Defending champion Chris Froome has shrugged off the slump in form he showed after his crash in the Critérium du Dauphiné, saying that his sensations in the immediate run up to the Tour de France have been good and that he believes he is on track to fight hard for another yellow jersey in the race.
“I think every season comes with its own set of challenges,” said the Sky rider, speaking at his team’s press conference in Leeds on Thursday afternoon. “This year has been no different. I have had issues with my lower back early season, I have had chest problems. I had that crash in Dauphiné, which definitely set me back a little bit.
“But the last week of training prior to coming here has been really good. I feel I am very similar form to last year. I would definitely say I am ready for this.”
Froome and team principal Dave Brailsford held centre stage at the press conference. Although there was a very high media turnout, the mood was relaxed; that said, Froome also accepted that there are no guarantees that he will win the 2014 Tour.
He went into last year’s race after a run of wins, and with a team that had had a strong season. This year things have been more complicated for the squad, with injuries and illnesses shaking things up. Froome and the team were also under pressure for some time when it emerged that he had sought and been granted a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for a corticosteroid in the Tour de Romandie.
They were soon cleared of wrongdoing by WADA, but the agency faulted the UCI for not following guidelines in having a panel of three experts assessing TUE requests.
While there have been some hiccups along the way, two of his rivals have been having strong seasons. Alberto Contador took Tirreno Adriatico and the Vuelta a Pais Vasco, almost won the Critérium du Dauphiné, the Volta ao Algarve and the Volta a Catalunya, and is back to his best level.
Meanwhile Alejandro Valverde has had his strongest season in several years, winning the Vuelta a Andalucia and Vuelta a Murcia, and also taking Roma Maxima, the GP Miguel Indurain, Flèche Wallonne and the Spanish time trial championships.
There are also several others who could contend. Of those, Andrew Talansky won the Dauphiné with a final day attack, Vincenzo Nibali has been building steadily for the Tour and won the Italian road race championships last weekend, and Rui Costa took the Tour de Suisse.
Because of that, Froome accepted that the race could be tighter this time round.
“I think given the structure of the Tour this year and the diversity of all the different challenges…we have got the cobbles and we have got all the tricky stages up here north, we have got five summit finishes and we have got a 54 kilometre time trial, it is not possible to say this guy or that guy is going to win,” he said. “I definitely won’t say that I am going to win. But I will say that I will give it my absolute everything.
“There is no doubt about it – I am going to have a lot of tough competition this year. As I have seen in other races, it is not going to be a walk in the park, by any means. But I have got I think a really, really strong team here. I would arguably say this is probably the strongest team we have fielded for a Tour de France, and we are up for it.”
Ditto for Contador’s Tinkoff Saxo team, which lost Roman Kreuziger several days ago due to questions about his biological passport, but which still is impressively strong. The Spaniard and his team-mates have taken a leaf out of Team Sky’s book this season, training on Tenerife’s Mount Teide.
Contador credits this as being at least partly responsible for his improvement in form. Froome acknowledges that his rival has narrowed the gap somewhat.
“I think Alberto has shown he is definitely in a much more competitive position this year than he was last year. His run up to the Tour de France is certainly a lot more smoother and he has got a lot more results this year early season than he did last year,” he said.
“But I think, as with a lot of my main rivals and the main contenders here, everyone seems to have upped their game. Again we are going to be looking at a really exciting Tour all year. It will be a battle all the way to the end.”
Brailsford has managed the past two Tour winners, overseeing the success of Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Froome last year. He also acknowledged that there are no guarantees in the sport and that the nature of cycling means that the goal of winning the race again this year is an unpredictable one.
“The great thing about this race, and the reason I think we love this race, is because it is different every year. It is a different challenge every time,” he said. “The nature of the course, the nature of the route, how many time trials, how many hill top finishes, cobbles, no cobbles, team time trial, no team time trial etcetera etcetera makes it a different challenge every year.
“You are not going around doing the same thing every year. I think then it comes back to a question of ambition and desire and hunger and all the other things.”
Brailsford was somewhat dismissive of the notion of defending a title; instead, he said that it is better to aim to win, to conquer rather than to conserve. The net result is the same, but he argued that looking at targets in that light was a better approach.
“What we are trying to do is to win the Tour de France for a third time,” he said. “It might happen this year, in this race. Hopefully it does. But it might not. If it doesn’t, we will come back and try to win it for a third time next year. Then we will we will keep on going for the next ten years, trying to win it for a third, fourth, fifth, sixth time.
“I don’t think this idea of defending really is intuitive with the nature of racing and trying to win something in sport.
“Personally speaking, and I am sure I speak on behalf of everybody, we are up for it. We are ready for the fight. We can’t wait to get going. We will give it our best shot, and what will be will be.”