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Chris Froome was thanking his lucky stars Monday. The 32-year-old won his fourth yellow jersey in what was the narrowest margin of victory since his first in 2013.
While the Sky rider showed some vulnerability in the mountains, his 54-second advantage over Rigoberto Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) says more about the route than about Froome.
In many ways, it was another Froome Show on the center stage. Much of the melodrama played out in secondary plotlines.
Despite being one man down when Geraint Thomas crashed out in stage 9, Team Sky largely smothered much of the race. Ever dominant against the clock, Froome took significant gains in stage 1 and then held on all the way to Marseille.
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It’s hardly the most exciting way to win the Tour de France, but in a route that was short on opportunities for Froome, he squeezed out an efficient victory that leaves many wondering how many more he might have in his legs.
Froome had an answer that many Sky detractors might not like.
“I’d like to keep racing into my late 30s, and keep competing for the yellow jersey,” Froome said. “I’d like to be here for the next five years, trying to win it.”
Now 32, Froome enters a club of one: no rider in Tour history has won four yellow jerseys without winning an historic fifth.
Can Froome win a fifth? Or even a sixth or seventh? Things are stacking up that way. Here’s why:
‘Fortress Froome’ as strong as ever
The “Sky Era” shows no signs of fading. First with Bradley Wiggins’s victory in 2012, Team Sky has won five of the past six Tours. If Froome hadn’t crashed out in 2014, he might well have been celebrating No. 5 five Sunday in Paris. That dominance puts Team Sky on par with the strongest teams in Tour history.
How long will the Sky Train keep chugging along? It appears for at least several more years. The Sky sponsorship has recently been extended, and Froome is expected to stay with the team through 2021. Backed by the largest team budget in cycling, Froome can sleep well at night knowing his impenetrable “Fortress Froome” will remain intact.
There’s talk of reducing the number of riders per Tour squad from nine to eight in 2018, but it’s worth pointing out that Sky all but won this Tour with just eight riders. Thomas crashed out in stage 9, but Sky was still the strongest team in the peloton.
A few key riders will be leaving, including Mikel Landa and Mikel Nieve. Sky is so deep, however, that it can simply tap into its deep bench of reserves. Or sign more stars.
Despite a string of searing controversies surrounding Team Sky since last fall — allegations of abuses of TUEs and mysterious “jiffy bags” — none of that has seemed to have stuck to Froome.
When asked about it over the weekend, Froome just shrugged it off with a no.
‘Fresh Froome’ can keep on trucking
At 32, Froome is no longer a spring chicken. By Tour standards, he should be nearing the retirement home. The average age of a Tour winner is 28.7 years. Most of the “big five” were already retired by the age of 33, which Froome will be at the start of next year’s Tour.
Froome, however, is talking about racing into his late 30s.
With fewer race days, better nutrition, and improved training and recovery, cyclists are racing longer than ever before. If Froome can stay healthy and avoid a major crash, he could stay at the top for another two to four years quite easily.
“I’m as motivated as ever,” Froome said at the start of the Tour. “I came into the sport quite late, and I feel as I’m still quite young in cycling terms.”
What we already saw at the Tour this year was a different Froome. He came in “fresher,” with a lighter spring racing schedule, in part to not run out of gas in the final week of the Tour. Froome’s weak spot was always a late-Tour hiccup, something that nearly cost him the 2015 title against Nairo Quintana on Alpe d’Huez.
Insiders at Team Sky say Froome doesn’t need to prove himself at early season races such as the Tour de Romandie or the Critérium du Dauphiné. What counts is the Tour.
Another reason is the Vuelta a España. After finishing second three times at the Spanish tour, Froome is leaving plenty in the tank to race next month. On Monday, Froome confirmed he will race the season’s third grand tour.
“The goal was to be strong in the third week,” Froome said. “I wasn’t at my best at the Dauphiné, but I’ve never felt this good in the third week of a grand tour. Even though I was pushing the limits, I always felt I was in control.”
Feeling “fresh” in mind and body, Froome could maintain his high level for several more years.
Is there anyone out there who can beat Froome?
Not yet, but there are some new challengers coming up who should make the next few years interesting.
“I’d like to be here for the next five years, trying to win it, but it doesn’t get any easier,” Froome said. “This year was the closest it’s ever been, and it’s only going to be harder next year.”
Mikel Landa, the fiery Basque sensation, looked to be the strongest climber in this year’s Tour, but he was held back to help Froome. Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Fabio Aru (Astana) are both showing glimpses of future Tour greatness. Richie Porte (BMC Racing) will return next year looking to deliver a complete Tour. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) also vows to bounce back from his Giro-Tour misfire and focus solely on the Tour in 2018.
Yet none of these riders offer the complete package to truly confront Froome. Riders who are strong in the mountains, such as Bardet, Quintana, and Aru, give up too much ground in the time trial. On paper, Porte is the most well-rounded challenger, but he has never finished on the Tour podium. And he is five months older than Froome. Landa is unproven as a leader at the Tour and will likely target the Giro next season.
Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) is the one rider who is of the same ilk as Froome. The 26-year-old Dutchman won the Giro a la Froome; staying close in the mountains, and then crushing in the time trial. If there’s anyone who can match Froome, it will be Dumoulin.
Froome’s key is to keep up the pressure on rivals. Any sign of weakness can prove disastrous. There’s nothing more dramatic than a Tour king crumbling on the road. It’s like a huge tree coming down in the forest. It can all end in an instant.
If you’re a Froome fan, you could expect a few more years of happiness. If you’re not, well, you might have to grin and bear it. Barring disaster, Froome could be on track to win a fifth Tour and a few more.