It seems like a long time ago that life, as we all knew, stopped in March.
Life, as Chris Froome knew, came to a halt – and very painfully – almost a year earlier; the four-time Tour de France champion suffered terrible injuries in a fall as he prepared for a warm-up stage at the Criterium de Dauphine which left his life on the line, not to mention his career.
The road cycling season is effectively starting over this weekend, but the 35-year-old is still catching up to a year ago when he started a long road to recovery of a fractured right femur, broken hip, fractured elbow, and fractured ribs.
Add the delay from the coronavirus and, according to those in cycling, Froome is nowhere near the form he should be in view of the Tour, which begins on August 29.
But he’s not the only one, and the races leading up to great cycling – starting with the four-day Route D’Occitanie (a region in southern France bordering the Pyrenees) – will be crucial in deciding who will be chosen by their teams to run.
An intense rivalry already underway
A reminder: Team Ineos has three previous Tour winners to choose from this year; Froome (2013, 2015, 2016, 2017), Geraint Thomas (2018) and Egan Bernal (2019).
Ineos, with all his talent and substantial budget, has a policy that the strongest rider, by the time he arrives around the last week of a Grand Tour, will be supported by the whole team. The other potential contenders must give in to this team order.
And if taking the three leading riders on the Tour is an option, it is likely to be seen as too complex a dynamic.
“Three winners on the same bus? Very difficult to manage, that. It’s going to be interesting… ”said a sports director from a rival team.
Or, to put it even more succinctly: having Froome and Bernal on the same bus probably won’t work.
Proof of this is the form of the rosters for three critical warm-up races in France. There is no Thomas for the first race. However, Bernal and Froome are together for the opening of this weekend in Occitanie. Thomas joined the party at the Tour d’Ain a few days later. This means that they all compete together for the next two races.
And don’t forget, Bernal’s presence is one of the reasons Froome is leaving Ineos at the end of the season after the team decided not to renew their contract for 2021.
Froome was reportedly frustrated with Ineos for not berating the 23-year-old for the comments he made in April. The Colombian told Eurosport: “I’m young, I’ve won one Tour before, and I’m not going to waste an opportunity to win another for sure. That I would sacrifice myself by being 100%… I don’t think I’m going to do this, either. ”
Insiders felt the quote was good, given his status as last year’s Tour winner.
But one thing Ineos will make sure is a level playing field for all contenders as this “tour de force” unfolds. All runners will benefit from equal treatment and the right environment to perform.
How will they decide who will go?
Every warm-up run counts for something. But that’s just it – warm-ups. You usually don’t have to earn them. Just show that you are producing the correct numbers on the power meter.
There is just as much merit in following your closest rival to the line just behind him in a warm-up race – as long as you are producing power (in watts), that long, and that high. The higher the number compared to your rivals, the more explosive you will be in the climbs.
In the past, however, Froome, ahead of several of his big wins, often came out on top – a sign of his strength building up to the Tour. The Criterium du Dauphine – a grueling journey through the Dauphine region of south-eastern France – is the third and final race in this year’s crucial streak.
He was the one he always seemed a monster. Froome has won it three out of four times in the years he has won the Tour. And Geraint Thomas was also victorious in the year he won the Tour in 2018.
So what about Thomas? If anyone is a sure bet in the trio to be one of the Tour’s top two drivers, it could be the Welshman. Living from Sky / Ineos, who has been around as long as Froome, the 34-year-old has always been conscientious in his support for Froome.
When he finally beat Froome for a Tour victory, he came after a Froome’s gargantuan effort to win the Giro’d’Italia a month or two earlier.
Last year, in Froome’s absence, the focus was on whether Thomas could retain his Tour title in the face of Bernal’s emergence as a true Grand Tour force. He couldn’t and played the team game well when it became evident.
Given recent events, it seems less likely that Froome will do the same.
Pride and performance
Bernal’s form is just as difficult to determine at this point – he had trained in Colombia after restrictions on flights to and from the country left many of Colombia’s top pilots in their home countries, before to fly to Europe 10 days ago. But he’s young and adaptable.
He knows he’s part of a British team, with British riders. But performance comes before pride. So… win and you are there.
It would be humiliating for Froome not to participate in this year’s race. The one he cares about the most – he wants to win more Towers than anyone else. He needs two more to reach the Magic Six.
His decade at Sky / Ineos has been a brilliant one – for it to end with him missing the Tour would be a drop from grace, and that trademark goofy grin would go away for a while.
The year 2020 is unique. Not just for the face masks and canceled vacations, but for the fact that this summer’s monumental battle in the Pyrenees and Alps mountains could take place before the main event itself.