team Sky ma­chine, and Ro­main Bardet looks a lit­tle green to be­come France’s first Tour cham­pion since 1985.

The route will suit the most ag­gres­sive riders.

Only four moun­tain-top fin­ishes mean the pelo­ton’s op­por­tunists will look to launch long-range at­tacks and cause chaos – of the kind that Con­ta­dor used to elim­i­nate Froome in the 2016 Vuelta.

Team Sky’s con­ser­va­tive ap­proach to the race might ex­pose the Bri­ton, who has not won a race this sea­son and was bested by Porte in the time trial and the moun­tains dur­ing this month’s Cri­terium du Dauphine.

“Richie has been amaz­ing this sea­son. I think this year’s Tour suits him re­ally well,” said Froome.

Porte was Froome’s lieu­tenant at Sky from 2012-15 be­fore leav­ing for Amer­i­can out­fit BMC to be­come a team leader. The Aus­tralian, how­ever, has a ten­dency to suf­fer bad days that can quickly be­come li­a­bil­i­ties in the grand tours. Froome might wait for the pun­ish­ing stage end­ing up the Col d’Izoard at 2 360 me­tres above sea level in the fi­nal week to kill off the op­po­si­tion. But he showed last year that he was able to take the ini­tia­tive by at­tack­ing in de­scents and on the flat. Two early sum­mit fin­ishes sug­gest Froome’s ri­vals will be on the of­fen­sive early on.

The open­ing block of this year’s race will end with a gru­elling moun­tain stage in the Alps with three outof-cat­e­gory as­cents be­tween Nan­tua and Cham­bery.

Con­ta­dor, 34, will be the man to watch here.

Hav­ing skipped the Giro d’Italia this sea­son, the Spa­niard has put all his eggs in the Tour bas­ket.

He has not won the Tour since 2009 and his at­tacks are not as sharp as they used to be, but Con­ta­dor re­mains one of the three op­po­nents Froome will be most wary of.

“My big­gest threats come from guys who did not do the Giro – Richie Porte, Al­berto Con­ta­dor and Ro­main Bardet,” said Froome.

Quin­tana, run­ner-up to the Bri­ton in 2013 and 2015, does not rate a men­tion, hav­ing fin­ished a dis­ap­point­ing sec­ond in the Giro.

The Colom­bian, who will ride in tan­dem with the in-form Ale­jan­dro Valverde of Spain, has tended to slip too eas­ily into the role of play­ing sec­ond fid­dle to Froome, look­ing con­tent to set­tle for a podium fin­ish.

“I would love to see Quin­tana win but he lacks the abil­ity to at­tack,” said three-time Tour cham­pion Greg LeMond.

Other con­tenders in­clude Italian Fabio Aru, Dane Jakob Fuglsang and Ire­land’s Dan Martin.

But should Froome be spared the re­peat­edly de­nied al­le­ga­tions of dop­ing that clouded his 2013 and 2015 rides, he could end up en­joy­ing a rel­a­tively smooth pas­sage to Paris.

In the points clas­si­fi­ca­tion, world cham­pion Peter Sa­gan is ex­pected to pick up a sixth straight green jer­sey, while France’s Thibaut Pinot will tar­get the king of the moun­tains’ polka dot jer­sey.

Sprint­ers will have sev­eral chances to shine and Bri­ton Mark Cavendish, re­cently re­cov­ered from the Ep­stein-Barr virus that causes glan­du­lar fever, will hope to add to his 30 Tour stage wins as he looks to close in on Tour leg­end Eddy Mer­ckx’s all-time record of 34.

The race starts in Ger­many on Satur­day with a 14km (eight-mile) time trial in Duesseldorf, where lo­cal rider Tony Martin will be one of the favourites to claim the first yel­low jer­sey.

That would serve as a pow­er­ful sym­bol in a coun­try that has shunned the race for many years in the wake of dop­ing scan­dals and only re­sumed tele­vis­ing it in 2015. – Reuters

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