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Tour de France

Chris Froome at his peak could have stayed with Vingegaard and Pogacar in this year’s Tour de France, says Luke Rowe

'The level is higher. I’m not a big numbers man if you look at the numbers they are going faster now,' says Ineos Grenadiers domestique.

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Luke Rowe came out of the Tour de France with a number of strong assertions.

First and foremost, the Welshman was adamant that this has been the toughest Tour that he ever raced. That viewpoint held up given that the 2022 edition was the fastest ever recorded Tour.

Secondly, the Welshman felt that if Egan Bernal had been fit then the Colombian might have challenged the top-two of Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar, and finally that Chris Froome at his peak could have also contended for this year’s title.

Rowe, 32, completed in his eighth Tour de France and was a solid domestique for third-place Geraint Thomas.

“For me on a personal level I think that it’s been one of my best,” Rowe said. “After last year’s disappointment [Rowe finished outside the time limit on stage 11] I just said to myself at the start of the year that I’m just going to cross the T’s and dot the I’s, which is something I do sometimes but not all the time.

“I’ve just kept my head down and I’ve just wanted to put all that shit from last year behind me. Leaving the Tour was hard and that was pretty shit. I wanted to put that right and personally it’s been a good Tour.”

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Rowe was part of three of Froome’s four Tour wins between 2013 and 2017 and witnessed the British climber constantly drop his rivals on the first mountain stages, press home his advantage in the time trials and then ride into Paris with a comfortable lead.

The pace and the intensity has gone up another notch since then and Froome now finds himself unable to currently reach those heights but Rowe was confident that at his previous peak, Froome could have lived with the best of this year’s race.

“The level is higher. I’m not a big numbers man if you look at the numbers they are going faster now than they were then but the sport is evolving,” he told VeloNews.

“They’re getting faster and faster with all this equipment, all this training and all this jazz. He won and in those years at the Tour he was riding relatively within himself to be honest,” he said. “We were conservative. This dull, robotic style that was written about, looking back was dull and robotic but I still stand by the fact that it was still the most efficient way to defend the jersey. Any team would have done the same if they had the same strength as we did then. I think he could live with these boys, Froome in his prime.”

While Thomas put in a valiant effort to finish third he was still eight minutes off the yellow jersey by the time the race reached Paris. Ineos Grenadiers had started the season with Bernal set to be the team’s leader but a serious crash wrecked his hopes of even starting the race and Dani Martinez and Adam Yates both failed to fill the void.

Bernal is still on his path to recovery, and Rowe admitted that there was still a certain amount of doubt over whether the Colombian could reach his level of 2019 and 2021 in the coming years.

“If I’m optimistic, the only guy on our ranks at the moment who can compete with them guys [Vinegaard and Pogačar], if he’s at his best, is Egan, who obviously remains a big question mark at the moment,” Rowe said. “He’s on his bike and he’ training. At the start of the year he was going to be our go-to man and we could have challenged them. Could we have beaten them? I don’t know.

“These guys are flying. Geraint was third and I think it’s no shame in saying that he was the third best rider in the race. So how many years, I don’t know, but the only guy is Egan if he can get to his best.”

‘The most physically demanding Tour I’ve ever done’

On a personal level, Rowe pinpointed Tom Pidcock’s win on Alpe d’Huez and the growing bond between his Tour teammates as his highlights of the race.

“For me honestly, I can’t pinpoint but there’s obviously been Tom on Alpe d’Huez, but me the highlight has been being on this bus with these seven other blokes,” he said. “It’s been a team that I’ve never been a part of before. I’ve been part of five Tour de France winning teams but this camaraderie and this bunch of lads was genuinely my highlight.

“We got on well and if there was an issue we spoke about it and put it to bed. It’s just about how much input that I can put in each day. So what defines a good Tour is how much support that I can give the guys. It was up there with my best.”

Overall, this was unquestionably one of the toughest Tours in recent memory.

There were just three bunch sprints in the entire race, and Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates bossed the race through the mountains. Intermediate stages were dominated by powerful breaks and there was little respite with stages often imploding mid-way through or on penultimate climbs.

“The most physically demanding Tour I’ve ever done,” Rowe said.

“You normally get a day or two when a break is allowed to get 20 minutes and you can just cruise in or a sprint day when two guys go in the break and it’s relatively controlled until the finale but we’ve not had a day like that. It’s been 20 days where we’ve kicked the shit out of each other since kilometer zero. It really has been. And even when a break goes a team will come and ride. The gaps in the GC were big and that leaves 15 teams saying that we can only go for stages now.

“The way it was raced was pretty incredible. It was like a series of one day races and we were saying on the bus, today was like Flanders, it was really a series of one-day races. It was the hardest Tour that I’ve ever done.”