Tour de France: Chris Froome now looks ready to repel Nairo Quintana’s customary ambush

Britain's Chris Froome. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Britain's Chris Froome. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

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Two years ago, as he reclined in his chair at Rudding Park in Harrogate on the eve of Yorkshire’s staging of the Grand Depart of the Tour de France, Sir Dave Brailsford gave a revealing insight into the mind of one of his sport’s great winners.

His Team Sky operation were the headline act on home soil, the two-time defending Tour de France champions, but as he plotted a hat-trick of yellow jersey triumphs for a country that three years previously had never celebrated one, the last thing on his mind was what had gone before.

Chris Froome and the Tour de France route. (Graphic: Graeme Bandeira)

Chris Froome and the Tour de France route. (Graphic: Graeme Bandeira)

“We’re about trying to win,” said Brailsford, whose drive and energy in that 20-minute interview was infectious.

“A defensive team that is worried might not be as successful. Sport’s not about having a defensive mindset, it’s about wanting to fight, wanting to win, wanting to test yourself.”

Fast forward two years and Brailsford’s attitude will again be about the historic opportunites that present themselves and how to go about achieving those.

When Chris Froome is announced onto the stage in Mont Saint Michel this lunchtime as the defending champion, nothing could be more misleading about the British team’s mindset.

They are defending nothing. On day one of a 21-day journey through France, each of the 198 riders are equal.

At some stage over the coming days, Froome will hope to slip his arms into the sleeves of the maillet jaune and if he does ride onto the Champs Elysees three weeks tomorrow still wearing that fabled jersey, then, at one point or another, there will have had to be an element of the defensive about Sky’s tactics.

Nairo Quintana will see to that. The Colombian is seen as the biggest threat to Froome’s bid to win a third yellow jersey in four years.

He is in good form, having won three of the five stage races he has contested in the build-up; the Volta a Catalunya, Tour de Romandie and Route du Sud.

The 26-year-old Movistar rider was also the runner-up to Froome in 2013 and again last year, leaving both races with the impression that he had more to give than the man who held on.

On Alpe d’Huez last year, Quintana nearly stole victory, and this year’s route is again back-loaded, with the final few days in the Alps designed to be decisive.

But Froome – who delayed preparations for a summer he hopes ends in Olympic road race glory in Rio – is ready for Quintana’s now customary ambush.

“It’s about delaying reaching that peak form,” said Kenya-born Froome. “In previous seasons, I’d been in that shape in the Spring and then would basically try to hang on to it whereas now I feel as if I’ve only just got there.

“Hopefully, it means that because we’ve delayed everything I’ll be able to hang on to it a bit longer, and, hopefully, it will carry me better into the third week of this race.

“That, for me, is something I’ve made a personal goal, to be stronger in the third week than I have been in the past.”

Brailsford described Quintana as a “brilliant rider” but added that their exhaustive research of the route and their opponents had revealed weaknesses that could be exploited.

“His previous performances at the Tour de France have been epitomised by a strong last few days, a strong last week, and the question is whether he’s stepped up,” said Team Sky’s principal.

“He’ll be asking himself that, too. He’ll come with some confidence but he’ll come with some questions, too, because he’s never done it, and when you’ve never done something you’re going to ask yourself questions.”

Froome will be backed by the strongest team at the race, led by his super-domestique Geraint Thomas, who was a podium contender last year before one bad day saw his good work unravel.

Ian Stannard and Luke Rower are two further Britons in the race, and encouragingly from that perspective, there are eight from this country scattered through the teams; twice the number that began the 2014 Tour in Leeds.

If Froome or Quintana slip up, Alberto Contador, Richie Porte and Fabio Aru are expected to challenge for yellow.

Mark Cavendish has his eyes on the green jersey of the points classification winner come Paris on Sunday, July 24, but the opening sprint stage up to Utah Beach today gives the ‘Manx Missile’ the chance to do something the world champion of 2011 has still to accomplish – wear the yellow jersey.

Two years ago, that opportunity into his mother’s home town of Harrogate ended on the ashphalt of Parliament Street. Such a perfect scenario seemed more poignant for the headline writers than the man himself, and once again he greeted questions about what it would mean this week with indifference.

“It was never a career target,” said Cavendish, who now rides for Dimension Data. “It’s just something I haven’t done...

“It’s a stage win. The win will get you the yellow jersey. You can only look at it like that. How else will you get the yellow jersey? Even if it was the seventh stage, we’d go into it with the same strategy.”

If he is to win a 27th Tour de France stage of his career, either today or on the ‘five or six’ opportunities he has identified over the coming weeks, then he will have to beat Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel, the German duo who have dominated the sprints in the last three years.

Like everyone on the start line today, the possibilities are endless.