By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - French great Bernard Hinault believes Chris Froome could target a sweep of all three Grand Tours next year -- a feat previously assumed to be mission impossible in cycling.
That is what it might take, however, if Froome is to finally force himself into the wider consciousness of a British public still strangely nonplussed by his pedalling prowess.
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"Froome is definitely the champion of his generation," Hinault, who did the double in 1978, said in The Times. "He dominates, he leads the field. He adapts his style depending on his rivals."
Hinault thinks Froome could end all the arguments if he took on the Giro, Tour and Vuelta next year. "I even think it's possible to win the three grand tours," he said.
Froome has already said a fifth Tour de France is his priority next season but left the door open for cycling equivalent of the "grand slam".
"A fifth Tour would be the golden prize. But at the same time, who knows?" he said. "It is a risk, definitely, because you are always going to be on that knife edge physically."
On Sunday Team Sky rider Froome was confirmed as the winner of the Vuelta -- reckoned to be tougher this year than the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France -- becoming the first Briton to complete the race in the red jersey.
It came just 49 days after standing on top of the podium in the yellow jersey in Paris, having claimed a fourth Tour de France title to become the first man since Spain's Miguel Indurain to win three in a row.
Froome is only the third rider to win the Tour and Vuelta in the same year but the first to do so since the Vuelta was moved to later into the furnace-like Spanish summer.
To do it involved a total ride of 6,862km over 73 mountain summits and 165 hours in the saddle.
Yet despite his superhuman efforts Froome's achievement will not resonate around Britain in the same way Andy Murray's two Wimbledon titles or Mo Farah's world and Olympic golds did.
"I'm not going to hold my breath," Froome said when asked whether he might make the shortlist for the BBC's prestigious Sports Personality having been overlooked last year.
Froome's natural modesty and the fact that the respect of those within cycling -- fellow riders and fans who follow the sport closely -- counts more to him than celebrity status means he is unlikely to lose sleep.
Yet it is curious that Britain has not taken the Kenya-born cyclist to its heart like Belgium-born Bradley Wiggins when he became the first Briton to win the Tour in 2012.
Showman Wiggins was not shy of the spotlight and knew how to celebrate, whereas father-of-one Froome comes across as the kind of guy who would settle for a quiet glass of wine and night in.
Question marks about Team Sky's reputation following a UK Anti-Doping investigation into a "jiffy bag" delivered to Wiggins at the 2011 Dauphine remain, with Wiggins's former team mate Froome inevitably dragged into the debate despite no suggestion of any wrongdoing on his part.
In fact, French fans, some of whom threw urine at him at the 2015 Tour in response to suggestions he was doping, have been won over by Froome's class, on and off the bike.
Froome just gets on with the business of riding his bike longer and harder than anyone else.
And while his head-bobbing style upsets the purists and the smothering tactics of the relentless Team Sky domestiques attract scorn, Froome has to be regarded alongside the all-time greats and possibly above Alberto Contador despite the Spaniard's seven Grand Tour wins.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Jon Boyle)