Defending Tour de France champion Chris Froome says the first two stages of this year’s race in Yorkshire are as tough an opening as he has known to the world’s greatest bike race.
The overwhelming favourite for the 101st running of the Tour de France is stepping up his preparations for a successful defence of the yellow jersey.
Yorkshire hosts the Grand Départ and the opening two stages on the first weekend in July, which is now just 100 days away.
And Froome – only the second Briton to win the Tour de France – knows that if he is to ride triumphantly onto the Champs Elysées after 21 days in the saddle, a safe passage through Yorkshire at the very start of the epic journey is imperative.
“Corsica was hard last year, it was tricky and it was technical, but from what I can tell it’s not nearly as hard as what the Yorkshire stages are going to be,” said Froome, who despite his success has contested only three previous Tours.
“It’s really important for us to get over there and see what we’re up against.”
The next few weeks could be pivotal in Froome’s planning for a successful defence.
He admits to not knowing Yorkshire too well, so is determined to travel up here when his hectic schedule permits to get a first-hand look at the 190km first stage from Leeds to Harrogate, and the 200km follow-up the day after from York to Sheffield.
“I’ve been up there a couple of times but I’m going to be going back this year early in the spring to have a look at some of the stages we are going to be doing over the first two days,” said Froome.
“I’ll probably be with one or two of my team-mates, guys who will be key players in those stages for me and the team.
“We’ll come over and have a look at exactly what we’re up against, more so for that second stage which everyone is talking about as being really hard.”
With six climbs in the final 60km run into Sheffield, starting from the iconic Holme Moss, that closing chapter to the Tour de France in Yorkshire has got everyone on edge.
The general consensus is that the race will not be won over the first two days in the Broad Acres, but with scope for breakaways on day two and alarm bells ringing at the occasional punchy climb that narrows at the top, the Tour can easily be lost in South Yorkshire.
Hence the need for Froome to ensure he has covered everything that is coming his way with the same meticulousness that has been the hallmark of Team Sky’s rise to prominence.
“I’ve just got to stay safe,” said Froome of his plan for those opening two days.
“It’s not somewhere where I’m going to be looking at taking time out of my rivals but these two will be stages where I’m looking to stay out of trouble and at the front of the race so I don’t lose any major time.
“I’m looking forward to doing a reconnoitre of the stages – it’s a hugely exciting prospect the Tour starting over in Yorkshire.
“For anyone who will be part of our team it really is going to be a highlight for us and something we are really looking forward to.
“With the Tour de France coming to the UK, and specifically Yorkshire, we are expecting an amazing welcome, one to match the atmosphere generated by the Olympics with the home support we’ll receive.”
Around two million people are expected to line the route on those first two days, with Froome leading a strong contingent from the host country of the Grand Départ.
Where a decade ago David Millar was the only Briton riding a race with a very continental theme, nowadays Britain has become a dominant force.
Millar will again be riding for Garmin Sharp while Froome is likely to be “supported” by Sir Bradley Wiggins, the first Briton to win the Tour de France when he crossed the line in Paris in 2012.
Froome’s rapid rise to prominence, allied with injury and a changing of priorities which caused Wiggins to miss out last year, has seen the leadership of the team change hands.
Ensuring they safely negotiate Buttertubbs Pass, Holme Moss and other such climbs this year are a couple of hungry young British riders in Geraint Thomas and Pete Kennaugh, who were tireless in their support of Froome last year.
Throw in Manx Missile Mark Cavendish who has 25 stage wins to his name, and there is a real home flavour to the world’s greatest race, and plenty of reason to get out and cheer on the country’s elite.
“If the numbers on the road over in France are anything to go by it’s just going to be unreal with the number of people obviously coming out to see the Tour on their own doorsteps,” added Froome.
The weight of expectation rests on his shoulders, of course, after his memorable performance in the centenary edition of the Tour last summer.
While Yorkshire fans might not see him at the levels he reached when he gloriously scaled Mont Ventoux, the 28-year-old will attract a lot of the attention in the build-up to the race.
“It’s going to be massive because it probably won’t ever happen again in my career,” said Kenyan-born Froome.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and a huge privilege for me to stand on the start line as defending champion with that home support behind me.
“And if I’m honest, I’m a little bit nervous, it’s going to be that massive.”
Before July though, Froome must ensure he does not let thoughts of slipping into another yellow jersey occupy him too much.
“I’ve got a few stage races still to come, the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour of Romandie, for instance,” said Froome, who plots his schedule to suit his Tour preparations. “Rest assured, we’ve definitely got quite a bit of work to do before the excitement of July.”