Barring an unforeseen catastrophe, Team Sky leader Chris Froome will coast into Paris tonight and claim his third Tour de France title. In doing so he will join a select elite of multiple winners and establish himself as one of the race’s finest performers.
But just how great is he? Where does he rank against the near mythical names that dominate the Tour de France honour board?
While the gangly, Kenyan born Brit is not everyone’s cup of tea, he is everything a racer should be. He rides to win and, as he has proven on this Tour, will take his chances regardless of the terrain.
Just think where he established his advantage this year. First, there was that crazy attack on the technical descent into Bagneres-de-Luchon on Stage 8, and then that remarkable late three man breakaway with Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and Maciej Bodnar (Tinkoff) on the flat Stage 11 into Montpellier.
He had his general classification rivals on the back foot without even having to fire a shot on the climbs! And let’s not beat about the bush, he is the best climber in the pro-peloton at the moment.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) can’t go with him. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) crashed out early, but I doubt that he could have matched Froome in the mountains either. Romain Bardet (AG2R) won a stage and stole back a little bit of time, but for the most part has been unable to pierce Froome’s armour.
Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) has tried hard and Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) has battled manfully, but neither are the equal of Froome. Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin) certainly isn’t and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) lost heart and gave up after losing an avalanche of time early on. Even Fabio Aru (Astana), with such high hopes pre-Tour, hasn’t been able to mount anything even resembling a challenge.
Only Richie Porte (BMC) has had the fire power to go with Froome and perhaps stretch him at times, but bad luck with that untimely puncture on Stage 2 robbed us of a true head-to-head contest between the two.
Froome is a force of nature that can’t be stopped.
The once skittish and nervous racer has developed into a multifaceted competitor, and although he can still be unpredictable, his desire to win and perform at his very best makes him highly entertaining, and a very formidable opponent.
I once thought that Contador was the best climber that I would ever see. He stood on the top step of the podium at the Tour de France three times, although the history books now say that he has only two titles to his credit.
The way he would dance on his pedals was a delight to watch, a cycling poetry equivalent to Shakespeare or Yeats, unsurpassed and seemingly unbeatable. But then came the failed Clenbuterol test and his resultant ban. He was not the same rider when he came back, and his performances before the ban carry a question mark.
Froome is no Shakespeare on a bike. He is awkward, all arms and legs, and his high cadence pedalling brings to mind sped up news reel footage of Tours’ past, with rotating legs of flying riders pumping up and down at unnatural velocities.
But he has three Tours to his name and had he not been working for Bradley Wiggins in 2012, he would have had four.
In my mind he has surpassed Contador and at least drawn close or level with the other three time winners; Greg Lemond, Louison Bobet and Philippe Thys.
It is hard to compare riders of different eras and a comparison with Thys is particularly hard with the Belgian rider’s exploits heavily clouded by the mists of time. It’s been 103 years since Thys won his first Tour, and 96 since his last. He won six stages back in the day. Froome has already won seven.
The USA’s Lemond also won seven stages, two of which were in team time trials, while Bobet, the much loved French champion, took home 11 stages and won the Tour three years in a row.
I’m willing to put Froome above Thys and Lemond, but hesitate to suggest that he has dislodged the almost magical figure of Bobet.
But at just 31, Froome has the potential to win at least another two Tours. The fading generation of Contador, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) are no longer a threat to Sky’s leader, while none of the current contenders come near him. Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) certainly doesn’t. Aru is not in the same class.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) would need to be at his very, very best to offer a serious challenge and Mollema is not quite there either. Perhaps Porte could come close, but it is a big perhaps. He hasn’t yet.
Quintana probably remains his biggest threat, but he seems to have taken a step backwards in his development.
Of the up and comers, riders such as Bardet, Yates and Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) pose questions. The time may come when they can match him day-in, day-out over a three week race, but that time is not now.
And that is scary because it leaves the Tour window open to Froome for another couple of years. Two more wins and we will be talking about him in the same breath as other five time winners, Miguel Indurain, Bernard Hinault, Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil.
It is exalted company.
Froome is probably a more complete rider than Indurain was. Afterall, the Big Mig won 10 of his 12 Tour stages in individual time trials.
But is the angular Brit a more complete or better Tour de France rider than the others? If he equals their tally of five wins then he has to be considered as a worthy peer. If he goes on to win six or seven titles, then he would have to be considered one of the greatest Tour riders ever, if not the best of all time.
It would take a brave writer to make that declaration given the aura that surrounds Merckx, Hinault and Anquetil – and I may not be that writer – but the suggestion would have to be considered.
There is no reason why Froome cannot go on and create his own Tour dynasty. He rides for the most professional team in the pro-peloton which gives him access to cutting edge technology and training techniques. They also have a big budget so there is no danger of their big ticket item being lured away by unscrupulous poachers.
No, Froome and Sky will be together for a long time yet, and it is a combination set to make the Tour de France its own.
In fact, I think they already have!