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Tour de France: Chris Froome faces his toughest challenge

In a way, when Chris Froome takes to the Tour de France start line at Noirmoutier-en-lIle in the west of the country on Saturday he will have already won.

After nine months of conjecture, criticism and doubt the 33-year-old Team Sky rider had his anti-doping case dropped by cyclings world governing body, the UCI, on Monday. With it the Briton was granted the opportunity to continue his grand tour dominance and compete for a record-equalling fifth Le Tour title.

The investigation into his use of asthma drug salbutamol was drawn out; its conclusion came in time to exonerate Froome, but its arrival on the eve of cyclings biggest race also ensures it will colour whatever follows.

Read more: Froome's Italian exploits must not be tarnished by Spanish salbutamol saga

Froome is relieved to have been cleared, but equally knows there will be little solace in the saddle.

“Im drawing a line in the sand here and focusing on the three weeks ahead,” he said on Wednesday. “Im extremely relieved and its a huge weight off my shoulders going into this years Tour, which is going to be the biggest challenge of my career.”

Hes right there. If the Tour de France wasnt already hard enough, Froomes public anti-doping case, which centred around a contested adverse urine sample on 7 September at the Vuelta a Espana and showed more than the allowed 1,000-nanogram per millilitre measure of salbutamol, has muddied the waters.

As ever Froome will compete against rival riders as he looks for an extraordinary fourth consecutive grand tour win. But this year he is also set to battle a litany of exterior factors.

“There is a lot of confusion around the whole case,” Dr Paul Dimeo, author of The Anti-Doping Crisis in Sport, told City A.M. “Froome has a cloud hanging over him.”

Although the UCI and the World Anti-Doping Agency accepted there was no breach, the timing of the cases conclusion, the level of scrutiny applied and cyclings chequered history has attracted cynicism.

Sir Dave Brailsford has overcome the controversy surrounding the jiffy bag saga to stay at the top of Team Sky (Source: Getty)

Team Sky team principal Sir Dave Brailsford, who has been widely criticised for his handling of the Bradley Wiggins jiffy bag debacle in the last 18 months, is experienced in handling such situations.

“The shadow of doubt shouldnt exist if we trust in our authorities,” he said on Wednesday. But thats part of the problem, according to Dimeo, who believes the way the case has been handled by the UCI and Wada has amplified its severity.

Froomes rival, Team Sunwebs Tom Dumoulin, agrees. “Im not blaming Froome,” he said on Wednesday. “Hes been cleared. Its how the whole case has been handled, which is just a mess. Its really unfortunate. Its not what cycling needs. Its ruining the reputation of cycling and fans are probably walking away from the sport because of this.”

Rightly or wrongly, Froome, cyclings biggest star, sits in the eye of a storm on the eve of the sports biggest event.

Now not only does he have to prepare himself for over 2,000 miles, 21 stages and 26 climbs, he has to deal with the media and potentially hostile fans.

UCI president David Lappartient has appealed to spectators to “respect the judicial decision” and allow Froome to “compete in a safe and serene environment”, but the fact that he is asking at all highlights the problem.

Froome has endured abuse, having urine thrown at him and people running alongside his bike dressed as asthma inhalers in the past, so he should be prepared.

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French spectators are likely to five Chris Froome a hostile reception (Source: Getty)

“Hes undoubtedly going to get a hostile reception, but theres nothing new in that,” ITV4s Tour de France commentator Ned Boulting told City A.M. “The hostility towards Froome stems right back to 2013 and has its origins in Frances inability to win its own race. Each year just adds to the frustration and that provides a fertile breeding ground for any seeds of suspicion about any impropriety or doping to flourish.

“Unfortunately for Froome I dont think being cleared by the UCI will make the slightest bit of difference. In fact, itll make it worse, because now he has the gall and effrontery to be at our race.”

Team Sky are certainly not taking any chances. Joining the media at Froomes pre-Tour press conference on Wednesday were the gendarmerie, additional security and a personal bodyguard. With emotions running high he is expected be the subject of ire.

“Hes been cleared to race so hopefully people behave themselves,” former Team Sky rider and now Eurosports international cycling expert Juan Antonio Flecha told City A.M. “But we didnt see any of that [hostility] in the Giro dItalia.”

While the atmosphere on the road can be somewhat predicted, the way Froome handles the media in the claustrophobic confines of the event may change.

“Froome will be obliged to speak to the media every single day, before and after every stage, but I wouldnt be surprised to see him withdrawing from that position and becoming increasingly defensive,” says Boulting, who will be covering his 16th consecutive Tour.

“In the early years he did try to win over hearts and minds. He conducted interviews in French and was extremely diplomatic, but I have noticed over the course of the salbutamol issue a hardening in his words and bearing.

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Chris Froome produced a remarkable burst on stage 19 to breakaway and secure the Giro d'Italia in May (Source: Getty)

“I think hes become a man who, to some extent at least, no longer cares about the PR side of things. Hes simply hunting records now while in the form of his life. I think hes stopped caring.”

Froome may have stopped caring about how people view him, but he still cares deeply about winning. Thats why, despite all hes been through, the Briton is the clear outright favourite with the bookmakers.

“Hes back doing what he knows how to do: winning cycling races,” says Flecha. “The challenges are the same as in the past. He faces a lot of mountains, a couple of time trials and a lot of good riders.”

“He is favourite, but he faces his strongest ever opposition,” adds Boutling. “If hes going to win, hes going to have to win differently to the last four times.”

If Team Sky can foster a siege mentality in the face of hysteria and if Froome can reproduce the jaw-dropping form which saw him win Mays Giro dItalia, then you wouldnt put it past him overcoming the biggest challenge of his career to claim a fifth Tour de France title on 29 July.

Ned is ITV4's Tour de France commentator. Coverage starts on Saturday at 9.30am.

He is touring in Autumn 2018 with the all-new theatrical cycling show Tour de Ned at 21 venues across the UK: nedboulting.com

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