Commentary: Embracing a Tour de France without Chris Froome
If I had Superman’s powers from the 1978 Christopher Reeve film, I would happily fly backwards around the Earth and turn back time to last Wednesday morning, at which point I would swoop down and tell Chris Froome to skip his fateful reconnaissance ride at the Dauphiné. “Binge the latest bad Netflix show, Chris, but don’t hop on the bike,” I’d tell him. Space-time continuum, be damed.
Alas, I do not have that power.
Now, I’ve heard some complaining that this Tour has lost its luster. The historical weight of Froome’s quest for a fifth title has lifted, after all. Why watch pro cycling’s grandest tour if the grandest tour rider of this generation is absent? It’s a valid critique, I suppose.
And yet, I believe that the gaping hole within the list of GC contenders is precisely what makes this Tour de France one to watch. I have embraced this Froome-less Tour, because, to be perfectly honest, I have no clue who is going to win. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Tour de France lacks a bonafide pre-race favorite. It’s a wide-open race.
As we’ve seen in previous Tours, editions that lack a true favorite produce dramatic moments of unpredictable glory. Who here remembers Carlos Sastre’s Hail Mary on l’Alpe d’Huez in 2008, or Cadel Evans’s heroics on the Galibier in 2011?
We can argue for days about Froome and Team Sky’s racing tactics over the past seven Tours, and whether the controlled strategy they pursued sucked the life out of the race, or elevated the tour by achieving some form of tactical perfection. In his four Tour victories, Froome was about as close to perfect as any rider can be.
One thing I know is that we will not see perfection in 2019. When I look at the GC contenders and the lineup of teams, I see a cast of extremely talented and capable riders, all teeming with glorious, wonderful flaws. Come, let us embrace our contenders and their imperfections.
Our defending champion, Geraint Thomas, has all of the physical skills to win another Tour. There’s just one problem: Thomas has sucked this year. He started five stage races, finished three, and won zero. On Monday, Thomas crashed out of the Tour de Suisse before the race even entered the high mountains, meaning his legs will miss out on hard racing efforts in those crucial weeks leading into the Tour. That is an enormous red flag, in my eyes.
Then, there is Thomas’s teammate, Egan Bernal. The most lauded young climber in the WorldTour has been collecting Strava KOMs across Europe this year, and dazzling fans with his speed on steep climbs. Bernal may someday win grand tours, but he is unquestionably green. Bernal has never led a team at a grand tour, and he has completed just one three-week race in his young career. How Bernal deals with the psychological stresses placed on a Tour de France contender is yet to be seen. We’ve never seen him exist in pro cycling’s pressure cooker.
The winner of the Critérium du Dauphiné, Jakob Fuglsang, has only once finished inside the top-10 of a grand tour, and has admitted to journalists that he lacks the legs to compete in the third week at the Tour de France. Fuglsang is on the form of his life this season, but whether that is good enough to win the Tour de France is an enormous unknown.
Tom Dumoulin just had a rock surgically removed from his knee (yes, a rock). His progress following the procedure has been so impossible to predict, that his Sunweb squad has resorted to releasing daily press releases to update fans on his condition. Whether Dumoulin is preparing at altitude or not is still unknown(Updated: Tom Dumoulin is out of the Tour de France, his team confirmed Thursday).
Vincenzo Nibali has three weeks of Giro d’Italia efforts in his legs, and is unquestionably tired. Romain Bardet is a feared climber with a weak team. Nairo Quintana hasn’t won a grand tour since before the last U.S. presidential election. And Thibaud Pinot, Rigoberto Uran, Richie Porte, and Adam Yates always seem to suffer the dreaded One Bad Day during a grand tour.
And yet, all of these riders have undoubtedly convinced themselves that they can now win the Tour de France. And one of these riders will overcome his shortcomings to win. I believe this blend of flaws and ambition could produce bold moves, dramatic moments, and yep, even an unforeseen winner. I cannot wait to watch.
After years of watching Froome and Sky chase perfection, I am ready to embrace a Tour de France of imperfection, a tour of flawed heroes. We are unlikely to see the very best at their very best, and that fact opens the door to the unknown. Perhaps cycling’s most prestigious race needs a year in which an imperfect champion rises above the others.
So, while we all write our Get Well Soon letters for Chris Froome, let’s fire up the livestream and watch the Tour de France. I have no idea what is going to happen.