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Rivals out to dethrone dominant Chris Froome in Tour de France as Briton seeks fourth straight title and fifth overall

Marcel Kittel, Warren Barguil, Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish line up at the start of the 2017 Le Tour de France. Photo: PA

Let us put aside, if we can, all talk of Salbutamol and adverse analytical findings.

Like it or not, Chris Froome will start the 2018 Tour de France and he will do so looking for a fourth straight title and a record-equalling fifth overall.

The Team Sky rider will arrive in the Vendee for the Grand Depart holding all three Grand Tour titles as the most dominant three-week racer of the age.

His rivals cannot race for second and hope to have the title handed to them somewhere down the line (with the question of whether or not Froome will keep any titles acquired in the meantime should the Salbutamol case go against him just another of the unanswered variety). They need to find a way to beat him on the road.

Team Sky's Chris Froome during stage 21 of the 2017 Tour de France. Credit: PA

Easier said than done. Froome has not been beaten in a Grand Tour since the 2016 Vuelta a Espana, when Nairo Quintana edged him out by 83 seconds despite Froome taking over two minutes out of him on the stage 19 time trial.

Froome had been written off in this year's Giro after a dismal first week and a second which was not much better, but after Simon Yates cracked it was Froome who came roaring back in breathtaking fashion, with an 80km solo attack on stage 19 which will long be remembered.

So how to crack Froome?

Race organisers have once again done what they can, designing a route with absolutely minimal time trialling and plenty of opportunities for the sort of chaos even Team Sky cannot control.

The cobbles of stage nine recall stage five of 2014, when Froome exited with a fractured wrist (though it is worth noting he never even made it to the first cobbled section that day), while the sprint days seemed designed to cut across prevailing winds at every opportunity to present the constant risk of echelons.

Competitors ride through the Grand Palais during the final stage of the Tour de France in Paris. Credit: PA

Then come mountain days which are of the short, sharp variety, like the 108km stage 11 to La Rosiere or the 65km stage 17 to the Col de Portet which are tough for anybody to marshall, even before Grand Tour teams were cut from nine to eight riders this year.

Perhaps Froome will crack himself - finding out exactly why nobody has done the Giro-Tour double since Marco Pantani in 1998. But he based his calculations for this season on the back of the Tour-Vuelta double last year, so we should probably assume not.

Ultimately it will be up to Froome's rivals. But all of them have burdens to carry as they head to France.

It once seemed a question of when Quintana would win the Tour but it is becoming an if. At 28, he has years left in him but the Colombian has always seemed to hesitate on the biggest stage, despite proving his Grand Tour pedigree in the Giro and the Vuelta. That needs to change with Froome likely to be as vulnerable as he has been.

British Chris Froome of Team Sky wearing the yellow jersey of overall leader. Credit: PA

Romain Bardet has a second and third place to his name in recent years and is surely France's best hope of ending a wait for a home win which has now reached 33 years. But that is a significant pressure for the 27-year-old to carry, and it is almost impossible to imagine the microscope he would find himself under if he actually wore the yellow jersey.

Then there is Richie Porte, Froome's former team-mate. There is no doubt about the Australian's quality but despite his dominance of so many one-week stage races, he is yet to hold it all together over three. At 33, time is running out.

Besides Froome, Vincenzo Nibali will be the only other man in the race who knows how it feels to stand on the top step in Paris, though his form so far in 2017 suggests he is a long shot to do so again.

With a Giro in his legs and all manner of burdens on his mind, this looks like the best opportunity to beat Froome in years. Who can be the one to stand up?

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