Ben Swift believes his Sky team-mate and Tour de France favourite Chris Froome can capture the hearts of the British public as well as the yellow jersey over the next three weeks.
Froome sets out today to become only the second Briton in history to win the Tour de France, following hot on the heels of Sir Bradley Wiggins who rode triumphantly along the Champs Elysees last year.
Coupled with his success in the Olympic time-trial, Wiggins shot to superstar status in a golden summer that ended with him being lauded as the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
Froome is the man to lead the successful British team into the 100th Tour in Corsica today, in what is only his third appearance in the world’s greatest bike race.
He is relatively unknown to the British public off the bike, but his credentials on two wheels ensured he was given the nod to lead Sky’s pursuit of a second maillet jaune long before Wiggins pulled out of his defence with injury.
While Wiggins is the definition of Mr Cool, Kenyan-born Froome is very much someone who keeps himself to himself.
But Swift, the last Yorkshireman to ride the Tour de France when he supported Wiggins as a domestique two years ago, believes Froome has the style in the saddle to prove he can be a cycling superstar.
“He definitely can be someone to capture the imagination of the British public,” said Rotherham’s Swift, 25, who has not been fit enough over the last 12 months to force his way back into Sky’s Tour squad.
“The styles of riding are different between Froomey and Brad. Someone like Froomey will go out there and be attacking and will really go for it in the race.
“We’ve seen that already with him in races this year, he’s not afraid to attack at the end. That’s an exciting way of doing it.
“Both Bradley and Chris are equally as talented but they do it in a different manner.
“And Froomey’s attacking principles will get people on his side.”
Such a do-or-die philosophy needs to bear fruit if a nation is truly to become inspired by a home rider’s bid for the yellow jersey, and when it comes to Froome, Britain has a genuine race favourite to get behind.
The 28-year-old goes into what promises to be one of the most enthralling races in years on the back of stage wins at the Tour of Oman and three of the big pre-Tour events; the Criterium International, the Tour of Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphine.
He was also second behind Wiggins at last year’s Tour, trailed the Lancastrian home for the bronze in the Olympic time-trial, and finished fourth in the Vuelta Espana later that summer.
Over the winter months, Froome spent most of Sky’s training camps taking leadership of the group, much as he will have to do with the British team’s other eight riders this year.
Swift – who is concentrating on the one-week stage races for the remainder of the year as he focusses on training during the Tour – joined Froome for some of those rides.
“This year he’s really stepped up as a team leader, and has taken on that role really well,” said Rotherham’s Swift, who supported Froome at last year’s Vuelta.
“He’s a nice guy as well, and everybody wants to race for a nice guy. I know him quite well, I speak to him regularly, and the encouraging thing is how he has settled into that role as team leader, of having people work for him, and also handling the media which is important at a Tour.
“Since his second place in the Vuelta in 2011 he’s just been progressing and getting more confident.
“Without trying to jinx him, he’s without doubt the strongest rider going into the Tour de France this year.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a two-horse race like a lot of the media are suggesting between Froomey and (Alberto) Contador.
“You’ve got to look at a lot of other riders (Alejandro Valverde, Cadel Evans, Joaquim Rodriquez). Obviously Froome and Contador are your five-star riders, but then you’ve got a lot of four- and three-star riders who will throw up a lot of surprises and who will add a helluva lot to the race.
“It’s going to be great race to watch.”
Tour organisers have devised a route for the 100th Tour that takes in some of the race’s most fabled landmarks with a punishing summit finish on Mont Ventoux and a stage in the final week that includes two ascents of Alpe d’Huez.
The race begins with three days on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, with today’s relatively flat 213km stage from Porto Vecchio to Bastia presenting the sprinters with a chance to shine.
Britain’s Mark Cavendish is a favourite to win the stage and get his arms into the yellow jersey, but it is in the mountains where the general classification will be decided, and where Froome’s destiny will be decided.
Swift said: “We’ve got a really strong team for the mid and high mountains; a lot of strength in numbers.
“It’s very similar to what we had last year and in Richie Porte, I would say Sky have a good bet for taking second place as Froomey did last year.”