Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo by SWpix.com
Four years after his career-threatening crash, the four-time Tour de France winner returns to the mountain where he made his name
Ten years on from his career-defining win on Mont Ventoux during the 2013 Tour de France, Chris Froome returns to the ‘Giant of Provence,’ in the fifth edition of the CIC Mont Ventoux, next Tuesday. The one-day race features two ascents of the mountain, the first from Sault, the second, on what is generally depicted as the classic ascent, from Bédoin.
Froome is one of the handful of big name riders signed up for the mountain race, which falls just 48 hours after the Critérium du Dauphiné ends in Grenoble. But the British rider has a chequered relationship with the French mountain.
In 2013, his barnstorming solo win, coming so soon after Lance Armstrong’s confession to doping, stoked a media firestorm and provoked bitterness among French fans and media. In 2016, after the route was truncated, due to high winds at the summit, he was one of a lead group taken down by a stalled motorbike and forced to run most of the way to the finish line, after his team car was blocked by massive crowds.
Now 38, Froome’s standing in the peloton seems uncertain. Since his crash in the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2019, he has been a distant figure, coming in and out focus. That period seemed finally to be over though in last year’s Tour de France, when his third place finish on Alpe d’Huez, behind a flying Tom Pidcock, suggested that he may finally have rediscovered his best climbing form.
But this season he has again been anonymous.
He has ridden three stage races since January, with his best finish by far being 14th in the recent Mercan’Tour Classic one-day race, won by Richard Carapaz. Otherwise, it has been a stuttering season so far, with Froome placed 117th in the Tour Down Under, 24th in the Tour of Rwanda, 97th in the Tour de Romandie.
Of his contemporaries from the 2013 Tour de France, most — except the rider who chased him up the Ventoux, Nairo Quintana, whose future still remains unclear — are retired, although Jakob Fuglsang, also 38, is still racing alongside Froome at Israel-Premier Tech. Given their public profile, you would expect both riders to start cycling’s marquee event, the Tour de France, on July 1st, despite recent results.
Their team’s website describes Froome as a ‘GC rider,’ as it does both Fuglsang and Domenico Pozzovivo, now 40. But as we saw at the Giro, the team does have young talent, such as Derek Gee, whose exploits in the corsa rosa probably gained the sponsor more column inches than Froome or Fuglsang in recent years.
To his great credit, Froome, even in his heyday when he was endlessly taunted and provoked by fans and media, remains the personification of ‘sang-froid.’ Only very rarely was there any flash of anger in his eyes, with much of that being expressed instead by those around him. After his win on the Ventoux in 2013 was pored over by a disbelieving media and cliques of armchair analysts, seeking proof of performance enhancement, Froome grew cold and his attitude towards the media hardened.
The same happened every season after that, culminating in the near feeding frenzy of 2018, when the salbutamol controversy surrounding him shadowed the Giro d’Italia’s Grande Partenza in Jerusalem, just as Team Sky’s many achievements were being raked over in Britain by an increasingly hostile establishment.
In response, Froome did what he always did, by fuelling the scepticism even further with an extraordinary performance in the three-week race. Largely written off after a disastrous start, he responded with his legs and with the support of sports director Nico Portal to win the Giro after a seemingly-crazy lone wolf attack on the Colle delle Finestre.
So even when he crashed in 2019, much was still expected of him, despite the severity of his injuries and the time needed for rehabilitation. Like Tiger Woods, after his life-threatening car crash, it has looked at times to be a real struggle for Froome. He continually talks himself up and insists he can still be competitive, even as many wonder why he still carries on. Yet he is still the only rider in the peloton to have won all three of Europe’s Grand Tours.
“Racing my bike still gives me a lot of joy and happiness,” he told cyclingnews.com earlier this year. “And as long as that’s the case, I’m going to keep striving to get back to my old ways. It’d be massive to win a race in 2023, any race.”
But perhaps it’s more than that. He has been doubted, mocked, lampooned. It’s left its mark and there’s no doubt that he is a fighter, self-reliant, maybe stubborn too. Even after all the success, perhaps, he still feels like he has a point to prove.
“I’ve often been criticised over the years that I’m a one-trick pony, I only race in a certain way, I only sit behind my team mates and ride off the train,” he said in 2021.
So he needs to win again, just once more, just to make the point. The top of the Ventoux, ten years after the stage win that defined his Grand Tour career, would be a good place to do it.