PARIS (Reuters) - Media grilling, potentially hostile fans — Chris Froome faces bigger challenges off the bike than on it as he embarks on a testing journey towards a record-equalling fifth Tour de France title on Saturday.
The defending champion was this week cleared of any wrongdoing by cycling’s governing body following an investigation after excessive levels of asthma drug Salbutamol was found in his urine sample during last September’s Vuelta a Espana.
In a column in French newspaper Le Monde, the Team Sky rider, attempting to become the first person since Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve the Giro d’Italia-Tour double, wrote that: “the build up to this race has not been the easiest for me, for the race organizers and for you all - the cycling fans and people of France who are the heartbeat of the Tour.”
During the teams presentation in the Vendee region on Thursday, Froome got a taste of what he could expect during the three weeks of the race when he was booed loudly by the crowd.
It brought back memories from his victorious ride on the Tour in 2015, when he had a cup of urine thrown on his face and was called a doper by a spectator.
Team Sky’s dominance and their perceived arrogance have raised questions and triggered suspicions, although no doping allegations have been proven.
Froome, however, rode through the storm with composure and he will be the hot favorite when the race starts in Noirmoutier on Saturday.
Sky’s collective force and the Briton’s ability to hold off his rivals in the mountains makes him the man to beat even if the opposition has been sharpening their knives.
France’s Romain Bardet, twice a podium finisher, tops the list of challengers along with 2017 Giro champion Tom Dumoulin - two riders who believed Froome should not have been racing while under investigation.
“I hope he will get a kind welcoming,” said Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme.
“The Tour de France fans, it’s about 10-12 million people, who come on the roads with their family. But among those, some of them could have other reactions.”
The first big challenge will come on July 15 when the peloton tackle cobbled sections in a stage that ends in Roubaix — just like the Paris-Roubaix one-day race, also known as the Queen of the Classics.
Should he survive that stage, Froome will then have to assert his dominance on iconic climbs like the Alpe d’Huez, the Tourmalet and the Aubisque.
With Colombian Nairo Quintana, Spain’s Mikel Landa or even team mate Geraint Thomas eyeing the Maillot Jaune, Froome could face coordinated attacks with less protection after the number of riders per team was brought down from nine to eight.
World champion Peter Sagan is the huge favorite to win a sixth green jersey for the points classification, one year after being kicked out of the race for elbowing Mark Cavendish in a sprint finish.
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge