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The inevitability of Froome

The Tour de France is ephemeral. The race lives in our collective imagination. We spend months analyzing stage profiles, handicapping the favorites, and scrutinizing the relative strengths and weaknesses of each team. As the pinnacle of professional cycling, we expect so much, yet are so often left deflated.

That’s certainly how the 104th edition unfolded. On an atypical course, the outcome was as predictable as ever. Chris Froome stood atop the winner’s podium for the fourth time, just one victory short of joining the elite “five-win” club containing Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, and Miguel Indurain.

The brutal efficiency of Sky’s methodology and budgetary advantage bulldozed everyone for the fifth time in six years. It might have been the narrowest margin of victory of Froome’s four wins — 54 seconds to Rigoberto Urán — but with the exception of one wobble on the road to Peyragudes, Froome was on cruise control the entire time. Team Sky nearly wore the yellow jersey from start to finish — only Fabio Aru’s two days in the maillot jaune disrupted the parade.

“We are facing a Froome that is all but unbeatable,” says exasperated Movistar boss Eusebio Unzué. “With his team, and Froome’s ability to climb and time trial, we must say he is one of the best Tour riders ever. So far, it’s been impossible to beat him.”

Froome went on to win the Vuelta a España with similar ruthlessness. Hinault was the last man to achieve that feat, back when the Vuelta held an early season date.

It begs the question: How many Tours will Froome win?

AS FROOME STOOD ATOP the podium on the Champs-Élysées, smiling down with his Boy Scout grin and boarding-school manners, the fact that he didn’t win a single stage seemed to punctuate the pragmatic efficiency of his victory. After all the dramatic escapades of his 2016 effort — attacking downhill, attacking on the flats, running up Mont Ventoux — his 2017 performance was all about getting the job done. Panache? Look elsewhere.

“I had to race to how the course was designed,” Froome says. “There were not a lot of opportunities to attack.”

Much has been made about Sky’s financial advantage and Froome’s exceptional physiology. Another factor that needs to be considered when measuring his place in cycling history is his uncanny ability to adapt.

No matter what the Tour throws at him, Froome rises to the occasion. Not long ago, the Tour route was entirely formulaic. With the arrival of Christian Prudhomme as race director and Thierry Gouvenou as technical director in 2007, ASO started to shake things up. No matter what they’ve put in Froome’s way — pavé, small mountains, short stages, or, like this year, a lot of nothing — he can adapt, adjust, and win.

“It’s great that the Tour is different every year,” says Sky sport director Nicolas Portal. “Froomey can handle it all. He’s shown he can race and win no matter what, be it cobblestones, downhills, or climbs. This year, it was full of explosive climbs, and we knew the differences would be small. It’s a challenge for us.”

Froome’s flexibility is partly due to his unique background. Born to British parents of relative wealth in Kenya, Froome and two older brothers grew up on a 10-acre estate with servants, a swimming pool, and a tennis court. When Froome was five, the family business collapsed. From that point forward, his life has largely been unscripted.

His parents divorced, and Froome was sent to boarding school in South Africa. Isolated and alone, the bike became an escape in his teenage years. When he came to Europe at the age of 22 — after dropping out of university where he was studying economics — he turned pro, making $300 a week. He was already highly adaptable to the challenges that confront any professional cyclist.

His instinctive capacity to deal with adversity, both efficiently and pragmatically, has served him well as he’s emerged as cycling’s post-modern Tour dominator.

“Chris lives for the Tour every single day,” says Sky teammate and confidante Geraint Thomas. “I know he didn’t win anything this spring, but when he came to the Tour, I knew he was ready to win.”

ANOTHER PECULIAR MANIFESTATION OF Froome’s adaptability is his deft handling of the growing controversy surrounding Team Sky and team principal Dave Brailsford.

The past 18 months have severely tarnished the Sky legacy, yet it’s hardly left a blemish on Froome. Why? Despite racing as a British rider, the entire furor has been focused squarely on Brailsford and former teammate Bradley Wiggins.

Before last year’s Olympics, British Cycling was embroiled in allegations of sexism and bullying during the years Brailsford was manning the ship. Even more devastating was the “Fancy Bears” leak from the World Anti-Doping Agency’s data bank in August 2016. The hacks revealed evidence that Wiggins used therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for injections of the powerful corticoid triamcinolone, which helps athletes shed weight. That was followed by allegations of a mysterious “Jiffy bag” and unknown contents. Hearings before Parliament and the ensuing media firestorm delivered serious blows to Wiggins’s prestige and raised calls for Brailsford’s resignation at the helm of Team Sky.

Froome, however, simply shrugged off questions about the brewing scandal. He wasn’t linked to the TUE hacks, and said he never had taken triamcinolone. Nevertheless, Team Sky took the extraordinary step of not holding press conferences on the Tour’s two rest days.

Jeremy Whittle, a longtime cycling journalist with The London Times, says Froome has been able to tiptoe through the land mine that is threatening to engulf British cycling.

“Froome remains out of sight, out of mind, in Monaco and Africa,” Whittle says. “It almost feels like a deliberate exile, to distance himself. His appearances in Britain are rare and he keeps the British public and media at arm’s length. So it’s been Brailsford and Wiggins who have drawn the heat.”

BRAILSFORD WAS GLOATING IN Paris. So long as no one asked him about Jiffy bags, he was happy to speak.

“The Chris I’ve seen here has been working harder than ever,” Brailsford said in Paris. “As long as the hunger continues, he will be a force in this race for a number of years to come.”

Despite the controversy, Sky signed on to continue its sponsorship through 2021. Froome has extended for the same amount of time. Like it or not, the pair is going to be around awhile.

“I’d like to keep racing into my late 30s, and keep competing for the yellow jersey,” Froome says. “I’d like to be here for the next five years, trying to win it.”

Physically, as someone who started late in the sport, Froome seems poised to squeeze a few more exceptional years out of his body. The hard part is to make the sacrifices and live a monk’s life on a millionaire’s paycheck. One Sky observer notes, “Froome cares about two things: making a lot of money and winning.”

His rivals might be encouraged by this year’s race. Add another mountaintop finale or more time trial distance, however, and the result would have been more Froome domination — minutes instead of seconds.

Now everyone will wait to see what Prudhomme and Gouvenou deliver for the 2018 Tour. Froome vows to keep adapting, pushing, and winning. His rivals and pundits can keep dreaming.

“You cannot cheat time,” Cyrille Guimard, the legendary French sport director, told L’Equipe. “He’s not as strong at 32 as he was at 28. Maybe he can win another one? Eventually, the body succumbs, or you retire.”

From the sound of it, Froome would disagree.

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