RBA/AFP – Tour de France organisers are preparing for a potential Alpe d’Huez backlash against defending champion Chris Froome as his bid for a record-equaling fifth yellow jersey moves up a notch in the French Alps.
Four-time champion Froome survived two crashes in an eventful opening week to stay in contention for overall victory at 1min 43sec behind Belgian leader, Greg Van Avermaet of BMC. But the Team Sky leader has yet to convince some fans of his innocence following a controversy-marred build-up to the Tour. He was only cleared to start at the 11th hour following months of suspicion caused by an “adverse analytical finding” for the asthma drug salbutamol at last year’s Tour of Spain.
Teammate Geraint Thomas admits Sky have spoken with organizers ASO about the potential threat of overzealous fans on stage 12 from Bourg d’Oisans to Alpe d’Huez. Thomas said Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford “has spoken to ASO and they’re doing everything they can to make it safe for the riders. “If people want to come out and boo, then that’s fine. But just don’t affect the race. Don’t touch the riders or throw anything at the riders. That’s the main thing.”
Famous in cycling folklore for its 21 legendary hairpin bends, the Alpe d’Huez also has a sinister side. As well as an average gradient of 8.1 % over 13.8 punishing kilometers, the peloton has to negotiate thousands of excitable fans — not all of whom are well-meaning. Froome was sprayed with urine in 2015 by one man who shouted “doper” at the Kenyan-born Briton and was booed and jeered during the early stages of this race. But when it comes to targeting a fifth yellow jersey — and what would be his fourth Grand Tour win on the trot after winning the Tour of Spain and the Giro d’Italia in the wake of his 2017 yellow jersey triumph — Froome is on easy street.
Despite his deficit to Van Avermaet, the Belgian is not a yellow jersey contender. Australian rival Richie Porte also crashed out with a shoulder injury. Indeed, ahead of three days of climbing, Froome’s biggest rival could be Thomas, who is second overall at only 43secs behind Van Avermaet. The Welshman can realistically target the yellow jersey in Tuesday’s 10th stage from Annecy to Le Grand Bornand. It will lead to the inevitable discussion about whether Froome or Thomas is Team Sky’s true team leader.
Thomas said: “There will be a natural selection anyway, that will sort it out.” Yet a philosophical Froome is nowhere near throwing in the towel. “I think it’s fantastic for us to have those options, to be able to play when it comes down to it, especially looking at rivals who have two or three options within their teams,” said Froome. “A team like Movistar, for example, has two or three leaders. Hopefully that means we will be able to cover any threats that we’re under. “Obviously Geraint’s in the perfect place now, we should see him going into yellow over the next couple of days. But I’m still very much in the game.”
Having started the race under a cloud, former five-time winner Bernard Hinault calling for the peloton to strike if controversy-tinged Froome turned a pedal in anger, the defending champion said he has weathered the pre-race storm.
“Obviously it’s a huge relief to be in the position where I am now,” added Froome. “But I’ve demonstrated my innocence so I can get on with bike racing now.”