In the years that I spent racing collegiately, there was one school, a rare cycling varsity program, that drove to races all over the midwest conference in a greyhound bus. Their bikes went below, they had racks to hang their bikes from outside the bus, a tent to provide shelter from the elements while warming up. Our racing season started in late February, and even when it started in Kentucky, it was still cold every weekend, frequently rainy, and always a threat of even more inclement winter weather. Whilst we huddled around cars or crammed into back seats, contorting our bodies around bags of clothing and food, we looked over at laughing figures inside the warm bus with envy and feelings a bit darker than that. All the non-varsity riders in the conference called the bus the Death Star and Marian's riders - who won most races - were the evil empire. Every weekend we plotted how to foil the plans of the seemingly unstoppable forces in blue.
When I think about Sky in this year's Tour de France, I cannot help but think back to those frigid springs and our attempts to overcome the stranglehold of a superior team. The British outfit comes into this year's Tour with the hands down favorite Chris Froome, who has won four of the five stage races he started this season. In the other - a cold, wet, and treacherous Tirreno - Adriatico that was poorly suited for his favored style of racing - he finished second. Froome's number one lieutenant, Richie Porte, is in his own right a podium threat. The Team Sky bus is loaded with amenities that skyrocket its value over that of other teams' transportation. If this were a playground, we would call Sky and their tactics bullies. Now, we just call it oppressive racing. When an opponent is so powerful, it is difficult to meet them on in full force, to beat them at their own game. Instead, you must undercut them, trick them, put them off balance. This is what teams of other contenders will be trying to do to Sky this year. But how can they, with this year's route?
We can start by looking at what Sky does well, which is to control racing. In Bradley Wiggins' Tour campaign last year, Sky was always on the front going into the major climbs. As the markers on the side of the road ticked down towards the final kilometer of a climb, it was not uncommon for Wiggins' lieutenants to almost equal the numbers of podium contenders in the lead group. In Froome's four wins this year, the strategy has been the same - put a stranglehold on racing by riding at the tipping point of what efforts are and are not sustainable. Yes, there were attacks, but they were usually drawn back into the fold five or ten minutes later. Cadel Evans and Vincenzo Nibali both tried bold moves more than one climb from the finish, but Sky's workers predictably drew them back into the fold in a controlled manner.
The wide roads of France lend themselves easily to this strategy, which explains Sky's success in the Criterium Dauphiné, Paris-Nice, and the Tour of Oman. In Italy, though, the roads twist and turn and are much narrower, making control of the peloton harder to achieve. Froome's campaign to win Tirreno - Adriatico in March fell apart on perhaps the hardest day to control, a lengthy march through incessant rain over sharp climbs and twisty descents. Here is where Vincenzo Nibali came into his element, distancing Froome and gaining enough time to win the overall despite Froome's seemingly superior strength both up hills and in the time trial.
It seems, then, that one of the things other podium contenders must do to defeat the seemingly most powerful rider is to throw both him and his team off balance, to sow the seeds of chaos and disorder in the peloton and isolate Froome (and his teammate and podium contender Richie Porte) from the team that gives them strength. Opportunities to do so are few and far between in this year's Tour, but three stages stand out. The first two dash around the twisty, narrow roads of Corsica on Stages 2 and 3, which have few meters of flat or straight road. Time gaps gained here are likely to be minimal, if they occur at all due to the strength of not only Sky but also Cannondale, who will be trying to keep things together for Peter Sagan to win the likely reduced group sprint. But if the day is hard enough, tactically astute and aggressive riders like Cadel Evans can strike a small blow here, especially on the third stage. In the first week of the Tour, psychological warfare may offer other contenders a chance to start dismantling the Sky hegemony early on.
The best opportunity, though, comes on Stage 18 and its double ascent of the Alpe d'Huez. The climb is wide enough for Sky to do its thing, but the descent of the Col de Sarenne is narrow and harrowing, a perfect launchpad for Cadel Evans or Alberto Contador if they are feeling frisky. The descent ends mere kilometers from the start of the final climb up l'Alpe, limiting Sky's ability to regain control over the race. What can be gained here? Time gaps will not be huge, especially with a second climb up l'Alpe, but I can foresee an enterprising rider taking least thirty seconds here.
The roots of disorder are not limited to geography and narrow roads, though, as Froome learned in last year's Vuelta a España. There, he faced a trio of Spanish riders - Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodríguez, and Alberto Contador - seemingly united in an attempt to relegate him to being a distant threat before they began to race amongst themselves. In order to crack Froome, contenders will have to form an ad-hoc alliance on the road, working together against a common cause because if Froome does not crack, he likely wins the Tour. The Spanish Armada is racing the Tour again, and they may be able to work together in the first weeks of the Tour, but what of the others? Will Pierre Rolland be similarly aggressive, and more importantly will Sky consider any lone rider a sufficient threat to expend energy containing? Will Valverde be given some rope to play with, denying Contador and Rodríguez the opportunity to counter him? Much rides on this on a route that offers less room for improvisation than aggressive riders surely desire.
If the riders let him, Christopher Froome will win the Tour. Few dispute this fact, especially seeing his performance - as well as his teammates' - in last year's Grande Boucle. It will take concerted action to chip away at the foundation of a victory by a rider in Black, a three week long insurgency will have to take place. Whether riders decide to race this way is beyond our control, and even the most aggressive, opportunistic racing may not be enough. Froome may have more tricks up his sleeve, more ability to deal with the unexpected than his teammate Bradley Wiggins. I hope this is the year we find out.