Words by Jeremy Whittle | Photo: LB/RB/CorVos/SWpix.com
Chris Froome has been in trouble before at this time of year — that’s with his racing form, just to clarify.
The Briton may still command the biggest payslip in World Tour racing, but after his latest lacklustre performance in this week’s Volta a Catalunya, many are now publicly asking if he’s an overpaid has-been. That’s a harsh verdict on a multiple Grand Tour winner, but then as so many riders say, pro racing remains a ‘what have you done for me lately?’ sport.
This week, in his first meaningful European stage race for the Israel SUN team, he is struggling again. Dropped from the peloton on day one, anonymous in Tuesday’s time trial, Froome was again blown out the back on the road to the stage three summit of Valter 2000, the first mountain finish of the week-long race.
First, here’s some context. It’s not unusual for the four-time Tour de France winner to be out of touch in March and April. It has happened before, more than once, and by the end of the Grand Tour triptych of races those results have been long forgotten.
For example, even before his Giro d’Italia win in 2018, his form was uncertain and he had the added stress of a major controversy — that of salbutamol — swirling overhead. Out on the road, tenth in the Ruta del Sol, 34th in Tirreno-Adriatico and fourth in the Tour of the Alps was hardly an insight into what was to come.
But we all know what happened next. (Just in case you don’t, he went on to win the Giro overall after a jaw-dropping lone break over the gravel hairpins of the Colle Delle Finestre to Bardonecchia).
The following year, his crash during a time trial recce at the Criterium du Dauphine had a devastating impact on a career in which he always seemed to have the Midas touch, pretty much whenever he needed it.
So the mantra goes: ‘never rule out Chris,’ which is all well and good but you have to go back to that afternoon in Bardonecchia for his last major win – and that’s almost three years ago. His track record insists that he must surely remain a Grand Tour contender, but his recent results suggest that he is now, over 20 months since his catastrophic crash, in terminal decline.
Froome will be 36 when he starts the 2021 Tour de France. Asked by a small group of reporters in Catalunya when he expected to be challenging for wins again, he said: “It’s impossible to say.”
“I had the time off the bike from the crash and then the lockdown compounded the length and time away from top-level racing,” he added. “It’s a long, old process but I am keeping my morale up and cracking on with it.”
Before the Catalan race began, he had been similarly pragmatic.
“I’m not going to be personally fighting for the victory here, I won’t be at that level yet, but I’m hoping to see some progression,” he told reporters. “I’m really just taking it one week at a time, building up and doing the best I can, see where we get to for the Tour.”
Meanwhile, as every day he loses more time and slides back through the peloton, his former teammates at Ineos Grenadiers mass at the front and fight for success. It must be a strange experience for a rider, who only three summers ago was battling for Tour de France glory with Geraint Thomas, to see his erstwhile teammate edging closer to his best form.
Who knows if — crash or no crash — age might have caught up with him anyway as a much younger generation of riders make their mark? In terms of pressure, one supposes it’s quieter than when he was with Team Sky and Team Ineos, at least for the moment, with the British mainstream media no longer poring over his every move.
But there are also examples to give Froome hope that, even at almost 36, maybe the fat lady can wait in the wings, just that little bit longer. As he slipped backwards again on the climb to Valter 2000, 40 year old Alejandro Valverde — who fractured his kneecap in July 2017 — was on the attack, duking it out with Sepp Kuss and Adam Yates.
Froome had lost contact around ten kilometres from the finish. The TV cameras hovered briefly but then moved on, to focus on the action up front, as younger talents such as Kuss, Richard Carapaz, Simon Yates and Hugh Carthy came to the fore. Ultimately it was Adam Yates, though, who broke clear and took his team’s second stage win and the overall lead.
As Yates caught his breath, further down the mountain in the lengthening shadows, Froome rode on, keeping faith with the notion that he can be a contender again. For now, time is just about on his side, but for how much longer, is — to borrow his own phrase — impossible to say.