Only a week until this modern classic echos forth once more from the television, followed by Gary Imlach's acerbic, dead pan and economical but effective introductions, summing up quite complex action in a few words. Boardman and Boulting will ham it up for the cameras while Phil and Paul try to outdo each other in seeing who can misidentify the most riders. Well ,OK forget that last bit since it seems Millar and Boulting will be calling the action instead but anyway... Yes, the annual 3 week long advert for the French ( and this year German and Belgian) Tourist Board has come around again, and suddenly rugby and soccer supporters transform themselves into cycling fans in the way Wimbledon turns many into tennis fans for the duration.
As the first rider leaves the start ramp in Dusseldorf for the opening TT, the editors of Tour and the Official Tour de France guide will breath a sigh of relief if all their cover stars actually make it to the race, which doesn't happen every year. Suddenly the predictions and form guides that had been developed ever since the season kicked off in Australia and used to fill gaps in the action by commentators in every race since can finally be held up to scrutiny. So on current showing, is Froome going to come away with his fourth maillot juane?
A lot has been made of the fact that each year he taken the top step on the Champs Elysees podium, Froome has won, at the very least, 5 races since the season started. Currently the 2017 shelf in his trophy cabinet is very bare- empty in fact. Add on Richie Porte's great start (particularly his Dauphiné performance compared to his mucker) and inidications are that maybe Corbyn's recent electoral performance isn't the only thing that can make a Murdoch throw their toys out of the pram. However a caveat or two- Froome's victories have come because of decent performances which tail off in the last week. Has this year's lack of results come about because of a different approach. designed to allow him to peak later and save more of himself for the final week? Is that this year's equivalent of his attack on a descent and a four up time-trail with the green jersey to break away and spoil the sprinter's day out?
No matter the reason for the lowly palmarés this year (lowly in relative terms of course!), it was quite clear that Froome wasn't at the top of his game on the Dauphiné. His aggression on the Mont du Chat seemed to be more of desperation rather than a planned tactical assault, as if he knew he wouldn't have enough to do any damage when gravity went from being an ally to the enemy again. Even his interactions with his supposed best mate seemed to be bullish- he undercut Porte very tightly on the descent and then steered him into the boards as they wound up for the sprint. Watching, I felt Froome wasn't displaying his usual temperament. Was it a coincidence that he was acting out of character in around the same time L'Équipe was running a quickly denied story linking him to a BMC move? Let's imagine a hypothetical situation- if the article had any grain of truth the big loser would again be Porte who went to BMC to get out from under the Kenyan's shadow. How would he feel if, after finally cementing himself as a viable TdF GC contender in one of the few squads who can match Sky's budget, suddenly the guy he acted as a domestique deluxe for reappeared to put Richie back down the pecking order? A wee leak to the press, at a stage when technically riders and teams are not supposed to be making approaches to each other, would require a firm denial and make such a move that bit harder to engineer and allow Sky to come up with a package to try and get Froome to stay. Again I have to emphasise that this is just a flight of imagination based on conjucture and theorising- I'm not saying this happened! A lost opportunity to rescue his reputation by breaking the link that has been tainted through Sky's disasterous TUE/ jiffy bag debacle could maybe add a bit of spice to any race. Even the post-race comments were more barbed than usual, but again perhaps I am reading too much into it- after all this is really the first time that the Tasmainian and Froome have really gone head to head on almost equal terms and we have no real indication of how that plays with either of them.
So cast that little soap opera aside- is Froome going to win the 2017 Tour? My heart says no but head says yes. It is highly likely Sky are playing the psychological game here- reduced expectations lead to reduced pressure, and Porte will probably still have his one bad day. And of course we haven't even looked at Quintana yet. Is Nairo's Giro-Tour double attempt actually another sandbagging strategy? Go into the Giro, look under par and instead use it as an actual training race for the Tour? This of course may all be wishful thinking on my part and probably come July 23rd, Murdoch newspapers will be hailing "their" man as a great human being before reverting to type and encouraging White Van Man to cut a swathe through ordinary cyclists on the 24th. Am I grasping at straws in an attempt to add intrigue and jeopardy into this year's Grand Boucle ahead of watching the horde of white jerseys sitting at the front defend Froome's lead? Probably but it is still a good time to remember - races are won off, as well as on the bike and it would be nice if, for once, Twitter wasn't full of the too cool for school types who publicly decree that they stop watching as soon as Froome takes yellow (but suspiciously seem very well informed about how the rest of the stages go...!).