Chris Froome is living proof of the incredibility of cycling
British rider made what seemed impossible happen on stage 19 of Giro d’Italia
Chris Froome of Team Sky crossing the finish line to win the 19th stage of the Giro d’Italia. Photograph: EPA/Daniel Dal Zennaro
These are worrying times for the ever-believer. In terms of faith and fate. Not since the days of Coppi or Merckx has one rider torn up the general classification on a single stage of a Grand Tour like Chris Froome has just done, and for once it seems all of cycling is in agreement. (Insert curse word here.)
It’s not over yet, and the way this Giro d’Italia has been spinning maybe there is another turn before it reaches the streets of Rome on Sunday. Yet for now this race has Froome’s name written all over it, and both his supporters and detractors must be aware of the incredibility of all that. Neither can they have expected it.
Froome began Friday’s stage 19 in fourth position, three minutes and 22 seconds down on race leader Simon Yates. Defending Giro champion Tom Dumoulin was a close second, 28 seconds behind Yates – and then the impossible happened.
With his Team Sky at the front, Froome attacked up the Colle delle Finestre, a 18.5km climb which reaches 2,178m – the highest point in the Giro, and includes 9km of frequently dodgy dirt road.
There was still another 80km and two more climbs before the finish at Bardonecchia, and this was the sort of solo breakaway that usually ends in tears. For some of those watching it possibly still did.
Froome quickly opened a gap on Dumoulin, and even more so Yates, who was promptly dropped and still climbing the Finestre by the time Froome was down the other side. Sure he couldn’t keep going like this?
He looked effortless, except when narrowly avoiding a crashed motorbike on the ascent, and also when fending off two spectators, one dressed as a doctor, the other carrying a large inflatable inhaler.
Over the penultimate climb at Sestrière, Froome then completed one of the greatest acts of Alpine drama by winning the stage, his second of the race, taking the leader’s pink jersey for the first time in his career. At age 33, hardly breathing and unquestionably the ride of his life.
Back down the road Dumoulin was hanging on, eventually finishing fifth, 3:23 behind. With that Froome went in front on the general classification by 40 seconds over Dumoulin, now the only rider within four minutes.
Saturday’s Stage 20 has three stiff climbs, yet in this sort of form Froome will need to crash to lose those 40 seconds. A third consecutive Grand Tour, his sixth in total, his first Giro, is suddenly all his – and so too, it seems, fated to win four consecutive Grand Tours, a feat only achieved by Merckx.
Yet all that is presuming Froome even gets to start the Tour de France in July. The faster he rode up the Finestre, it seemed the more attention he brought to his still pending doping case going back to the presence of the anti-asthma drug salbutamol after stage 18th in the Vuelta a España last September, at twice the permitted amount.
That, by the way, is set at 1,000 ng/ml; Froome, give or take a bit for generalisation, had 2,000 ng/ml in his urine after stage 18. On the stage before and the stage after his levels were grand.
There are various theories doing the rounds as to where this case will end up. According to L’Equipe, Sky’s lawyers are arguing that Froome’s kidneys malfunctioned during that stage 18 of the Vuelta, retaining all the salbutamol he had inhaled as part of his asthma medication, then releasing it all in one go.
You don’t need an Ivy League degree in biology to understand that kidneys don’t normally malfunction like that – especially not a professional cyclist riding for the self-proclaimed cleanest and best medicated team in the peloton.
Froome had reportedly agreed a €1.4 million appearance fee to ride the Giro, which may help explain why he didn’t drop out after suffering several setbacks in the opening week, including a crash before the opening time trial in Israel.
It may actually be in his and Sky’s best interest to drag out his case as long as possible, and even if he is eventually suspended, it will only begin at the time of the decision.
The problem is no one seems to know with any great certainty when that will be, including the director of the Tour de France Christian Prudhomme, who has described the delay in a decision as “grotesque”, and made it clear he did not want Froome riding the Tour de France with any incredibility hanging over it. This is not good for cycling, and again the Froome supporters and detractors must be aware of that.
“I’m still pinching myself...Chris Froome, what have you done?” asked Jonathan Edwards, who is anchoring Eurosport’s live coverage of the Giro, and doing a smart job of it. Edwards brought a calm and measured sense to his athletics commentary on BBC, and is now doing likewise with cycling.
Loss of faith
Watching him trying to make sense of Froome’s performance was a reminder of his own loss of faith as Edwards had always looked to God for strength when taking on the world’s best triple-jumpers and beating them – which he did most famously at the 1995 World Championships in Gothenburg when he three times improved the world record, pushing it out to 18.29 metres, which still stands.
And no one ever doubted this faith, especially not after Edwards withdrew from the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo because his event was scheduled for the Sabbath.
Yet not long after retiring, Edwards found himself taking a leap of faith in the other direction, and in 2007 declared himself a devout atheist.
Still, it seems cycling is living off its own incredibility, and stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia will go down as the perfect proof of that.