Blazin' Saddles: How Chris Froome won his third Tour de France
As the dust settles on the 103rd edition of the Tour de France our cycling guru Felix Lowe takes a look back at the quite exceptional way Chris Froome went about winning his third Tour.
By winning back-to-back Tours with his third triumph in Paris, Chris Froome once again entered the history books following a race in which he was very much at the forefront of practically every stand-out moment.
Coming after Bradley Wiggins opened the flood gates in 2012, Froome's hat-trick in the world's greatest bike race never looked very much in doubt. But for something that seemed pre-ordained, the clinically ubiquitous 31-year-old sure did do his best to keep us entertained along the way.
Here are Froome's five Tour-winning moments...
Hugging the top tube
Until he went one better by running up Mont Ventoux [see later], the enduring image of the 2016 Tour was that of Froome wrapping his spindly limbs around the frame of his bike while plummeting down to Bagneres-de-Luchon towards a symbolic victory in stage 8.
Froome has a tendency of winning the first big mountain stage to lay down an early marker – and he did so once again but with an opportunistic downhill attack that caught his rivals napping going over the summit of the Col de Peyresourde.
Sure, it was as risky as it was uneasy on the eye – as if we were watching a praying mantis taking a dump on a coat hanger at speeds pushing 100kmph. But the net result was Froome showing his rivals that he was capable – both tactically and physically – of pulling off something different and sublime. In doing so, he turned a perceived weakness (his descending) into yet another weapon in his armoury.
Level with his big rivals going into that first day in the Pyrenees, Froome moved into yellow and took a 23-second lead over the likes of Nairo Quintana – the man earmarked to be his main threat later in the race during the Alps. Hardly a cushion-de-luxe but a psychological buffer nonetheless.
Sagan crosswind alliance
In quite unprecedented scenes in today's separate spheres era of cycling – where green jerseys and yellow jerseys mix only in the neutral zone or on post-stage podiums in front of the cameras – Froome found himself riding ahead of the peloton alongside Peter Sagan in a bizarre but thrilling conclusion to stage 11 to Montpellier.
When Sagan and Tinkoff team-mate Maciej Bodnar exploited some gaps in the crosswinds some 10 kilometres from the finish, Froome and Sky team-mate Geraint Thomas were quickest to respond. The result was an impromptu Tinkov-Brailsford alliance of the kind none of us ever thought we'd see – not to mention, perhaps the easiest sprint finish Sagan will ever experience in his illustrious career.
Once again, it was an almighty effort for just a 12-second gain – especially coming as it did ahead of the Ventoux-ITT double header. But it was yet another sign that Froome was more alert, more ruthless and, to be frank, more of a crowd pleaser than his rivals.
The running man
Richie Porte's collision with the motorbike – which brought down the Australian, Froome and Bauke Mollema – was yet another accident waiting to happen. And when Froome's seat-stay was broken by the motorcycle behind, the yellow jersey went into improvisation mode and started running – much to the bemusement of the roadside fans and the millions watching on TV at home.
Pages and pages could be written about the incident – from its causes to the fall-out, via Nairo Quintana's "Mavic spanner" tug from the neutral motorbike and Bauke Mollema's net time loss despite handling the situation better than anyone.
But the simple fact that Froome emerged from the whole fandango in a stronger position once again underlined his never-say-die attitude and determination to attack when others would have merely shrugged shoulders or shouted expletives.
Being the on-going subject of online memes and Pokémon Go-related quips about his ungainly running style was a small price to pay for moving another 20-odd seconds clear.
While the gap would no doubt have been more had the incident not occurred (Quintana was, after all, completely cooked) Froome, despite conceding the yellow jersey to Adam Yates for a few notional minutes before the race jury reinstated him at the top, would have been able to laugh it all off all over the dinner table.
While Froome's second stage victory would come in the mountain time trial to Megeve – in which, last down the ramp, he overturned Tom Dumoulin's leading time to all but secure his overall victory – it was his performance in the lumpy, windswept ITT in the Ardeche in stage 13 that provided the true foundations for his overall win.
Until that poignant day after the horrific Bastille night terror attacks in Nice, Froome's advantage in the standings had been a matter of seconds; now it became minutes.
With Quintana – the only man previously to trouble Froome in a Tour de France – dropping almost three minutes behind, the Briton's new principal opponents emerged. No disrespect to Mollema and youngster Yates, but they were never the kind of riders who were going to stand in between Froome and a third Tour crown.
Wet white line woe
If recent Grand Tours have taught us anything it's that it's not over until La Grosse Dame sings. Froome's performance in the uphill time trial meant he carried an advantage of almost four minutes over a tiring Mollema going into the final two stages of the Alps. Behind him it had clearly become a battle for second place, but Sky and the man in yellow would have known that the race can turn in a heartbeat.
Which is why Froome's attack on the wet and slippery descent of the Montee de Bisanne was so perplexing – and perhaps the rider's only sign of weakness during the race, albeit one involving his pride more than his condition.
Even Geraint Thomas admitted afterwards that he'd told his team-mate that there was no point chasing Romain Bardet and Mollema after they had kicked on, but that "Froomey doesn't do chilling" and had attacked anyway.
The inevitable result of riding over a wet white line on the corner of a freshly tarmacked road was the sight of the yellow jersey losing his front wheel and hitting the deck in a tangle with the chasing Vincenzo Nibali. His bike bashed up, Froome swapped with Thomas before riding the Welshman's steed up the final climb to Saint-Gervais.
With Mollema himself crashing, Yates suffering, and the rest of the GC pretenders seemingly unable to make an attack that stuck, Froome, bloodied and bruised and on a borrowed bike, was not only able to finish the stage, but extend his lead in the overall standings.
Bardet had saved France's blushes with the host nation's first stage win of the race – and from nowhere moved up from fifth to second place while doing so – but the gap of 4:11 was to prove too much to overturn in the final stage of the race where driving rain (and Team Sky's power in numbers) kept the attacks in check.
So, there you have it. Chris Froome – the only man who can strengthen his grip on a race after crashing badly twice and on one occasion being forced to run without his bike; the only man who attacked not only uphill, but going down and while in the crosswinds; the only man besides Tom Dumoulin who beasted both time trials; and the only man with a team behind him so strong that they were able to pretty much accompany him the whole way.
In the end Froome winning the 2016 Tour de France was the logical and expected outcome. But the way he went about it was anything but predictable. The question now is just how can anyone else mount a serious challenge against a man who looks destined to join the ranks of – and perhaps even surpass – the great five-time champions.