Adam Yates returns to the Tour de France as a contender after his experience two years ago but will still be racing as an ‘underdog’, according to Mitchelton-Scott sports director Matt White.
Yates rode the 2016 Tour as a 23-year-old simply seeking to gain experience, but the Bury rider started strong and kept it going all the way to Paris to finish fourth overall, taking the white jersey as the best young rider in the race.
With that under his belt, and after his twin brother Simon’s long spell in the leader’s pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia in May, nobody is overlooking Yates this time around but both he and his team insist they have not changed their approach.
“A couple of years ago it was a little bit different because it was my first time riding (for the general classification),” Yates said. “Now, two years later, I’ve got a lot more experience, I’ve raced the same guys all year, every year.
“You get a feel for them, a feel for yourself and you’re a bit more confident in where you are with your ability. Personally for me nothing really changes, you’re just a little bit more confident.”
If the plucky underdog tag worked last time around, White is keen to keep it attached two years on.
“I still think we are the underdogs,” the Australian said. “We’re not the favourites to win the Tour de France, that’s for sure. It’s still Chris (Froome), it’s still Tom (Dumoulin) and the guys that have won Grand Tours.
“But we’re definitely in the category where we’re coming to challenge. The mentality of the team hasn’t changed from last year or from two years ago.
“We have a clear goal. When you’ve never ridden the Tour de France for the GC, you’re 23, we didn’t come here with a clear goal (two years ago) until it was presented to us. Until you do it once, it’s just called potential.
“There are lots of people walking around with potential. Until you ride a Tour for GC you don’t know if those guys are capable of doing it. Once they’ve done it, you know and that’s the position we’re in now.”
The yellow jersey is likely to be won in the mountains in weeks two and three, but could be lost in a tough opening week, with much focus put on the cobblestone sections late on stage nine to Roubaix on July 15.
Most General Classification hopefuls are eyeing the stage warily, but Yates insisted it held no fear for him.
“I’ve reconned it three times, and to be honest I rode quite a few cobbles as an under-23 and junior,” he said. “It’s not new to me. Obviously it’s a bit different on a big stage, with more expert riders around.
“It’s more about positioning and the winds beforehand, that could be more of a problem. Once we’re actually on the cobbles I’m pretty confident.
“I’ve got a super-strong team around me. Everyone’s a big unit except (Mikel) Nieve and me so I’ve got a big team to lead me into the sectors. We’ll hope for good luck and we can get through clean.”
Froome was booed by French crowds when he appeared at the Tour’s team presentation in La Roche-sur-Yon on Thursday night with the rest of the Team Sky squad, days after the UCI closed its anti-doping investigation into him, on Monday.
Although Froome is now in the clear following the presumed adverse analytical finding he returned en route to victory at the Vuelta a Espana last September, there are still fears he will face a hostile reception on French roads this month, and Thursday’s events only served to heighten them.
No doubt seeking to quell the lingering distrust among some French fans, Froome wrote a column outlining the basic details of his case.
“An abnormal reading for my asthma medication from last year’s Vuelta in Spain raised legitimate questions – not least from me,” Froome wrote.
“Monday’s decision from cycling’s governing body the UCI and from WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) confirmed that I had done nothing wrong. I hope that this helps lift the shadow of doubt. Most importantly it draws a line that allows us all to focus on bike racing.
“That said I recognise there are complex issues involved that cannot be boiled down into a single sentence. I know the French public are fair minded. I know many of you will not have been following the detail of the case so I wanted to set out the facts very simply so you can reach your own judgments.”
Salbutamol is an asthma treatment, and Froome used the column to outline his history of suffering from asthma since childhood, and of managing his medication as a professional athlete.
“I know exactly what the rules are and how many puffs I am allowed to take,” he wrote. “I also know I am going to be tested at the end of every stage when I am in the leader’s jersey – indeed, I was tested 23 times during the Vuelta. And it is also worth pointing out that there is no performance benefit from using an asthma inhaler. It is purely a medical treatment.”
