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A Tour Without Froome

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Le Tour de France 2017 - Stage Twenty One Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

CCertain sights become a fixture of the Tour de France. Bernard Hinault on the podium. Thomas Voeckler thrashing up a climb. In recent years, Chris Froome expressionless, seventh in a line of his team-mates, cruising up an Alpine climb. As we all know, none of these sights will be present this year — in 2016 Hinault stepped down, a year later Voecker stepped off and yesterday, Chris Froome slammed into a wall at terrifying speed. This is self-evidently not a news piece, I don’t need to go into detail or show a photo of him in the ambulance. No, as far as I’m concerned all that matters is that he’ll miss the Tour de France, so I’m going to look into what that’s going to mean. Remember: the last time Chris Froomedidn’t finish the Tour de France, Jean-Christophe Péraud was second overall. Weird things happen when he’s not there, alright?

Barring 2014, the question on the lips of most Tour-viewers since 2012 has been “what’s Froome going to do?” and then when he’d done it they followed it up with “can anybody stop him?” It’s obvious that those questions can no longer be asked — they’ve been replaced by many times more quandaries. The most obvious one (addressed on cyclingnews by Philippa York here) is how this changes Ineos’ leadership options. Prior to the Dauphiné, it was clear how they would line up. Froome and Thomas would be co-leaders with Froome taking priority. I expected him to outdo Thomas by quite a margin, in fact. Bernal would be the superdomestique de luxe with a cherry on top and occasional fan favourite. The dynamic has now...shifted. Thomas must surely go in as leader as the defending champion but I have significant questions about him. I think he could suffer from a watered-down version of what happened to Wiggins — he went from riding track to winning the Tour de France, something he at times in his cycling career must have felt was impossible. Now it has been achieved, the question is whether Thomas can get himself into the right headspace for another tilt at it and with Froome there, the answer might have been no. Now, however he will start the Tour de France as Ineos’ real leader and the only previous winner without a Giro in his legs. Belief will not be a problem for Thomas, cold-hearted will to win might be.

Whatever to what I think, the bookies are rating Thomas as the comfortable favourite for yellow in Paris — you won’t find anyone to give you 2/1 on him. What I find more interesting, however, is how they rate Egan Bernal. Bernal is, at the time of writing, bookies’ second favourite for the Tour de France. Given he’s second-in-command to the top favourite and aged only twenty-two, this really is an endorsement of the climbing ability he has shown since coming onto the scene. Will he get the chance to use it when it counts though? If Froome were riding the Tour the answer would be no. A second-in-command can win the Tour under certain, rare circumstances as Thomas showed us last year. A third-in-command just can’t. They’re far enough up in the mountain train that there’s going to come a point that they’ll need to be at the front at an inopportune time. Can Bernal win the Tour de France? I’m not going to answer that question yet, it’s not the right time. Now, however, he is in such a position that it is not an impossibility.

There’s a Tour de France with which I feel we can draw parallels: 1983. I’m going to use eventual winner Laurent Fignon’s book to illustrate this. A few weeks before the Tour, the person who had dominated the race over the previous five years was ruled out through injury and his team, the best in cycling at the time was thrown into uncertainty. Now, Ineos still have the defending champion so they aren’t as badly off as Renault were but it still works. Fignon (aged twenty-two) aimed to win a stage, wear white to Paris and finish in the top ten — all things I think we can imagine Bernal aiming for. The former winners (then Van Impe and Zoetemelk) were unconvincing for various reasons and the winner of the Dauphiné had never looked like winning the Tour before. Then as now, the race was open for a new champion to stake his claim.

New champions are needed in this race. Froome will be thirty-five by the time of the 2020 Tour, meaning that if he were to win it he would be the oldest person to win it in ninety-eight years, and the second-oldest overall. It is an indication of how form drops off at around his current age that he became the nineteenth-oldest winner when he took yellow in 2017. So by hitting that wall it seems that Froome has put a big dent in his chances of joining the five-time winners club. It is now my belief that he will never join it. He has also robbed Dumoulin of the chance to beat him at his peak which leads me to think: has this potential loss of the chance to join cycling’s ultimate club in a way cemented Froome’s legacy? In France in July, he has only been beaten by his own team mates and by hard tarmac. Never has he been set up and outclassed and even if that changes next year, he will be beaten at an age by which Contador had retired. Dumoulin might go off to win numerous Grand Tours, maybe starting with this edition of La Grande Boucle, but he won’t have beaten a firing Froome. Almost nobody will have.