Chris Froome is in a race against time.
In the immediate future, he is racing to earn a Tour de France spot later this month but he is also fighting to return to his best, race-winning shape.
Two years after he suffered a horrific crash during a recon of the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné time trial – which very nearly ended his career – Froome finally made it back to the race’s chrono.
It was not the beautiful reunion or fairy tale story that the 36-year-old might have hoped for. He rode home more than two minutes down on the day’s winner Alexey Lutsenko and he was passed by his minute-man Nils Politt.
After already being dropped inside the final nine kilometers on stage 2 of the Dauphiné, the time trial performance could well be yet another nail in the coffin of Froome’s ambition of making it to the Tour de France.
Froome faces an uphill struggle over the final days of the French stage race to show he can play more than just a symbolic role in Israel Start-Up Nation’s eight-man line-up at the Tour de France.
“His participation in the Tour de France is not a given,” Israel Start-Up Nation sport director Rik Verbrugghe told Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure.
“I expect there will be some clarity during this Dauphiné. He has made constant progress since the start of the season, but we would have liked his progress to be more exponential.”
Not that it was really needed, but Froome has talked down any idea that he might be able to turn his form around so much so that he could win in Paris.
“I’m not talking about winning the Tour de France in a few weeks’ time. I’m very much focused on returning to my former level and taking it one step at a time. I don’t go from this level to winning the Tour de France in a few weeks,” he told journalists ahead of stage 5 of the Critérium du Dauphiné.
“I know where I’ve come from. I know that a year ago I was on a bike, racing before I could even walk properly again. Just to be here in the Dauphiné walking properly, being in the race, and having no issues is great progress. I’m looking at those measurements myself. I know that other people don’t see those measurements because they don’t see everything that happens behind the scenes.”
Long road to recovery
Froome’s recovery from that accident in June 2019 has been much more protracted than any of us might ever have imagined. The crash, which happened when he lost control of his bike after he was hit by a gust of wind, left him in intensive care with a broken leg, ribs, and elbow.
He would only return to racing eight months later and he has been a shadow of his former self on the bike ever since. It remains to be seen if he will ever regain the form, and level, he had to win four Tour de France titles, two Vueltas a España and a Giro d’Italia.
Froome’s path to recovery has been far from straightforward, as is often the case with multiple major injuries but he has not been put off.
“I have had to overcome a lot of obstacles since I started cycling in Kenya. It pleases me to think that none of these obstacles have broken me in my tracks. I have continued to stay true to myself, eye-catching, for real and profound love for my sport,” Froome said in a recent interview with the French Vélo Mag.
He was quite bullish early on, saying in April 2020 that his recovery was “pretty much complete”. However, he recently admitted in an interview with the PA news agency that he had tried to come back too quickly and had not put enough time into his rehabilitation.
Froome went into this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné boasting of his training rides up one of the world’s steepest climbs, closing in on his goal weight and improving numbers on the computer. He did a big block of altitude training on Mount Teide in Tenerife with some of his teammates ahead of the race.
While his team has seen some improvements in his race shape, Froome still appears to be well off the pace and his rehabilitation looks like it isn’t over yet.
In an early-season press conference, Froome told the media that “age is a state of mind”. That might be so, but it does catch up with all of us at some stage. At 36, Froome is in the latter part of his career.
The challenge for him is not only to find his former form but to do it before it is too late. He has a few years yet before he reaches the age Chris Horner was when he became the oldest grand tour winner at 41. But, winning the Vuelta a España is an entirely different prospect to the Tour de France.
No time to retire
At the time of his crash, Froome was gearing up for a tilt at a record-equalling fifth Tour de France title and few would have bet against him attaining that – whether it was in that year or another.
It is a prospect that couldn’t seem further away from Froome’s current capabilities, and with the rise of Tadej Pogačar, Egan Bernal, and Primož Roglič, it doesn’t seem likely Froome will ever win the Grand Boucle or any other grand tour again.
But that doesn’t mean that his career is done and dusted.
If he truly is still in love with cycling and racing, then more power to him.
While another grand tour win might not be on the cards anymore, why could he not race as a domestique if he has the desire to? All too easily, we try to put former champions out to pasture when they are not winning any longer.
If there is a team out there willing to pay him, which there is, and he’s still enjoying it, then why not continue to race?