Chris Froome may have told The Times of his intention to target the Tour de France "for the next six or seven years" but he will not hand back-to-back Tour wins to Britain this summer, according to one cycling legend whose dulcet Irish tones are familiar to anyone with access to Eurosport's superb cycling coverage on TV.
Speaking at a special Tour de France preview lunch hosted by Eurosport in central London on Thursday, four-time green jersey winner Sean Kelly told this here humble internet cycling blogger that he had made the calculation and was tipping Spain's Alberto Contador for the general classement of the fast-approaching Tour – as opposed to the man who rode to his fourth overall win of the season in the Criterium du Dauphine last Sunday.
Somewhere between the chilli crab cakes starter and grilled calves liver main at a suitably Parisian-style restaurant in London's glitzy West End, Saddles, before quaffing large sips of vintage Bordeaux, asked Eurosport analyst Kelly if he felt Froome's consistently brilliant performances this year had made him the outright favourite for the yellow jersey in Paris.
"No, no, no," came the answer – with a smile, a shake of the head and a sparkle in the eye.
"Froome may have the results to back him up but sometimes it's hard to maintain such a level throughout the season," said Kelly, whose own celebrated stamina will see him notch up 87 hours of live commentary for Eurosport during the course of the three-week race. That's a lot of bonification for everyone involved.
"Being the in-form rider can act against you because the expectation is high. With Contador, he's slowly riding back to his best. What's more, he knows how to win the Tour."
Kelly does know his stuff but the one argument of "knowing how to win the Tour" is a tired one. Wiggins didn't know how to win the Tour last year, but duly did so. While Cadel Evans certainly knows how to win the Tour, but in all likelihood won't do so come Paris.
In fact, Evans and Contador will be the only previous Tour winners taking to the start in Corsica – although after last year's showing, there's definitely an argument for including Froome in the Tour-winning category.
And while Contador may be slowly riding back to his best (with emphasis on the slowly part), he'll have to overturn a four-minute deficit to Froome from the Dauphine in a period of his career where his explosive attacks are about as rare as his continued appreciation for Basque beef.
Bertie, now a fresh-faced fossil at 30, has not won a race since beating fellow Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez to the Vuelta crown last September.
Froome Dog, on the other hand, has been lapping up the victories – so much that he's hardly not won a race since finishing fourth in Madrid last year. The 28-year-old whippet beat runner-up Contador in the Tour of Oman in February before wolfing down wins in the Criterium International, Tour de Romandie and Dauphine, as well as a hard-fought second-place finish – behind peaking Giro d'Italia victor Vincenzo Nibali but ahead of Contador – in Tirreno-Adriatico.
Like Wiggins before him, Froome's season seems destined to be capped by victory in the Grande Boucle. And where Wiggo had Froome for support in France, Froome will have the much-improved Tasmanian Richie Porte, himself winner of Paris-Nice and runner-up to his Kenyan-born friend in both the Criterium and the Dauphine.
But unlike Sir Bradley, Christopher will face the obstacle of seasoned Tour rider Alberto, whose realigned post-sanction track record in Grand Tours remains unparalleled in the peloton: he is unbeaten in all three-week stage races since 2007.
"We saw with his attacks in the mountains that Contador has the acceleration but just not the form yet to sustain it to the end," Kelly continued as we moved onto the dessert wine. "But in last year's Vuelta, Contador was very strong and I expect him to be the man to beat in the Tour."
While Kelly and Saddles moved onto a pair of double espressos, a bunch of fellow cycling scribes – the likes of ProCycling's Daniel Friebe ('Mountain High' and 'Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal'), the Daily Mail's Richard Moore ('Slaying the Badger' and 'Sky's the Limit'), Rouleur's Ian Cleverly, The Guardian's Sean Ingle, and The Sunday Times' Lional Birnie, of Cycling Anthology fame – shared various anecdotes from previous Tours while tucking into the cheeseboard and planning their driving arrangements for the opening stages this year in Corsica.
The coffees finished, Kelly went on to sing the praises of Peter Sagan, who he expects to push Mark Cavendish right to the bitter end in the battle for the green jersey.
Podium girl antics aside, Saddles asked Kelly if Sagan was a modern day incarnation of himself, to which Kelly replied in the affirmative. "Sagan is a huge talent. We saw in last year's Tour that he can win stages from sprints and from breakaways. And that he can take intermediate points in the mountains," said Kelly, adding that the Slovak youngster had the ability and talent to emulate himself and win a Grand Tour one day.
"He definitely could but the problem is that to win a Grand Tour nowadays you have to dedicate your entire season towards one goal. If Sagan was to do this, he would not be so successful in other stage races or classics – and it may not be something he's prepared to do."
Besides the returning Kelly as analyst, Eurosport's TV coverage of the 100th edition of the Tour will also include James Richardson in the studio with a panel of former cycling stars including Dan Lloyd, Magnus Backstedt and Sean Yates.
Saddles hasn't made the cut for the silver screen but he will be on a TV near you, in person and not anonymously – provided you (British viewers) have channel 513 and tune into a 10-minute Tour de France segment every evening at 8pm on France 24. Your faithful cycling blogger will still cover each stage live for Eurosport.com while providing his trademark light-hearted take on all the action with the daily Blazin' Saddles blog. Amusez-vous bien!
NEWS IN BRIEF: Gesink, Schleck and Rolland
Blanco's Robert Gesink has hit back at his critics after his recent disappointing Giro d'Italia, claiming that his record speaks for itself.
"Just look at the results," Gesink told a Dutch website while picking himself up off the floor and mending a puncture. "I started in eight Grand Tours and I've finished four times in the top ten.
"Go through this hotel once again and find a rider who has also done so. You won't fine one," the Dutchman said, hoping that Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, Samuel Sanchez, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali had checked into the Hilton next door.
"I'm f***ing 27 years old," Gesink continued. "Of course there is something wrong once, but it's not like we have to keep a magnifying glass on Robert Gesink."
He's right: Gesink's ability to wilt in the heat is far too apparent for even the most sadistic of sadists to wish inflicting further pain with a magnifying glass. That's the kind of thing Saddles, aged 10, would do to ants while on holiday in France...
Elsewhere, former top ten fixture Andy Schleck said he was "feeling better and better every day" as he bids to return to form ahead of the Tour. The Luxembourger is currently over 21 minutes down in the Tour de Suisse standings and looks set to cut the deficit to around 10 minutes by the time the Tour starts in Yorkshire in July 2014.
Finally, Europcar's Tour de France preparations have taken a nose-dive after it emerged that Thomas Voeckler's tongue contained dangerously low levels of papillae. Without the correct amount of taste buds, Voeckler's ability to savour victory would be severely tented – and a lack of saliva build up in his mouth would make things hard to swallow.
MPCC (Movement for Credible Cycling group) doctor Armand Megret has advised Europcar to pull their man from the forthcoming Route du Sud race. But early indications are that Voeckler will take to the start, waggle his tongue a bit, and then call it a day after 20km. He'll then take to Facebook for a live chat to explain his actions.
On the social media outlet, he'll join team-mate Pierre Rolland, who is currently trying to convince the world that cortisol levels can be lowered by laughing and the experience of humour. At least – that's what it says on Wikipedia.
- Sports & Recreation
- Chris Froome
- Alberto Contador
- Sean Kelly