Why Chris Froome won't win a fifth Tour de France
Team Sky leader will face tougher opposition when he seeks a fifth Tour de France title
Chris Froome with second-placed Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran (left) and third-placed Romain Bardet on the Tour de France podium on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris. Photograph: Goffroy Van Der Hassel/AFP/Getty
With no disrespect to Chris Froome immediately after his fourth Tour de France win, I do not believe that the Team Sky leader will make it five and thus join the ranks of the immortals: Indurain, Merckx, Hinault and Anquetil.
Not next year, and probably not the year after. I appreciate that the accusations that I am indulging in anti-Team Sky, anti-Froome wishful thinking will flood in but I would like to think this is based on logical analysis as well as emotion. Not emotion in the tear-your-hair-out sense, but on the feeling you get in your bones.
This was not actually the closest of the Froome Tours: that was 2015, when Nairo Quintana had the form to win, and might well have won if Movistar had been more dynamic before unleashing him at l’Alpe d’Huez.
However, the 2017 race was a Tour in which Froome never looked dominant. Not winning a stage is not a sign of a lack of charisma – winning bike races is hardly simple, as we all know – but it is usually an indication that a champion is not quite what he was.
Partly this may be down to Froome’s preparation, which targeted the final week, but Froome at his best would have had the ability to go with Warren Barguil when he attacked on the Col d’Izoard at the Tour’s final summit finish.
Froome is now 32, a difficult age for a Tour champion, and while he has defied the years thus far, maturing relatively late, it cannot go on for ever. That is the law of nature. This year, he had the look of a rider who is not quite what he was, who won by canny riding and with the help of a supremely strong team.
You would like to imagine that Tom Dumoulin and Vincenzo Nibali watched this year’s Tour with an eyebrow raised. You would like to hope that both will come to the Tour next year at their best, sensing that there might be more than half a chance to topple the man who has dominated the Tour since 2013.
Each rider offers a different skill set – Dumoulin in time trials, Nibali in his race knowledge and his riding up and down mountains – and the combination of the two of them would add to the challenge for Froome, who lacked seasoned opposition this July.
Next year, the opposition will proliferate and most of those involved will have less to lose than this year. Romain Bardet will know that the podium will no longer satisfy France and it would be better to risk all and go down in flames. France only has so much patience with followers. Rigoberto Urán, Daniel Martin and Richie Porte will be older admittedly – the same argument of anno domini applies to them as much as to Froome – but will still threaten.
The only way to beat Team Sky is to disrupt their game plan and prevent them from racing how they want to. This never happened in 2017, partly because Astana’s challenge faltered, partly because there were not enough mature contenders in the race. Teams need to present the multiple challenge, one to attack from distance, one to sit tight and watch.
A combination of Dumoulin and Barguil – backed by the same strong Sunweb team that rode so well this year – could be very threatening, simply because of their contrasting racing styles. So too the Yates twins for Orica, who do similar things on the bike but have unique knowledge of each other and unique loyalty. They will be a year older and stronger, with two Grand Tour top-10 finishes behind each of them.
The transfer market – Fabio Aru, Mikel Landa, perhaps even Quintana – will be closely watched, but teams of ambition will look to present multiple options on the start line next year in Noirmoutier. Unlike Froome, the bulk of the opposition is made up of relatively young riders with headroom for improvement. Potentially, he could turn up in the Vendée in 2018 to face a dozen serious threats, many of them younger than him.
The final factor is the route.
It won’t be an anti-Froome route because no such thing exists. The Kenya-born Briton has proved that he can win on any kind of Tour route with any ratio of time trialling to climbing, any proportion of mountain top finishes to valley finishes. But the race is bound to go deep into Brittany next year and no one would bet against Christian Prudhomme taking the riders down the ribinou, the rough Breton tracks that feature in the Tro Bro Léon.
That will bring in a massive element of the unexpected – not necessarily to Froome’s detriment, as he mastered the cobbles in 2015. Additionally, the race will not include an opening time trial, which will make it more open than this year.
This year’s relative abundance of sprint stages was an aberration, and there should be more of the hilly days which make the race more interesting, and for Sky, harder to keep a grip on.
I have the utmost respect for the way Froome races. I feel I barely know him even after watching him in the yellow jersey for four years out of the last five; from what I can tell from our few one-on-one conversations, he is a decent, driven, hard-working bike rider.
From what I have seen on the road, his Tour management is second to none. We all know he has the best team behind him, and whether Landa stays or goes, that won’t change. He won’t need any extra incentive. So go on Chris, I will be happy if you prove me wrong.