How Chris Froome and Team Sky Overwhelmed the Tour de France
The British rider won his fourth career Tour, with help from the best team in cycling
Team Sky rolled into Paris celebrating its fifth Tour de France victory in six years. WSJ's Joshua Robinson looks at the highs and lows of this year's Tour.
PARIS—Hints that Tour de France champion Chris Froome might be human after all seemed to be everywhere this summer. For the first time in his career, he lost the yellow jersey mid-race and had to win it back. He faltered badly in the Pyrenees. And when he crossed the finish line here on Sunday, he hadn't taken a single stage victory.
He had won the whole race, of course, because he beat his rivals by nearly a minute overall. This, he said, was the closest-fought Tour of his career. A cagey battle until the end.
But in Froome's era of dominance, this year represented something more. It was the perfect distillation of how Froome's Team Sky takes over the Tour de France. He and his cohort don't need stage wins, only relentless consistency and cold, calculated pragmatism.
"Given the course that we had this year, it was always the tactic to ride a three-week race," said Froome, 32. "Basically not to go out there one day with the aim of trying to blow the race apart and smash it for a stage win."
Christopher Froome, center, with Team Sky riders Mikel Nieve, left, and Sergio Henao, right, drink champagne. Photo: Benoit Tessier/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
They chipped away when they could and limited damage when they had to. The result was that over the 21 stages, Sky held the general classification leader's yellow jersey on 19 days—first on Geraint Thomas's shoulders and then Froome's.
"Every single day, it was everything about the GC," said Sky domestique Michał Kwiatkowski. "Not really about winning the stage or chasing the green jersey or chasing mountain points or being in the breaks. We had just one goal."
This has not been an easy year for Sky to go after that goal. Allegations of impropriety surrounding the team's use of "therapeutic use exemptions"—which permit the use of banned substances for legitimate medical purposes—landed manager Dave Brailsford in parliamentary committee hearings in the UK. Sky has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, but the outfit's image suffered in a sport that had to strip its last superteam, Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service, of seven Tour titles.
"I haven't any involvement in those and my focus was very much on getting ready for the Tour," Froome said.
In assembling its squad around him, Sky used its time-tested recipe, even if the ingredients changed. Over his four Tour triumphs Froome has relied on a succession of luxury domestiques, who were every bit as strong as he was in decisive moments. For the first title in 2013, Froome had Australian Richie Porte on his wing.
In 2015, Froome again leaned on Porte and his mountain shepherd, Wout Poels, who dragged him up the Alpe d'Huez on the Tour's penultimate day. (Porte later left to be a leader at BMC and was expected to challenge Froome this year until he crashed on a descent.) Then in 2016, Froome was delivered to Paris by Poels and Thomas.
This year, Sky put two of the most accomplished three-week riders in the world at his side for the key mountain stages: Mikel Landa and Michal Kwiatkowski. That alone would be enough to make the rest of cycling green with envy. But Sky runs so deep that it can even use other riders to protect Froome's protectors early in the race.
"So many guys helped me to help Chris," said Kwiatkowski, who dug so deep in the Alps last week that he had to stop for a break.
Their very presence is often enough to dissuade opponents from taking a shot at Froome. The men who finished this Tour second and third—Cannondale-Drapac's Rigoberto Uran and AG2R La Mondiale's Romain Bardet—were able to shadow Froome during the last mountain stages in the Alps, but had no teammates of their own to cooperate with. Froome, meanwhile, was always flanked by at least one bodyguard ready to chase down an offensive.
Could you burn through 6,000 calories in a day? That's how much energy the average Tour de France rider requires to complete each stage of the race. WSJ's Joshua Robinson takes on the challenge and goes "bite for bite" with some of this year's cyclists. Photo: Getty Images.
Bardet and Uran never had a shot to get away.
"When you have a team like Sky pulling him up, what are you going to do? Keep attacking?" said the American three-time champion Greg LeMond.
The steep slopes of France's mountain ranges is where domestiques' work is most obvious, but Froome's squad manages most stages from the very start. On flat roads, Sky's Luke Rowe and Christian Knees drive the peloton and monitor early breakaways. If the riders trying to escape the pack pose a threat to their leader, they reel them back to the pack. But if they're harmless to Froome's overall chances, they are free to knock themselves out.
Like nightclub bouncers, "they decide," Cannondale-Drapac rider Dylan van Baarle said.
Everyone on the team knows his role to perfection—they are cycling's offensive linemen grinding for their quarterback. Which is why Sky pays them handsomely out of the biggest budget in the sport, widely reported to exceed $40 million. (The less well-off teams in the top tier of cycling, operate on roughly a third of that.)
As the Tour de France nears the finish line in Paris, fatigue and general confusion have firmly set in. WSJ's Joshua Robinson quizzed riders, coaches and reporters for a little reality check.
But keeping everyone happy can be a challenge. Many of Froome's lieutenants are powerful enough to be leaders on other teams. Landa, in particular, could have run away from him at several points in the mountains. That he never committed full-on mutiny put Landa in fourth place overall and missed the podium by just one second.
He has already been clear that he will not return to the Tour as a No. 2 rider.
"He's got the engine to ride with the best in the world and he's certainly capable of coming back to contest the overall victory," Froome said of Landa.
Froome took care of business when he was alone in the time-trials, too, in Stage 1 in Düsseldorf and Stage 20 in Marseille, putting time into all of his general-classification rivals. But everywhere else, in every crucial stretch of road, Froome's white-jerseyed, yellow-helmeted protectors were laying the groundwork for a fifth Team Sky Tour win in six years.
"They have the best riders," van Baarle said. "So it's normal that they are everywhere."
Write to Joshua Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org
Appeared in the July 24, 2017, print edition as 'Team Sky Overwhelms the Tour.'