The time is right for Chris Froome and Sky to take up the challenge of racing to win the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the same season.
Comments over the weekend to VeloNews (since posted on Sky’s website) provided the first credible hint that Froome could be considering the elusive Giro-Tour double in 2017.
“I’m always open to anything,” Froome said Sunday. “I wouldn’t write [the Giro] off. But I think mostly important it’s about seeing what route organizers go with, and see what takes my fancy.”
Would Sky and Froome risk their tried-and-true blueprint for Tour de France success to try to win the Giro? Logic would say no, they’re not ready. The Tour remains the sport’s highest pinnacle, and with three yellow jerseys in four years, Froome has emerged as the peloton’s best grand tour rider of the post-Lance Armstrong era. Anything less than victory in July would be a disappointment, and the risks of racing to win in May and then trying to repeat in July are well documented.
Yet the time is ripe for Froome and Sky to take on one of cycling’s most elusive and difficult challenges. Here’s why:
At their unrivaled peak
Froome and Sky are in a sweet spot unrivaled in the peloton. At 31, Froome is by far the most complete grand tour rider of his generation, boasting that rare combination of climbing and time trialing at world-class levels. No one can match Froome in time trials, and very few can drop him in the mountains when he’s at his peak. Backed up by Sky’s peloton-leading budget and its quest for marginal gains, Froome is surrounded by a fortress that is all but impregnable. If Sky were to bring its Tour de France template and firepower to Italy’s boot, he would have very good chances of becoming the first British winner of the Giro.
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Since Froome and Sky are at their absolute pinnacle in terms of physical, mental, and technical domination, the added challenge of racing to win the pink jersey is just what the franchise needs to keep sharp. Even going into last season as Sky ended its first half-decade, team boss Dave Brailsford talked about reinvention and new goals to keep the team energized and motivated. In 2016, the team won its first monument at Liège-Bastogne-Liège and its third yellow jersey. A run at what’s been an otherwise elusive pink jersey would be the kind of stimulus that Brailsford and the Sky brain trust thrive on.
A place in history
Only seven riders have won the Giro and Tour back-to-back, and all of them did it at their absolute physical peaks. Consider this list: Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Stephen Roche, Miguel Indurain, and Marco Pantani, the last to do it in 1998. When Alberto Contador tried it in 2015, one of his central motivations was his quest to do something “grande,” an achievement that would stand apart. After winning all three grand tours throughout his career, Contador knew that if he could pull off the rare Giro-Tour double, it would cement his place in the history of the sport. Despite winning nearly every stage race he’s started, Froome seems to get short shrift for his achievements. A Giro win would be a huge feather in his and Sky’s cap.
A Froome-friendly course
So what would tempt Froome to Italy? Above all, the right kind of course. Froome’s decision will be hinged on what officials unveil for the Giro’s centenary edition. To attract the interest of Froome, the Giro would need at least one relatively long individual time trial. Without it, Froome would certainly give it a miss. The inclusion of a TT similar to what we saw in the Vuelta — when Froome took more than two minutes out of eventual winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) over 37km — would be the absolute linchpin for a possible Froome Giro run.
Having said that, it’s likely we won’t see a Froome-friendly course for 2017. The Giro organizers are expected to make this a very Italian-flavored route, hitting all the race’s historical high notes, meaning that the route will be loaded with climbs. Giro officials want to see a big clash between Vincenzo Nibali (racing for his new Bahrain team next season) and rising star Fabio Aru (Astana, Nibali’s soon-to-be former team), evoking the epic battles between Coppi and Gino Bartali over the Giro’s glory years.
Yet the chance to have the peloton’s top grand tour rider at the Giro might be enough for RCS Sport to deliver a Froome-friendly route (though it might seem more likely in 2018). Wednesday’s confirmation of next year’s “grande partenza” and opening weekend will provide the first clue.
Upsides and risks
VeloNews first heard in July from a credible source that Froome was mulling a possible Giro start to coincide with the corsa rosa’s centenary edition, something Sky insiders shot down. On Sunday, Froome at least cracked open the door he might race the Giro next May.
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On a sporting level, Sky would certainly be interested in adding a Giro trophy and that luster to its already shining franchise palmares. Since 2011, the team has been the gravitational center of the peloton in stage racing. With four Tour de France victories in a five-year span, along with a long list of other stage races, Sky has set the tone of the sport, with everyone else scrambling to catch up. Two races have eluded the squad: the Vuelta and the Giro. With three second-places in the Vuelta with Froome, there is a sense that one year the race will eventually be theirs. The Giro, however, has proven far trickier. Efforts by Bradley Wiggins, Richie Porte, and Mikel Landa have gone wildly off the rails. If Froome did race the Giro, you can bet that Sky brings its A-team to support him in an all-out effort to win the pink jersey.
What are the downsides? There are many. Racing the Giro before the Tour would put untested physical and mental strains on Froome and Sky and its highly effective blueprint. To try to win both the Giro and Tour in the same season would require a complete makeover in Froome’s training schedule and preparation. The risk is high they might not get it right if they venture off the script and into untested waters. A failure in either race — or even both — would have fallout.
A Giro run would also open Froome to the inevitable risks of crashes and illnesses that are uniquely part of the landscape of May in late spring. Froome has only raced a few times in Italy throughout his career — his last Giro was in 2010 — and the pollen, tricky roads, foul weather, and even blizzards that strike Italy in May would have lasting consequences for July. One bad crash or one bad case of the sniffles, and Froome could potentially miss a Tour defense.
And if Froome’s rivals see that he is racing the Giro, they would double-up their efforts to hit their absolute peak in July, knowing that a weary Froome might be easier to pick off. Earlier this season, Froome admitted as much and downplayed a possible Giro run in comments during this summer’s Tour.
“As it stands, with my focus on the Tour, it’s difficult to commit to the Giro,” Froome said in July. “It’s difficult to back up two grand tours like that. It is harder to stay at the top for the duration of the season when you have guys targeting and training for specific events.”
Why now? Why not?
With three yellow jerseys, Froome is tantalizingly close to joining cycling’s elite “five-win” club, and that lure will likely keep Froome and Sky focused on July.
Logic would say it is safer for Froome to try to collect two more yellow jerseys to reach five, and then try the Giro-Tour double in 2019. By then, he’d be 34, perhaps more ready for retirement than eyeing an additional reference in his palmares.
The time is now for Froome to target the pink jersey. After coming tantalizingly close to winning the Vuelta, Froome and Sky are more convinced than ever that it is possible to win a second grand tour in addition to the Tour. If Giro organizers do their part and deliver a Froome-friendly course, the stars just might align, and we could see Froome racing next May.
Let’s hope so. That would make 2017 a season for the history books, with heightened expectations for both the Giro and Tour. Froome earned new respect and new fans this season with his tenacity and racing acumen. Taking on the Giro-Tour double, and pulling it off, would cement his reputation. Why wait?