• Chris Froome may be in the lead, but there a host of contenders breathing down his neck (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The abandonment of key rivals like Richie Porte (BMC) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), along with long-time foes Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) looking very weak, has led to many to declare a Chris Froome victory in Paris is a fait accompli.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Source:
Cycling Central
13 Jul 2017 - 3:18 PM  UPDATED 13 Jul 2017 - 3:58 PM

It's the unstoppable Team Sky juggernaut. It's the imposing Chris Froome, who has won three of the last four Tours de France. There is an aura of invincibility and an air of inevitability around a Froome win, but should that really be the case coming into the crucial stages of the Tour?

Eighteen seconds. That’s the lead that Froome currently holds over second-placed Fabio Aru (Astana). Froome gained time on his competitors in the wet opening time trial and since then he has lost time to Aru and he would also have conceded valuable seconds to Daniel Martin (Quick-Step Floors) as well if the Irishman hadn't been taken out in Porte's stage 9 crash. 

Why then is a Froome victory being considered a virtual certainty? Memories of past Tours have a lot to do with it, where Froome has shown, time after time, that he has what it takes to win on the biggest stage. 

Froome will stick to Aru like glue on Stage 12
Chris Froome's main goal in Thursday's 12th stage of the Tour de France will be to ensure that those rivals who have already slipped out of contention do not get back into the race.

The Stage 20 time trial in Marseille is a strong reason to favour Froome as well. Out of his closest rivals, he should put significant dents in Aru, Martin and Romain Bardet (AG2R) over the mostly flat 22.5km course.

Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) are more formidable against the clock, but both would still want a decent buffer on the Kenyan-born rider going in. 

The rules are different for time trials late in Grand Tours, however. A fatigued specialist will lose to an invigorated novice and nothing can be considered a certainty in the final 'race of truth'.

The question is whether Stage 20 will even be relevant. Many think it won't be, but that is ignoring the reality of where the three-time Tour de France champion is at this year.

Coming into the Tour, Froome had a total of zero race wins to his name and he's still yet to get off his duck at the Tour de France. This has led to Froome employing a different style to the old Sky formula, there's been more attacking, out-of-the-box tactics, taking risks on descents than Froome at his peak would ever have considered.

The Stage 1 time trial is a case in point. Porte is arguably the better time triallist, he put quite a bit of time into Froome at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné but finished 35 seconds behind Froome in Dusseldorf as he laid off the corners and took few risks.  

Froome, on the other hand, ignored the crashes and abandonments of key rivals like Valverde and Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) and pushed every corner to the limit, 'risking it for the biscuit'.

This isn't a Froome who's assured of taking time in the mountains, he knows he needs to make the most of every opportunity.

Even his attacks on the climbs have been lacking their normal awesome power. Sure, he spins up the turbo for his traditional high cadence surge, but it hasn't been dropping as many as it normally does and in my opinion, Aru and Martin have looked stronger in the mountains so far this race.

Martin's Irish eyes might be smiling in Paris
Dan Martin (QuickStep Floors) is an understated shot at the Tour de France podium that defending champion Chris Froome is beginning to scrutinise as the race readies for the Pyrenees.

The upcoming two stages - Stage 12 to Peyragudes and Stage 13 to Foix - will be a good opportunity for Aru and others to really test Froome. 

Stage 12 is back-loaded with really tough climbs, but the 101km Stage 13 will be the really interesting affair. Short stages offer a chance to really flip the status quo on its head and it will certainly be an attacking affair right from the gun.

It's a bit counter-intuitive, one would think surely a shorter stage would be easier for Team Sky to control, they'll have less distance to work for. In reality, short stages mean that any attack is a dangerous one and riders can go hell for leather from a longer way out as they don't have that accumulated fatigue in their legs.

BMC discovered this on the final stage of the Dauphine this year, where the short course on the final day saw their team implode, and we've seen similar things happen in the past to Sky.

In Stage 8 of the 2014 Dauphine Froome lost a shot at yellow after early attacks overwhelmed him, Andrew Talansky slipped up the road to win the overall.

Add to that Stage 9 of the 2013 Tour, where Froome was left isolated after Sky wilted in the face of aggression from the start, a stage won by Dan Martin with Fuglsang in second.

So, you don't even really need to dig too hard to find potential scenarios for a turnaround in the yellow jersey standings, even ones involving Froome and Sky in arguably better condition than the current version.

The next two stages will be very important for how the Tour de France plays out, I suggest that you don't miss out on what might be a changing of the guard at the top of the general classification.