PARIS • A relieved Chris Froome embarks on the Tour de France today, but an army of detractors, an array of talented rivals and a course that does not quite suit him stand in the way of a fifth title.
Organisers lifted a ban on Froome taking part on Monday after he was finally cleared by Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), cycling's world governing body, of doping suspicions linked to his use of asthma medication.
A bullish Froome said he was delighted to be back on course for a record-equalling fifth title, but organisers felt the need to warn against violence along the three-week course and issue a plea to spectators to respect Froome and his Sky Team.
Froome, however, was roundly booed on his first meeting with the French public on Thursday when Sky took the stage for the official presentation of the teams, and during a 1km jaunt around the small town of La Roche-sur-Yon.
A host of Froome's rivals have urged local fans to treat him with respect, but the advice seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
The jeering will not necessarily surprise Froome, however. He and his Sky team have never been embraced in France, as evidenced more starkly when urine was thrown at the Briton while racing towards his second Tour title in 2015.
Although there was an element of pantomime to the cat-calling, the fear is that once racing gets under way, Froome and his team-mates will become highly vulnerable.
Crowds tend to be much more badly behaved in the mountains, especially up Alpe d'Huez, where tens of thousands of spectators will be within throwing, touching or spitting distance of the riders.
One of Froome's harshest critics, Romain Bardet, on Thursday implored his countrymen to refrain from any action which would sully the Tour's standing.
"It is important that the Tour de France starts in a calm climate," the French rider for AG2R La Mondiale said, stressing that Froome should be "accepted and above all, respected by everyone - the riders, all the stakeholders, the public".
It is important that the Tour de France starts in a calm climate. (Froome should be) accepted and above all, respected by everyone - the riders, all the stakeholders, the public.
ROMAIN BARDET, French rider and Froome critic, urging his countrymen to refrain from action that would sully the Tour.
He added: "I'm happy the UCI has given an opinion and made a decision on (the salbutamol case). Chris Froome suffered this situation for nine months, as did the world of cycling - we all suffered from that."
Officials have drafted in around 30,000 agents to cope with security concerns and deal with the ever-present risk of terrorism as well as protecting the riders.
The three-week Tour is, as Irish rider Dan Martin of UAE Team Emirates described, "a tale of two halves" this year, with a flattish first part featuring treacherous cobbles and crosswinds, followed by six mountain and four hilly stages packed into the latter part of the 3,351km route.
To compound the added tests facing Froome, route designer Thierry Gouvenou said the switch between the flat and the mountains "is perhaps the greatest challenge of this Tour".
Britain's Mark Cavendish, who has 30 stage wins, said it was, in his opinion, the "hardest Tour route ever seen" and doubted he would make it to the mountains.
Stages where the sloggers will thrive
Five of the potentially decisive stages in this year's Tour de France, which sets off today:
STAGE 3: AROUND CHOLET, 35.5KM TEAM TIME TRIAL
Chris Froome's Team Sky wilted at last September's Bergen world team time trial, as the 2017 Giro d'Italia winner Dutchman Tom Dumoulin led Sunweb to victory over the 45km route.
This one is shorter, and Sky will have thought long and hard about the team make-up in a tactical balance between their power riders and the lightweight climbers they would need for the slog though the mountains.
STAGE 9: ARRAS TO ROUBAIX, 156.5KM
Pure climbers will be fretting about their eventual place on the podium when they look at this one. With 21km of cobbles, the power and endurance required will suit middleweight riders.
It starts and ends early to avoid clashing with the World Cup final in Moscow on July 15.
STAGE 12: BOURG-ST-MAURICE TO ALPE D'HUEZ, 175.5KM
Not one, not two but three feared climbs as this Alpine stage tackles the Col de la Madeleine, the Col de la Croix de Fer and the Alpe d'Huez's 21 mythical turns to an eagerly awaited summit finish.
With almost 71km of climbing in all, defending champion Froome believes the Tour can be won or lost here and likes the look of it.
STAGE 17: BAGNERES-DE-LUCHON TO ST-LARY-SOULAN COL DE PORTET, 65 KM
A short, sharp ride which Tour organisers believe is thoroughly attackable terrain, with a beautiful backdrop and summit finish at 2,215m.
At that height, oxygen is rarefied and this is where only the pure climbers will thrive.
STAGE 20: ST-PEE-SUR-NIVELLE TO ESPELETTE, 31KM INDIVIDUAL TIME TRIAL
Four-time winner Froome and Dumoulin, both solid climbers and good time triallists if they can get this far, are already on many people's minds when they look at this penultimate stage of the Tour.
A 31km, on-your-own, uphill slog faces all pretenders to the title, the podium and the top 10.
This year's race also lacks the kind of long, flat individual time trial where four-time winner Froome often pulverises his opponents, programming instead a medium size time trial in the mountains, where a string of climbers, who would usually lose time to Froome, may actually beat him.
Tour organisers have also reduced the team size, which has been seen as a way of unlocking Sky's stranglehold on the Tour.
Froome can settle many scores if he can parade past an expected 12 million roadside spectators to join the pantheon of five-time winners - Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain - on the Champs Elysees in three weeks' time.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE TIMES, LONDON