Past success aside, there isn’t much to suggest that Chris Froome will cruise to a fourth Tour de France title in five years when the race begins in Duesseldorf, Germany, on Saturday.
For the first time since Froome began dominating four years ago, the Team Sky rider enters cycling’s showpiece event without having won a single warm-up race — or even a stage for that matter.
With neither a longtime trial nor many mountain-top finishes, the course doesn’t suit his strengths.
And Froome’s rivals are improving — namely former teammate Richie Porte, an Australian who won the Tour de Romandie and finished second in the Criterium du Dauphine.
But Froome seems unconcerned.
“I’ve had a slow build-up, but that was always part of the plan,” the Kenyan-born British rider said. “I haven’t done as many race days as I have in previous seasons. That will hopefully mean I’m going to be a lot fresher coming into this period, when I’ll be racing a lot.”
Froome did acknowledge that the course doesn’t favor him.
“It means that it’s going to be a lot closer race and a lot more exciting for the fans,” he said.
“I’m going to have to make sure I’m absolutely at my best and to take advantage of any situations out on the road.”
One more victory would put Froome within striking distance of the Tour record of five shared by Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain — after Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven titles for doping.
“I do want to try and be up there with the guys who have won multiple Tours,” Froome said. “They are seen as part of Tour de France history, and it’s a goal for me to try and be up there with them.”
Whereas the Tour route traditionally travels clockwise around France one year, then counterclockwise the next, this year’s edition zigzags to traverse all five mountain ranges of continental France for the first time in 25 years.
After opening with stages in Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg, the peloton will climb the Vosges and Jura Ranges in eastern France.
The Pyrenees follow an air transfer to southwestern France and then comes the Massif Central before the race will likely be decided in the Alps with an unprecedented mountain-top finish at the Col d’Izoard in Stage 18.
With three podium results — but no titles — in his three Tour de France appearances, Colombian climber Nairo Quintana remains a serious threat.
Coming off a runner-up finish in the Giro d’Italia, will this be the year that Quintana finally breaks through?
“I know Quintana’s always said he goes stronger in the second Grand Tour, so I expect he’ll come to the Tour very strong,” Froome said.
Home fans are hoping that last year’s runner-up, Romain Bardet, can move up one spot to become the first French winner since Hinault took the last of his titles in 1985.
Also, seven-time Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador should not be overlooked in what is likely his final season.
With Giro champion Tom Dumoulin and 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali sitting out, however, Porte is considered the top challenger.
Porte was unfortunate in last year’s Tour, losing time in Stage 2 due to a mechanical problem, then getting entangled with a motorbike on Mont Ventoux before rallying to finish fifth.
“I think my main rival is Richie,” Froome said of the Australian with BMC. “I’ve said for a long time that Richie has got the potential to win the Tour de France. It’s just a matter of time until everything works out for him.”
Slovakian superstar Peter Sagan is aiming to match Erik Zabel’s record of six green jerseys in the points classification, where he should face competition from Olympic champion Greg van Avermaet.
Mark Cavendish’s 30 stage wins leave him four shy of Eddy Merckx’s record but the British rider’s status remains uncertain after he came down with mononucleosis in April.
Other sprinters to look for include: Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors), Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), Arnaud Demare (FDJ) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data).
France has been in a state of emergency since 2015 after multiple terrorist attacks.
Earlier this month, an attacker drove a car carrying explosives into a police convoy on Paris’ busy Champs-Elysees avenue — where the Tour will conclude as per tradition on July 23.
The Tour route will be protected by 23,000 police officers and gendarmes, plus 50 members of the Republican Guard.