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There’s a cadre of young and hungry rivals; the seemingly insurmountable combined team strength of Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma, and UAE-Team Emirates; and the very steep pathway back to his world-beating form after his 2019 crash.
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There’s also father time. Froome is 35 years old, and he turns 36 in May. If he wins the 2021 Tour, Froome would be the second-oldest winer in Tour history, behind Firmin Lambot, who won the 1922 Tour at 36 years and four months old.
On Monday, Froome told reporters he’s up to the challenge.
“Age is a state of mind,” Froome said on a zoom call organized by his new Israel Start-Up Nation team. “I feel young in cycling years — I only got into the sport a bit later. The way nutrition has evolved and sport has evolved over the years, I think it’s possible for athletes to go later and later.”
Froome then referenced the sport’s current ageless wonder, Alejandro Valverde, who turns 41 this April, as a reference.
“Just looking at Valverde — he’s in his 40s and he’s still racing grand tours, and he’s still up there competing with the best in the world,” Froome said. “It’s certainly possible and I’d like to prove that as well.”
Froome is perhaps weeks or months away from making his racing debut with Israel Start-Up Nation, which wrestled Froome away from Ineos Grenadiers last season. His racing plan has yet to be announced, and Froome declined to reveal his first race of the season, instead telling reporters that he was focused on the Tour de France, no matter his pathway.
“Especially with the uncertainty about what races are going ahead and the restrictions of government, that’s a little bit up in the air at the moment,” Froome said when asked about his 2021 race plan. “I’m waiting to pin something down. We have a general idea but I’d rather not share that until it’s cemented.”
The focus on the Tour puts Froome on a collision course with the larger dynamics that have shaped grand tour racing over the past two seasons. Tadej Pogačar has emerged as the most potent grand tour racer of the new generation with his stunning victory at the 2020 Tour. Jumbo-Visma is now the strongest team, with a lineup of domestiques that can simply overpower the peloton.
And Froome’s former squad, Ineos Grenadiers, is scrapping to keep pace with its rivals.
Froome said Pogačar’s victory points out opportunities to win for riders like himself, who lack the muscular teammates to boss around the peloton.
“Naturally there are some extremely strong teams in the peloton that have dominated the front of the peloton over the last season,” Froome said. “But Pogačar, just looking at the Tour de France last year, his team wasn’t riding like that and he ended up winning the race — fantastic race by him — but it does show and give a lot of hope to the smaller teams, seeing a scenario like that coming off. At the end of the day it comes down to the strength of the leaders, and that’s where the race happens.”
That’s not to say Israel Start-Up Nation will be one of the weakest in the bunch. The Israeli squad went on a spending spree in 2020, hiring on a number of strong riders for the flats and mountains for 2021. Canadian rider Michael Woods joined from EF Education-Nippo, as did classics star Sep Vanmarcke. Daryl Impey, Carl Fredrik Hagen, and Patrick Bevin also join the squad.
How the squad approaches the Tour, however, has yet to be determined. On paper, Froome would be the team’s main leader, with grand tour veteran Dan Martin riding as a second option. Manager Kjell Carlstrom declined to provide details of how the team plans to handle Marin and Froome’s ambitions at the race.
“It’s always good to have numbers, that’s clear,” Carlstrom said. “They are both reasonable guys. They respect each other and the orders of the team.”
Of course, the 2021 Tour de France is still a long way off for Froome, who must still complete his rehabilitation from his 2019 crash. Froome came back to full-time racing in 2020 and visibly struggled in the bunch. His dismal performance at the Critérium du Dauphiné prompted Ineos Grenadiers brass to relegate him from the Tour to the Vuelta a España.
At the Vuelta, Froome did manage to finish, however he was far off the pace on the decisive days.
Froome said he was simply unable to rehabilitate his weakened leg muscles in time for the season, and he felt the lack of power in the races. In the weeks following the Vuelta, he had surgery to remove screws from his damaged leg.
For the last two months Froome has been in Southern California, where he has completed between three and four rehab sessions a week at the Red Bull High Performance Center in Santa Monica. Froome said his gym exercises are focused on the stabilizing muscles in his leg and hip.
“I’ve been working pretty hard, mainly on the quadriceps in terms of cycling-specific muscles,” Froome said. “Those are the biggest ones for me that were damaged, as well as the stabilizing muscles on that side of the leg. I’m certainly making a lot of headway to where I want to be.”
In the short-term, Froome said he will continue his recovery in Southern California, and gradually phase out the strength training and replace it with more miles on the road.
How long Froome continues to race is still a question, however, Froome said he is committed to racing with Israel Start-Up Nation until he calls it quits.
He said the setback caused by the crash would have been an “easier” opportunity for retirement, however the prospect of joining Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain as a five-time Tour winner was simply too powerful to quit.
“One of the big motivators was knowing I’m sitting on four Tour de France titles, and I don’t feel as though I’m done yet,” Froome said. “I’d like to get to number five, and I’d like to keep racing grand tours and targeting them until I’m ready to retire on my own terms. The prospect of being put out of [cycling] by a crash — that didn’t sit well with me. As soon as I found out I was able to make a full recovery, that was a simple decision to make.”