I know I know, there’s no cheering in the pressroom.
But there is cheering in my living room, and I’ll be the first one to admit that there’s been very little of it for a certain Chris Froome at the Tour de France. To be fair, I have felt a multitude of other emotions while watching Froome stomp his rivals into paste over the years: Astonishment, reverence, and even gobsmacked amazement.
But if I’m perfectly honest, I have always rooted for Froome’s doomed challengers like Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali. Like many sports fans, I’m all about the upset and the underdog. I cheer for the storyline, and I secretly pray for the favorite to falter. Froome and his dominating Sky team have made victory feel like a foregone conclusion during all four of his wins.
Well, folks, guess what: My fan interest is about to change. You see, I’m getting ready to yell and scream for Chris Froome to win the 2020 Tour de France.
Why? Froome is finally not the favorite. At best, he’s a dark horse. At worst, he’s a bottle carrier. And the storyline surrounding an unlikely Froome victory is just too good to pass up.
We recently completed the thorough — if highly unscientific — tradition of ranking the Tour’s top-10 contenders for our annual Tour de France guide (pre-order yours here). Our methodology is thorough, if somewhat basic. We examine the course and determine what type of rider it favors. We examine the riders, and assign strength ratings from 1-10 based on the key attributes to win the Tour (climbing, individual time trial, team strength, tactical aptitude). And then we examine each rider’s recent performances, Strava rides, and personal narrative.
We make a simple chart, and put checks alongside each rider’s strengths and weaknesses, and tally them up. Hey, we don’t have access to Team Ineos’s cache of power files, so it’s the best methodology we have.
When we crunched the numbers and analyzed the storylines, Froome did not come out on top for the first time in years. Froome’s teammate Egan Bernal is the only five-star favorite. Froome is, depending on the criteria, a second- or even third-tier favorite to win.
Let’s break it down: The 2020 Tour de France route, with its multitude of punchy and soaring ascents, favors more explosive climbers such as Bernal, Julian Alaphilippe, and Primož Roglič. And the dearth of flat individual time trial kilometers hurts Froome while helping Nairo Quintana and Thibaut Pinot.
That’s a check in the ‘weakness’ category for Froome.
From a strategic standpoint, the Tour’s five early mountain stages are likely to force teams to consolidate their GC ambitions around one or maybe two riders. That does not bode well for Froome. Team Sky/Ineos has dominated the last seven of eight Tours by rallying its collective strength around one — and only one — GC rider. What does that mean? Should Bernal eke out a time gap on the stage 4 summit finish to Orcières-Merlette, or squeeze out some valuable seconds on stage 8 in the Pyrénées, Froome could become resigned to domestique duty after just a few days.
His best bet could be to try and hang inside the top-five until the final time trial, and then hit the afterburners to win. It’s an unlikely scenario.
And let’s not forget the mighty question mark hanging over Froome’s head. On paper, Froome has the skills to climb and descend and time trial better than just about anyone in the race. The unfortunate truth is that nobody — not even Froome — knows how his body will hold up under three weeks of racing in 2020, just one year after his scary crash at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
Weakness — check.
If the deck feels stacked against Froome, the storylines following him into this race are ones for the ages. Froome is just one win away from joining the Tour’s all-time greats. He’s just thumbed his nose at the institution that — opinions vary here — either carried him, or he carried, to victory all of these years. In just a few months Froome will don the jersey of Israel Start-Up Nation, and try to dethrone his former team. And in my estimation, he will be crushed by Bernal and Team Ineos’s thumping tempo, similar to how Quintana, Nibali and Alberto Contador were squashed for years and years.
This 2020 Tour represents his best opportunity to win.
In a sense, Froome’s legacy this year is butting heads with the legacy of his longtime boss, David Brailsford, who undoubtedly wants the history books to someday label this the Sky/Ineos era, and not the Chris Froome age. A fifth Froome win points the history books one way, while a second Bernal win points history in the other direction.
And again, Froome is embarking on this Tour after a year away from the races. The last time we saw him battle other riders with the yellow jersey on the line, he yo-yoed off the back of favorites on the slopes of the Col du Soulor. Sorry, I don’t count Froome’s 71st place at February’s UAE Tour as a real result. His last meaningful mark was third at the 2018 Tour de France.
Hey, I understand that my newfound Froome fandom is likely to be an unpopular take. For the umpteenth time, fans during the upcoming Tour will complain about his pedaling style and his awkward position on the bicycle. They will joke about his inhaler usage and become enraged whenever the word ‘salbutamol’ is uttered. It’s cycling, after all, and fans are going to cheer, and haters are going to hate.
Still, cheering for Froome in 2020 just isn’t the same as rooting for him in 2017. When you add things up, Froome has plenty of checkmarks in the ‘weakness’ category, for the first time in years. And, to be fair, I count my personal rooting interest in him as one such disadvantage. For whatever reason, I always end up cheering for riders that lose the Tour de France.
Maybe that’s because I’ve never cheered for Chris Froome.