Pantheon is a group of people who are the most famous or respected in a particular field. The Tour de France pantheon is headed by Eddy Merckx.
Wed better get used to his somewhat ungainly, but very effective style of riding. Thats because Chris Froome said shortly before this immensely popular 100th Tour de France that he envisions racing after the yellow jersey for another six or seven years. So if he doesnt change his mind (and maintains his good health and motivation), the 28-year-old African-born British phenom will score many more prestigious stage wins like the one he scored on Sunday atop Mont Ventoux.
Yes, theres still a long way to go in this Tour, but with a lead averaging five minutes over his only remaining challengersand a psychological advantage perhaps three times greater than thatFroome has already proven hes a leader of this new generation. And should he be crowned the 2013 Tour champion this coming Sunday in Paris he will become only the third rider, after Charly Gaul in 1958 and Eddy Merckx in 1970, to win on the Ventoux before going on to win the race.
Already in his brief Tour de France career, Froome has won three stages with summit finishes: Ventoux and Ax 3 Domaines this year and La Planche des Belles Filles last yearand hed likely have won at La Toussuire and Peyragudes too if 2012 Sky team leader Brad Wiggins had let Froome Dog off the leash.
Froome has three more opportunities for stage wins this week: the very hilly Embrun-Chorges time trial on Wednesday, and the mountaintop finishes at LAlpe dHuez Thursday and Semnoz Mountain on Saturday. Im not going to say Im going to target those days, Froome said Monday at his rest-day hotel, the Park Inn at Orange. Were going to have to see how the race unfolds…but [defending] the yellow jersey has to come first.
At a well-attended press conferencethough there were a few empty seatsFroome was his usual eloquent self, but clearly irritated that the 20-minute Q&A session was dominated by questions about doping. After he and his Sky team boss Sir Dave Brailsford expressed their frustration at the media constantly questioning the legitimacy of his winning performances, Froome phlegmatically ended the discussion with these words: I just think its quite sad that were sitting here the day after the biggest victory of my life, quite a historic win, talking about dopingand here I am, basically being accused of being a cheat and a liar. Thats just not cool.
Froome is exactly right. He has worked extremely hard for his Tour successes at two high-altitude training camps in the Canary Islands; and the Ventoux victory was rehearsed in detail at a pre-Tour visit to the mythic mountain in Provence. We planned that performance for quite some time, said Brailsford, who was (very politely) indignant that reporters are more interested in putting Froome down than giving him the praise he deserves.
Brailsford said he understands the skepticism shown by the media in wake of the string of doping scandals that have scarred our sport for so long. Once the doping genie is out of the lamp its impossible to put it back inbut wouldnt it be nice if all these doping questions became a secondary discussion and not the primary focus of so many reporters?
The Team Sky chief said he doesnt have a magic wand to convince all you guysbeyond a reasonable doubt that we are not doping. Perhaps Brailsford should ask the genie in the magic lamp to help him prove the legitimacy of his riders preparation methods. All he could come up with Monday were a couple of suggestions: 1) that the reporters should get together and agree on things that prove it for you that were innocent, and 2) that we give WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) everything weve gotpower data, weight, where were training, what were doing (theyve already got the blood-test data), and somebody sits there and pieces it all together and says yes or no.
One unhappy quirk of this being the Tours second rest day is that nine years ago, in the very same hotel, on an even hotter Provenal day, in the very same meeting room with a much bigger crowd, the men at the table answering the questions were the rider then lying second in the overall standings of the 2004 Tour, Ivan Basso, and his CSC team boss, Bjarne Riis.
As far as I can remember, there were only very secondary questions about doping; the media in the Armstrong era were more interested in learning about Basso, the relative newcomer, and about his bid to dethrone then five-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong. (Two years after that Tour, Basso was suspended by the UCI for admitting his intention to dope with Spanish blood-doping guru Eufemiano Fuentes, and Riis admitted that he used EPO in his 1996 Tour victory.)
Perhaps its a good thing that todays media are questioning Froomes and Team Skys methods of preparation, because if Riis had suggested what Brailsford was proposing on Monday, and the reporters and WADA had taken an opportunity to uncover methods of preparation back then, our sport could have become much cleaner, much sooner.
Then again, this sport has never been deprived of scandals. Even the greatest rider in the pantheon of Tour winners, Eddy Merckx, needed to explain away accusations of doping now and again. Like Froome the legendary Belgian answered his critics by simply winning again and again because he knew he was the strongest rider of his generation. And should Froome, the inelegant Brit, keep on winning this weekand in the six or seven years aheadthe tide of popular acclaim will likely overcome the back swell of cynicism.
You can follow John on twitter.com @johnwilcockson. Look for more of his commentaries from the Tour in the week to come.