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Tour de France

Is Chris Froome Ready to Make Cycling Great Again?

Already in an elite group of multiple Tour winners, Froome declared his goal to win the Tour, Olympic Road Race and Olympic Time Time in 2016. It's been a long time since pro cycling has had that sort of audacity.

by Wade McCagh
Jul 19 2016, 3:09pm

Via Instagram user @letourdefrance

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports Australia.

Sitting on the top of a dusty bookshelf next to my desk, just out my peripheral vision, is a book published in 2005 about the 92nd edition of Le Tour de France. I'm loathe to throw any book away, and yet I know that I've discarded many books like this one. I'm not sure if I would have kept another book written by the man who enables serial historical revisionist Bill O'Reilly to pump out his alternative versions of the lives of Lincoln, Reagan and Jesus. I know that its former neighbour It's Not About the Bike has been relegated to my hallway bookshelf of forgotten paperbacks, because once again I can't bring myself to throw away a book but I know it would be useless to donate it, only to join its brethren laying in exile in our nation's op shops.

Read More: CHRIS FROOME STARTS RUNNING THE TOUR DE FRANCE AFTER PILEUP WITH TV MOTORBIKE

And yet, it remains within reach; a time capsule to a time when I first began a ritual of late nights in July tuned in to SBS, listening carefully to Phil Liggett's insightful commentary and trying to repeat Paul Sherwin's pronunciations of French villages, watching out for Robbie McEwan's sudden appearance from under his 'invisibility cloak' to snatch stage victories and learning to love the agonisingly close finishes (8th, 4th, 2nd, 2nd again) of soft spoken Cadel Evans. In the 2000s, cycling had completely captured my sports-addled imagination. And that book, Chasing Lance, marks the start of that journey with the end of another: Lance Armstrong's 7th consecutive and final Tour victory.

Except that, officially, that never happened. Go to the General Classification table for the 2005 Tour de France General Classification table. You'll see there was no winner. You'll see there was no third place either. Or sixth. The names in those positions are struck through, like an accounting error, cut down by an exhaustive multiyear investigation known as Operation Puerto. And when you look closer at the names that remain, it gets worse.

Cadel Evans (right) during stage thirteen of the 2012 Tour de France. Mandatory Credit: Bernard Papon/Presse Sports via USA TODAY Sports

Second placed Ivan Basso would admit to "attempted doping" in 2007, receiving a two year ban. Fourth placed Francisco Mancebo pulled out of the eve of the 2006 Tour after being named in Operation Puerto and never rode in a Grand Tour again, saying that he "changed his focus". Fifth placed Alexander Vinokourov was caught blood doping the day after winning Stage 15 of the 2007 Tour de France. Seventh placed Michael Rasmussen was wearing the yellow jersey in 2007 when his team terminated his contract and removed him from the race – he'd receive a 2 year ban that year for lying about his whereabouts, and then admit in 2013 that he'd "used EPO, growth hormone, testosterone, DHEA, insulin, IGF-1, and cortisone and did blood transfusions." Ninth placed Floyd Landis, Armstrong's former teammate, would go on to win the first post-Lance Tour in 2006, only to fail a urine test and be stripped of the title. He'd vehemently deny he'd cheated until 2010, when he came clean and pointed the finger at his former peers and teammates, including Armstrong. Only eight placed Cadel Evans and tenth placed Óscar Pereiro are left above suspicion on that list, and Pereiro had to fight to clear his name after testing positive for asthma drug Salbutamol during the 2006 Tour.

Read More: CADEL EVANS NEVER LET CYCLING DEFEAT HIM

If Cadel Evans had ever failed a drug test or admitted that he too had been using Performance Enhancing Drugs, it would have broken me completely as a cycling fan. Of course, like so many others my faith in the sport was severely wounded after the cascade of stars struck down by Puerto. It's infuriating to know that if the field was not so stuffed with drug cheats, those close finishes might have been Tour victories for the clean competitors like Cadel. When he did finally triumph in 2011 as the oldest man to win the GC, it should have felt like the dawn of a new era of clean athletes and transparency. Instead, a lengthy and ongoing appeal process hung over 2010 champion Alberto Contador during that race, not to mention the spectacle of Lance Armstrong's last Tour before his second and final retirement. It felt like the villains were still running wild and the few remaining heroes of professional cycling were about to disappear, and with them, the sport altogether.

