The parallel universes that have been running side-by-side throughout the 2018 Giro d’Italia collided Friday with Chris Froome’s race-breaking solo attack.
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In one lane was the highly controversial “big start” in Jerusalem and Froome’s polarizing presence. In the other was an ever engaging and hard-fought Giro that went full-gas every stage from the drop of the flag.
When each stayed in their lane, the Giro merrily trundled along from stage to stage.
The Sky captain’s expertly executed late-race heist Friday to snatch the pink jersey tripped cycling’s electric third rail. When Froome powered away on the Finestre with 80km to go, it seemed as if Twitter’s collective head exploded.
“What can I say?” an exasperated Froome said. “If I stay at the back or go to the front, there will always be one comment or another. It doesn’t change anything.”
Everyone’s wires short-circuited Friday when Froome attacked on the Finestre. This was Sky Shred in its most extreme. Surely you must be taking the piss! Everyone, with perhaps the possible exception of a few pockets of Froome fans, were pulling out their hair and screaming at the TV, How could this be happening?!
It’s as if Donald Trump had just won the pink jersey.
When Froome struggled early in the Giro, the handwringing over his presence tapered off. Thrilling racing and new faces stepping into the frame overshadowed the background noise on social media, forums and media about Froome’s unresolved salbutamol case.
Froome was like that crazy uncle who shows up at Thanksgiving. You have to let him come, but you don’t want to be seated next to him at dinner, either.
That Giro-induced blitheness of week three changed instantly Friday when Froome stirred on the lower flanks of the Finestre.
By any traditional measure, Froome’s exploits should rank as one of the Giro’s most spectacular and successful attacks. An 80km solo attack to erase a three-minute-plus gap is Merckxian by any standard.
The four-time Tour winner came to the Giro under huge pressure after the details of his salbutamol case were leaked in December. The case brought massive negativity to Froome, cycling and the Giro.
At first glance, it would seem easier and perhaps even the right thing to do to step back. Instead, Froome defiantly exercised his right to race (as the rules allowed). Despite a heavy crash just hours before the opening time trial in Jerusalem, Froome refused to buckle and fought stubbornly for nearly three weeks to stay close. Anyone who knows Froome knows he is the hardest among a peloton of hard bastards.
On Friday, he uncorked just the kind of attack that should energize and excite cycling’s base.
“Today was just raw bike racing,” Froome said. “This is bike racing.”
Instead, his profligate Giro stampede only hastened everyone to draw a line straight from Bardonecchia to Morzine, a ski town just over the French border where Floyd Landis upended the 2006 Tour de France.
In a sport where anything too good to be true has proven too good to be true, the reaction was visceral and emotional.
Froome brought so much baggage to this Giro that perhaps what is his greatest exploit is doomed from the beginning.
Froome’s simple presence already irked many. His winning attack Friday was simply too much for distractors to bear. Landis tested positive after his Morzine miracle. More than a few are putting money on a similar outcome.
And maybe they’re right. Every miracle in cycling has proven to be a sham.
Today’s skeptical, scandal-weary fans feel that the cycling world has just duped them again. It’s nearly impossible to look at what’s happening in today’s peloton without peering through the lens of 20-plus years of doping scandals.
So what to make of Froome?
In today’s suspicious world, a bike racer who wins too much is a bike racer who must be cheating. Yet many of today’s peloton insist they’re clean, say they’ve never seen a needle, and vow that riders can race clean and win.
As ex-pro and confessed PED-user Thomas Dekker put it, Froome could be the cleanest Tour winner the sport’s ever seen. Salbutamol alone isn’t going to win anyone a grand tour.
On the other extreme is the assumption that top grand tour riders are still taking every drug known to mankind. Add a few motors here and there, and today’s peloton is matching the climbing times of the 1990s and 2000s.
And then there is Team Sky, which has been under increased scrutiny in the wake of the Fancy Bears leaks, Jiffy Bag-Gate and a Parliamentary review. None of that helps the optics. Sky has lost the crowd.
Froome clearly divides the cycling community like no rider in a generation. For every detractor, there’s someone who admires his tenacity. For every fan-boy, there’s a troll ready to snipe.
The Froome drama that’s reignited during the Giro’s final weekend won’t end in Rome.
UCI president David Lappartient said there is a 50-50 chance that Froome’s salbutamol case won’t be wrapped up before the start of the Tour de France. And if it’s not, Froome is clear to race in July.
“As I’ve said at the beginning of the race, there is a process in place for me to demonstrate that I’ve done nothing wrong,” Froome said Friday. “I know I’ve done nothing wrong. And it’s just a matter of time before that is clear to everyone.”
If he gets off, well, everyone will freak out even more.
Cycling exists in an odd multiverse. There’s no other sport more compelling yet more illusionary. You want to believe what you’re seeing, but you don’t want to be taken for a fool. So we watch without believing.
This dual narrative — cycling’s unique form of schizophrenia of sublime magic to pull-out-your hair exasperation — shows no sign of ending soon.
And how can it? Stage 20 of the Giro d’Italia starts in just a few hours.