PARIS: Reigning champion Chris Froome will be among those embarking on the 2018 Tour de France Saturday after being cleared of doping suspicions, but an army of detractors, talented rivals and a course that doesn’t suit him still stand in the way of his fifth title.
Organisers lifted a ban on the British rider after he was cleared by world anti-doping authorities (WADA) and the International Cycling Union (UCI) of all wrongdoing and an anti-doping case against him was dropped.
But the case has created a tense atmosphere that Team Sky’s Froome will have to deal with mentally after it triggered a chorus of opposition against him.
Tour great Bernard Hinault called on Tour riders to strike in protest if Froome were to take part, and the way the organisers ASO banned him before he was cleared could hardly have made the champion feel welcome.
The race is, as Ireland’s Dan Martin described it, “a tale of two halves” with a flattish first part featuring treacherous cobbles and crosswinds followed by six mountain and four hilly stages packed into the latter part of the 3,351 kilometres (2,082 miles).
Whatever added tests facing Froome, route designer Thierry Gouvenou said the switch between the flat and the mountains “is perhaps the greatest challenge of this Tour”.
Huge crowds are expected as the race sets off from Noirmoutier on France’s Atlantic coast and early challenges include a 35km team time trial on day three, while a run to the pretty seaside town of Quimper on day five features 10 hills.
The route designer also built in two ascents of the feared Mur de Bretagne on stage eight, and the day after comes the feared cobbled road to Roubaix.
There are more than 20km of roughly hewn cobbles along old mining roads, and cycling folklore has it that the cobbles themselves choose their victims.
Britain’s Mark Cavendish, who has 30 stage wins, said it was the hardest Tour de France route he’d ever seen and doubted he’d make it to the mountains.
Winner of the 2016 white jersey, Briton Adam Yates, said he expected to struggle over the first week.
“I’m a very light man, so I’m not looking forward to the wind in the Vendee,” said the Mitchelton-Scott man.
The race also lacks the kind of long, flat individual time trial where four-time winner Froome often pulverises his opponents.
Organisers have also reduced team size, seen as a way of unlocking Sky’s stranglehold on the Tour.
“There are only eight riders per team so it’s a real strategic decision between the rollers and the climbers, the first part and the second,” Gouvenou said.
After a rest day on which the riders fly from the north coast to Annecy in France’s southeast, there follows three visually stunning Alpine mountain stages, four hilly stages and three Pyrenean mountain stages inside a breathless 12 days.
Many of France’s great mountains will feature, such as the Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Tourmalet.
But the two key mountain challenges are a brutal, uphill 31km individual time trial and a short 65km 17th stage featuring 38km of climbs to a summit finish at the Col de Portet in the southwest.
At 2,215 metres (7,265 feet), Portet is the highest summit ever to feature in a Tour de France and will provide the backdrop for a true champion.
Some feel the great French hope Romain Bardet will finally deliver for the home nation with a AG2R-La Mondiale team crafted to hit peak form in the final week.
The deeply experienced Australian BMC leader Richie Porte has proven stamina, while the 2014 champion, Italy’s wily Vincenzo Nibali, will certainly have a trick or two up his sleeve.
At 25, Adam Yates may be ready to unleash the kind of climb potential his twin brother Simon showed on the Giro in May, when he came within two stages of beating the eventual champion Froome.
Froome can settle many scores and arguments if he can win without the long flat time trial, without a ninth man and likely without much encouragement from the 10 million spectators expected to line the French roadside as the drama unfolds.