PARIS — Tour de France defending champion Chris Froome is feeling the pressure ahead of Saturday’s start to the 2014 race.
This 101st Tour might seem to favor Team Sky and Froome, but he will have a lot on his mind during the three-week race which starts in Leeds, in the northern English county of Yorkshire.
The Kenyan-born Brit is dealing with a perception among some fans that he had a hand in Sky’s decision to bench his popular compatriot and teammate Sir Bradley Wiggins, who won the 2012 Tour.
He also was caught up in a recent doping firestorm. Froome, who insists he has never used banned drugs, said in an interview that he cried privately over scrutiny of his use of a medication for a chest infection during a recent race, even though it was permitted because he had a doctor’s note.
That incident showed the sport is still hounded by doping suspicions after a succession of scandals over the past generation — highlighted by the drug use and cheating by Lance Armstrong and others in his era.
Froome also faces the little matter of two-time Tour champ Alberto Contador, who last won in 2009. The 31-year-old Spaniard has been in strong form and has made winning this Tour a top priority.
Cycling’s doping shadows will also be cast upon Contador, who lost his 2010 title in a doping case. His Tinkoff-Saxo teammate Roman Kreuziger, who finished fifth last year — right behind Contador — was dropped by the team because of anomalies in his biological passport in 2011 and 2012, when the Czech rider was with the Kazakh team Astana. Kreuziger has denied any wrongdoing.
On the way to winning the Tour de Romandie in Switzerland in early May, Froome benefited from a “therapeutic use exemption” — a doctor’s note — allowing him to use corticosteroid prednisolone against a chest infection. The UCI, cycling’s governing body, and the World Anti-Doping Agency agreed that Froome had followed the rules. But critics alleged he hadn’t, and the UCI said last week that it’s reviewing its TUE procedures.
To many cycling fans, last year’s Tour was a bit underwhelming — despite the revelation of Froome. He stamped his leadership on the race in stage 8, in a show of uncompromising dominance.
The 2014 Tour may be more of a challenge. In its 21 stages, over 3,664 kilometers (2,277 miles) in England, France, Belgium and Spain, only one time trial awaits.
That harms the prospects of reigning three-time world time-trial champion Tony Martin of Germany, but also puts a brake on Froome, who gained more than two minutes total on Contador over last year’s individual time trials.
The only time-trial in the 2014 race will come in the penultimate stage: a 54-kilometer (33.6-mile) trial from Bergerac to Perigueux. The last time the race had just one time trial stage was 1953.
Director Christian Prudhomme and other Tour organizers also chose a clockwise run around France along the battlefields of World War I to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the war.
It will then go into the smaller but quick-succession climbs of the eastern Vosges mountains. After this, riders go into the Alps, along the flats of Provence, and then into some Pyrenees mountain punishment in the third week.
Strong climbers like Astana leader Vincenzo Nibali of Italy and Spain’s Alejandro Valverde of Movistar are likely to be longer-distance contenders for the title against Froome and Contador.
Five mountaintop finishes await, including Stage 10 on the Plateau de Belles Filles (the “Beautiful Girls” plateau), where Froome got his first Tour stage win in 2012. A bone-rattling run on cobblestones is ahead in Stage 5.
There will be a strong crop of U.S. riders includes Andrew Talansky, who beat Froome and Contador at the Criterium du Dauphine in June, and Tejay van Garderen, the best young rider in the 2012 Tour.
And a sprinter showdown may loom. Rising star Marcel Kittel of Germany largely swiped the limelight by winning four sprint stages, while Britain’s Mark Cavendish — among the greatest sprinters ever — last year won two.
This year, in a first, some of the world’s best women riders will be present at the Tour finish on Paris’ Champs-Elysees on July 27, as organizers host a one-day women’s race there hours before the men roll in.