While Froome and his fans rejoiced at the news that the UCI was dropping his Salbutamol case, detractors the world over let out a collective “ugh” on Monday. With his anti-doping case closed, Froome is back atop the list of oddsmakers’ favorites for the 2018 edition of the race.
But fear not, anti-Froomers: I, for one, don’t think he’s going to win anyway.
I don’t say this lightly, and I’m not some lifelong Froome-hater. In fact, in various previews and pre-race podcasts, I’ve picked Froome to win the Tour every single year from 2013 on.
Not this year.
Froome may be the most successful Tour rider of the decade, but the list of challenges he’ll have to overcome to climb the podium in Paris is just too long. He is aging, the Giro-Tour double is too great a challenge, the stress of his drawn-out doping scandal can’t be ignored, and the 2018 cast of contenders is stronger than ever.
For starters, Froome may finally be starting to run up against Father Time. He is still riding at a high level, but Froome, 33, is no spring chicken anymore. Even two weeks into the 2017 Tour, commentators were wondering if the Froome era was over. He won the race by his narrowest margin ever. He was not the dominant climber last season that he was when he stormed to yellow in 2013.
Run the 2017 race again this year with the same route and same contenders taking on Froome, and he might not win — and that’s ignoring so many other factors weighing against him for this year’s edition.
The big kahuna of reasons to doubt Froome’s chances is his decision to attempt the Giro-Tour double this season.
Much has been made of the fact that nobody has completed the double since Marco Pantani in 1998, but the challenge is even harder than you think. No Tour winner since the late Pantani has even finished the Giro in the same year they claimed yellow, let alone winning pink. It’s that hard to be competitive in July after racing 3,500 kilometers in Italy — and this Giro was no walk in the park. One does not simply walk into yellow after racing up the Zoncolan and racing into pink with an 80-kilometer solo ride to the Jafferau.
It’s not just the mileage in his legs either. All four of Froome’s Tour wins have come on the back of a Critérium du Dauphiné tune-up. This time around, he won’t have raced since he crossed the Giro d’Italia finish line in Rome. Preparation is so critical for grand tour contenders, and particularly for Team Sky. Without his standard build-up to the Tour, can Froome really expect to be flying as high as ever this July?
And speaking of an abnormal Tour buildup, do we really think Froome has managed to completely block out the stress of his anti-doping case these past few months? Altitude training on Tenerife is hard enough, but for the first time in his career, Froome had to train with a massive controversy hanging over his head, dating all the way back to last fall. The UCI only dropped the case five days before the Grand Départ. Froome surely breathed a sigh of relief on Monday, but he won’t get back those sleepless nights or stressful hours spent talking with his lawyers any time soon.
He’ll take that stress into the Tour, where he’ll only find … more stress. Deservedly or not, his reception on French roads will be frosty. Journalists will be chasing quotes before and after every stage. If he ever ends up off the back with a puncture or mechanical, few riders in the pack will treat him charitably.
And on top of all that, there’s the field.
Froome managed to avoid a direct battle with his two biggest grand tour rivals last year without even getting out of the saddle. He may not be able to rely on that happening again this time around.
Movistar’s Nairo Quintana torpedoed his chances of Tour contention in 2017 by attempting the Giro-Tour double. He came up short in Italy, and then was clearly lacking in France. Lesson learned. Quintana is all in for the Tour this year, and he showed at the Tour de Suisse that he is bringing his climbing legs to the fight. Some cycling observers seem to have already written him off thanks to his repeated failures in his quest for yellow — but only just now in 2018 has Quintana reached the age that Froome was when the Briton won his first Tour de France.
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Then there’s Richie Porte (BMC), who seems to have a knack for crashing or puncturing out of contention in the grand tours despite his immense talent. Nonetheless, there’s no logical reason why Porte would be more inclined to flat at an untimely moment than any other rider. If he can keep the rubber on the road, he really does have the ability — both as a climber and against the clock — to give Froome a run for his money.
Throw in a brand-new rival that Froome was relying on as a teammate last year (Mikel Landa, now with Movistar), a more experienced Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), and a few others, and you have a very competitive Tour field.
Fans who have been watching Froome dominance on repeat the last several years may be quick to write off his challengers. That’s understandable. But all it takes is one bad day for a tired, stressed, beleaguered Froome. In a moment, one of those guys you’d already written off might actually find himself in yellow.
Does one specific challenger deserve top billing for this race over the defending champ? Maybe not — but whoever it ends up being, I expect one of them to rise to the occasion and dethrone the four-time Tour winner. This July, in the battle of Froome vs. the field, I’m taking the field.