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Commentary: I’m already losing hope in Chris Froome’s comeback

Fred Dreier hopes Chris Froome will be ready to fight for the Tour de France win. Froome's struggles at the UAE Tour tell a different story.

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Chris Froome’s comeback is going great.

His rehabilitation is complete, and his once-broken body has healed. His conditioning plan is right on schedule. And now, Froome’s pathway to a record-tying fifth Tour de France victory is as clear as U.S. Interstate 405 at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning.

Reassuring messages like this have beamed from Planet Froome over the past few weeks, as he wrapped up his rehab in Southern California and prepared for the season. After each positive message, media members like myself have glanced at the calendar to see the UAE Tour circled in red. Seven days of sand and wind would tell us whether Froome was, indeed, on his way back.

Seeing is believing, as the old saying goes. After watching four stages of the UAE Tour, I’ve seen Chris Froome struggle again and again.

Sorry, folks, I’m already losing hope in the Chris Froome comeback story.

It pains me to write this, as I would like nothing more than for Froome to rediscover his world-beating form in the coming months. If Froome were to find his mojo and battle Dave Brailsford and Ineos Grenadiers at the Tour de France, the ordeal would etch an entire volume into pro cycling’s century-old history books. Millions would tune in. Cycling journalists — myself included — would spill endless gallons of digital ink on the story. It would be a glorious fairy-tale chapter to Froome’s already gilded career.

Alas, I can’t commit to the fantasy. Froome doesn’t pass the eye test.

After four stages, Froome sits in 43rd place, nearly 15 minutes behind leader Tadej Pogačar. More than half of his deficit came on stage 1, when Froome — and a few other GC stars, mind you — were blown out of the front group amid the desert crosswinds. Froome lost another 1:36 during the short 13km individual time trial on stage 2, and then another five minutes on Tuesday’s summit finish to Jebel Hafeet.

Let’s analyze these losses one by one. I am happy to give Froome the benefit of the doubt on stage 1 for finishing 8:29 down after a day of punishing crosswinds and painful echelons. A rider needs plenty of early-season power to make the front group in those conditions, so anyone not nearing top form was bound to suffer. Plenty of star riders were spat out the back, among them Alejandro Valverde, Sepp Kuss, Caleb Ewan, and the entire Ineos Grenadiers team other than Adam Yates.

But what do we make of his dismal ride in the individual time trial? How do we examine his mediocre ride to the summit of Jebel Hafeet, and convince ourselves that everything is OK?

In the ITT Froome lost 1:24 to Tadej Pogacar over 13 short and flat kilometers, and he finished alongside the sprinters and domestiques. Froome never finished outside of the top-15 in a February individual time trial during his heyday.

And then, on Wednesday, Froome was dropped with 6.6km remaining in the summit finish, when 37 riders still remained in the peloton. Cameras caught sight of him slipping off the back alongside sprinter Giacomo Nizzolo and domestique Fausto Masnada. Froome was jettisoned long before the race’s best climbers even put their noses into the wind.

Compare that to Pogačar, who powered through the crosswinds to make the front group on stage 1, and then soared up Jebel Hafeet two days later to win the stage.

Froome’s results raise too many red flags, especially when you examine his early-season results from the not-so-distant past. Prior to 2019 Froome never faltered in these early-season tests. During his era of Tour de France dominance, Froome tore people’s legs off in February, and he won stage races in Australia, Spain, and the Middle East. From 2013 until 2018 his worst result in an opening stage race was 10th place at the 2018 Vuelta a Andalucia.

I think Chris Froome would happily take 10th place right now.

I am cognizant of the holes in my opinion, of course. Critics will point out that it’s only February, and the Tour de France is months away. Froome simply lacks those big, hard days in the saddle, and those weeks of high-intensity training to bring his power back up. There’s still plenty of time to cram for the exam. Wait until May before you freak out, Fred. Froome’s the best of his generation, and that talent, experience, and work ethic hasn’t disappeared.

I’m already worried. If Froome is already this far behind in February, how can we expect him to pull things together by June? Cycling has undergone a radical generational shift in the last 18 months, and Froome’s era may be over. Look at the top-10 atop Jebel Hafeet and you will find nobody over the age of 30.

I dunno, folks. I truly want to believe in the comeback. I want to keep the faith. But at this point, my eyes won’t let me.