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PORTO VECCHIO (VN) — Chris Froome stood in front of a phalanx of photographers and TV cameras Thursday a little bit in awe of all the fuss.
“Good thing I am not camera shy,” Froome later joked.
Froome was sitting in the hot seat, the exact same place where Sir Bradley Wiggins sat one year ago, just weeks before becoming the first British rider to win the Tour de France.
The Kenyan-born Froome inherits the weight of expectation that comes with being the pre-ordained favorite from Wiggins, who is not even back to defend his yellow jersey.
With it comes the pressure, expectations, and stress as the Tour favorite, but Froome seems to be taking it all in stride.
“There’s not much you can do to be ready for this type of hype,” Froome said. “It’s very different to the other races on our calendar. This is a bit of a surprise to see all this.”
Unlike Wiggins, who gritted his teeth under the media pressure that came with Tour success, Froome seems unfazed by the crush of cameras and nosy questions
Sky returns to the Tour as defending champion without its winner of the previous year. That would be crushing to most teams, but Froome is slipping right into the leadership role with ease.
“The way my season’s gone, I’ve been in position to defend and been in leadership positions, so I’ve been going to press conferences, and being in the lime light as such,” he said. “This is on a completely different level.”
Stepping into the void left by Wiggins is the unassuming character of Froome. Born in Kenya, raised in South Africa, and now a resident of Monaco with a British passport, Froome is truly a man of the world.
With Wiggins flaming out at the Giro d’Italia in May, Sky has thrown its weight behind Froome, and the team is up to the task of defending yellow, but enters in the unusual position of racing to win again with a different rider.
“It’s a great privilege to be here and to try to go and win this race for a second time,” said Sky team principal Dave Brailsford. “We bring a strong, balanced team. We come to the start with great confidence. The team who makes the least mistakes and errors is the one who wins.”
Winning back-to-back Tours with two different riders is rare in cycling. The last to do it was the scandal-plagued Telekom team, with Bjarne Riis in 1996 and Jan Ullrich in 1997. Renault-Elf did it in 1982-83 with Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon, and La Vie Claire in 1985-86, with Hinault and Greg Lemond.
If Sky can pull it off, it would be not only a testament to Sky’s program, but the depth of its squad.
Froome seems up to task, coming off a phenomenal spring that was eerily similar to Wiggins’ run through 2012. Wiggins won every stage race he started before barnstorming through the Tour. Froome has been equally strong, only succumbing to Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) at Tirreno-Adriatico in poor weather in March.
Brailsford said it’s hard to compare Wiggins to Froome, but admitted they arrived at the Tour on similar trajectories.
“It’s difficult to compare individuals. In terms of their run-in into the Tour, they’ve been similar,” Brailsford said. “Chris is ideally placed to take on this parcours. But every race is different. We all start from zero. It’s a different course, a different year, and different competitors. It’s all for play.”
While Wiggins is licking his wounds, and even hinted in an interview this year he may never contest for the yellow jersey again, Froome is storming bravely into the limelight.
Perhaps no one knows Froome better than Sky teammate Richie Porte. Froome and Porte are close friends and training partners. The Australian said Froome is grabbing his chance to lead Sky and race for yellow with two hands.
“Chris is bit of a thrash machine. He’s in and out of the saddle, while Brad never gets out of the saddle. Brad is pure power,” Porte said. “At the end of the day, there is not much difference riding for Chris or Brad. It’s the same goal, isn’t it? The top step in Paris.”
Porte, who has slotted into the No. 2 position at Sky that Froome held last year, has watched Froome grow into the role of leader.
“Chris has been on a good level all year. He’s so motivated after the Tour last year. He knows he can win. He knows he can be the next GC rider of his generation,” Porte said. “I’ve seen him out on training. It’s normal ol’ Chris, until we have an effort, then he goes into race mode. It’s pretty impressive to watch.”
Their rivals have taken notice. Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) said he’s been taking notes all season long on Froome.
“Of course, I didn’t race last year, but Wiggins and Sky were impressive,” Contador said. “You can see Froome races differently than Wiggins. We shall see how that comes into play during the race. There’s no question that Sky is the strongest team and they will have to take responsibility. We have to wait to see if there is an opening, but Froome has proven he’s strong in the climbs as well as the time trials.”
Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), the 2011 Tour winner who had a front-row seat to Sky’s dominance last year, said Froome is the perfect man for Sky for this year’s route.
“Last year, we had a course that almost perfectly suited for Wiggins. This year’s course suits Froome better,” Evans said. “Whether it’s Wiggins or Froome, you have to be good everywhere, and try to take some time when you can if you want to win.”
It’s clear everyone is looking to Froome and Sky to carry the weight of the race. Brailsford said it’s something the team has quickly grown accustomed to.
“We focus on the process, not the outcome,” he said. “The ideal way to approach the Tour is to look at what I can do in the next hour, the next few hours, tonight. Not to look too far ahead.”
For Froome, the Tour starts now. It’s a long road to Paris.