Such has been Froome's domination of this year's Tour so far, that he can toy with his opponents at will

Watching the tail end of Stage 15 on Sunday night, I saw something that made me bolt upright on my couch, cutting through the years of malaise to more innocent days. The yellow jersey group were settled in at a steady pace coming up on 15km to go as they ascended up the final climb of a grueling day filled with climbs. Just as Liggett was remarking that it looked like there'd be no change in the overall classification, a sudden jab. Chris Froome cut out to the left like he was about to charge... only to pause and look over each shoulder at those behind him. He was sounding them out with a fake attack. More than that, he was calling them out, as if to say 'I am in the lead and yet I'm the one who attacks – what are you going to do? What can you do?'

Seventh placed Australian Richie Porte answered in an interview afterwards: not much. "When it looked like [Nairo] Quintana was going to attack he [Froome] threw a little dummy attack in and that just quietened everybody down," he said. "It wasn't so bad the last time up it but the second last time up was, I mean, everybody was on their limit..." Such has been Froome's domination of this year's Tour so far, that he can toy with his opponents at will. In fact some would argue he's encountered more resistance from the spectators this year, and he's handled them – or rather elbowed them – as well as he can.

Froome emerged in the shadow of one of cycling's great characters, the dapper mod from London known as Le Gentleman, Sir Bradley Wiggins, riding as a super-domestique for Wiggins and playing a large part in helping him secure his 2012 Tour victory. In many ways he was the polar opposite of the flashy media darling, quiet, reserved, uncomfortable in front of the camera. They made for a formidable team, but everyone could see over the course of that year's Tour that Froome was good enough to win a Tour de France himself – including Wiggins, who felt disrespected by a Froome breakaway during a late mountain stage of that tour that he perceived to be an act of rebellious audition for the lead role. The simmering tensions came to a head in 2013 when the pair clashed over which of them should be the lead rider for Team Sky, with Wiggins initially saying he expected Froome to support his defence of the title, only to be undercut when the team decided Froome was their man.

But if there were doubts about the wisdom of the move at the time, Froome has done everything in his power since getting his shot to prove them unfounded. He went onto win the 2013 Tour, securing it with a brilliant Stage 15 pursuit and counterattack of the main contenders climbing the hallowed Mount Ventoux. He crashed out the next year but came back to contest a nail bitingly close 2015 Tour against Columbian rival Nairo Quintana, and though he held the yellow jersey from Stage 7 until Paris, he had to hold off Quintana nipping at his heals all the way to the Champs-Élysées for a slim victory of +1'12''.

Image via Instagram user @letourdefrance

Froome is already in an elite group of multiple Tour winners but he boldly declared in October his goal to win the Tour, Olympic Road Race and Olympic Time Time in 2016. It's been a long time since pro cycling has had that sort of aggressiveness and audacity, and Froome has become comfortable and confident enough to play the role of superstar. But of course, the past weighs heavy in cycling and there are shadows cast over anyone achieving the sort of success Froome has, including by the biggest shadow of all.

It's impossible to watch a cyclist demonstrate this sort of brilliance now without thinking about how many times we'd seen something like that before, only to later be told what we were seeing was an illusion. During the 2015 Tour, rumours of mechanical advantages and blood doping were rife in the French media. During Stage 14, a spectator threw urine on Froome. His teammate at the time Richie Porte revealed he'd been punched by a fan. In a sport that prides itself on letting the fans get close to the action, Team Sky were trying to operate within an angry mob. But they still were able to persevere and succeed in that crucible. Froome would later credit the relentless abuse to creating a siege mentality that helped his team win, like some sort of cycling LeBron James. That's exactly what cycling needs him to be: a figure of greatness that will sustain rivalries, captivate viewers with famous performances, create storylines and bring back the fans. He's already been turned into a meme this Tour, so he's on track.

Tuesday is a rest day. If you've missed the Tour up until this point, it's an excellent time to jump in. It all boils down to three mountain stages and what should be a fascinatingly unusual 17km individual time trial up Côte des Chozeaux. The gap between Froome and his rivals is solid but not insurmountable: they will have ample opportunities for to attack and breakaway over the mountains and possibly steal seconds in the time trial. But as we've already seen, Froome has been asking the questions and threatening to run away with the victory, quite literally. He's not just fighting his peers, he's fighting cyling's past. We'll see on Sunday if he can win the fight for cycling's future.

Wade is a writer living in Perth. Follow him on Twitter.