Froome’s case would have ordinarily remained confidential until it was determined whether the reading returned in Spain constituted an anti-doping violation, but the story was leaked – via Le Monde – in December.
“Of course when that happened it was inevitable that some people would rush to judgement,” Froome wrote. “It is always difficult for someone who knows they have done nothing wrong to have their integrity questioned. That said I am a realist. I know the history of the sport, good and bad – and I would be the last to complain about scrutiny.”
The long wait between details of the case becoming known in December and Monday’s resolution caused much angst within cycling. Froome continued to compete, as per his right, and won the Giro d’Italia in May to hold all three Grand Tour jerseys at the same time, even as the UCI president David Lappartient and several of his rivals called on him to voluntarily step aside until it was over.
Froome was adamant throughout he had done nothing wrong and would be exonerated, and in his column he repeated the message he has delivered since riding to his first Tour victory in 2013.
“I meant it when I stood on the podium on the Champs Elysee and said I would never dishonour the yellow jersey and my results would stand the test of time,” he wrote.
“I won’t – and they will. I love this sport. I am passionate about the Tour. To win any race based on a lie would for me be a personal defeat. I could never let that happen.
“Like everyone I am counting down the hours until the Tour starts. The Grand Depart is one of my favourite days of the year. It’s the moment when the whole of France starts to create the unique magic that is the Tour.
“And I can’t wait to compete again on cycling’s most beautiful stage in front of its most passionate fans.”
Cavendish is already the most successful sprinter in the history of the Tour, and needs four more stage wins to match the 34 achieved by Merckx.
But as he arrives in France for the start of his 12th Tour, Cavendish recognises he is no longer the rider that won 20 stages in the space of four years between 2008 and 2011.
That younger, more edgy Cavendish is gone.
“I’m 33 with four kids at home,” he said.
But also gone is the rider who won four stages in 2016 before leaving the Tour early to focus on the Rio Olympics.
That version of Cavendish disappeared last summer, when he suffered a broken shoulder in a stage-four crash with world champion Peter Sagan, who was controversially disqualified. The shoulder was surgically repaired, but will never be fully fixed.
“I can’t really put the weight on it to get so far over the handlebars as I did, I can’t pull on the handlebars like I did,” Cavendish said.
“I’m not the first person to have an injury. You try and deal with it and I’ll make sure I’m stronger elsewhere in my body.”
That crash in Vittel has been part of a catalogue of setbacks for Cavendish over the past 18 months, from the Epstein-Barr virus that almost prevented him starting the Tour at all last year, to his somersault over a central reservation in Milan-Sanremo earlier this year or his farcical crash at the Abu Dhabi Tour, caused by the automated brakes on an officials’ car.
There have been so many tumbles that Cavendish felt moved to defend his bike handling.
“Two crashes in a year is not too bad,” he said, perhaps discounting the one caused by a mechanical failure at Tirreno-Adriatico. “Some guys crash more than that in a race, but that’s something that the mainstream press don’t really dwell on.”
Saturday’s opening stage from Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile to Fontenay-le-Comte offers the prospect – if crosswinds do not interfere on the Vendee coastline – of a sprint finish, and with it the chance for a sprinter to don the yellow jersey.
That is something Cavendish did for the only time in his career to date two years ago with victory at Utah Beach in Normandy, but the opportunity of a repeat will not change his approach this weekend.
“We’ll try our best for sure, obviously it’s always nice when a sprinter gets an opportunity to get the yellow jersey,” he said. “But the yellow jersey won’t change our approach. It’s a stage and we’ll try to win that stage.”
Yellow is a target already ticked off for Cavendish – now it is all about catching Merckx.
“In terms of races I can physically win, I’ve pretty much done everything” he said. “(Merckx) is really the only target I have left. It seems so close yet it is a big distance away.
“I always say one stage makes a rider’s career, let alone multiple stages or multiple stages in multiple years. It’s harder than it looks but fortunately I’m in a place with Team Dimension Data where they trust I’ll do everything I can to do it and they support me, and put a team behind me to do it.
“If it’s not this year so be it, but I’ll try to get it before the end of my career, that’s for sure.”