When the route for the 2014 Tour de France was revealed in Paris, it almost looked like the organisers had deliberately attempted to reduce reigning champion Chris Froome’s chances. Kenyan-born Briton Froome was dominant in the 2013 edition of the greatest cycling race in the world, winning by more than four minutes from new young talent Nairo Quintana from Colombia. That hardly told the story of just how much Froome had controlled the race, winning three stages, two at the top of mountains and one in a time-trial. His winning margin would have been over five minutes but for a celebratory stroll down the Champs Elysees, arm-in-arm with his surviving Sky teammates on the final stage.
Although the likes of Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde attacked incessantly, and then in the final two mountain stages Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez successfully put time into Froome, the 28-year-old still never looked in danger of losing his grip on the yellow jersey once it was on his back, as early as stage eight when he sauntered up to Aix 3 Domaines on his own. Froome proved strongest in the mountains and in the time-trials, making it seem unlikely anyone could challenge him. But there was some hope when in the final two summit finishes both Quintana and Rodriguez proved stronger, and it cannot be forgotten that Vincenzo Nibali, who beat Froome in the week-long Tirreno-Adriatico stage race earlier in the year, had opted to compete in the Giro D’Italia instead of the Tour, where he had finished third behind Bradley Wiggins and Froome in 2012.
Froome himself suggested there was hope for the others, more specifically the specialist climbers, just before the Tour announcement when he said he was hoping for more and longer time-trials and alluded to the 2011 Tour of Spain where he finished a distant fourth behind Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez, saying that it had too many summit finishes and didn’t suit him. So when the 2014 program became known, showing just the one time-trial the day before the Champs Elysees finale in Paris, and six mountain stages, including five summit finishes, there was a genuine feeling that Froome could be challenged.
Tour Director Christian Prudhomme denied the route had been designed to favor those aiming to topple Froome, but there was palpable excitement among the press corps – here was a route that could prove interesting. And yet that excitement was tempered slightly by Froome’s own supremely confident reaction.
“We’ve got five mountain top finishes, that’s (one) more than this year. That’s a good thing for me and also with the penultimate stage being a 50+ kilometer individual time-trial, that’s something that suits me,” he said. “So, yes, I’m getting excited about the prospect of taking on next year’s Tour. If you look at this year’s 30km time-trial and the time gaps we had, then just imagine what time gaps we could have on a 54km time-trial. That could be quite substantial.”
Froome had put two minutes on Contador and three into Quintana and Rodriguez on the 33km stage 11 time trial that finished at Mont St Michel. It seems Froome was not reading from the same book as Prudhomme, though, who assumed the route would favor the little men, like Quintana, Rodriguez or Nibali, if he choses to compete rather than defend his Giro title.
“Time-trials provide greater time gaps than the mountains, sometimes insurmountable ones,” explained Prudhomme. “Having the time-trial at the end is so the climbers don’t have to chase but can ride in front and not become demoralized.”
Although Froome made time on everyone in the mountains at both this year’s Tour and last year’s, when he helped compatriot Wiggins become the first ever British winner of Le Grand Boucle, the plan seems to be to give the pure climbers a morale boost. They will have six stages in which to attack and try to put time into Froome, or make him crack, before hopefully taking a lead over the Sky rider into the time-trial with the task of holding off the charging Briton. Froome, though, is obviously thinking back to his victories at Aix 3 Domaines and atop Mont Ventoux when it was he who cracked the opposition with fearsome attacks. Now it just remains to be seen next July whether it is Froome or Prudhomme whose stance is proved justified.