In the space of 36 hours, Chris Froome went from appearing a near certainty for a fifth Tour de France title to having significant question marks over the rest of his career, so severe his injuries. The Team Ineos leader’s high-speed crash, while doing reconnaissance ahead of stage four of the Dauphiné, sent shockwaves through the rest of the peloton and was a reminder of the fragility of life at the top.
Team Ineos’ hopes for the next grand tour had been looming as a rather intriguing battle between Froome, defending Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas and young gun Egan Bernal. Given the form on display by Froome at the Dauphiné this week, it seemed inevitable that Thomas and Bernal would be nothing more than a sideshow. Now, with that two-man act finalising their preparations ahead of July at the Tour de Suisse, a curious battle for an upper hand and right to be anointed as team leader begins.
In Friday’s Dauphiné stage, we saw Froome’s teammates content to maintain the status quo and ride in their customary manner, setting the tempo through Wout Poels and Michal Kwiatkowski at the front of the bunch. Experience tells us that the team is unlikely to change its tactics in response to Froome’s absence. One needs only to look back to last year’s Tour de France, and the way that Thomas stepped up to the plate once Froome crashed out, to be reminded that a glitch in the matrix does little to the way this team methodically approaches racing.
There will always be another ‘Agent Smith’, but if someone other than an Ineos rider is to stand on the top step of the podium in Paris this year, it’s up to the other favourites to drastically change the way they approach racing in July.
In cycling, as in life, there are some people whose stars continually rise and Jumbo-Visma’s Wout van Aert is one such example. While Froome was hospitalised, the 24-year-old Belgian’s win in the Dauphiné’s 26.1km chrono was a pleasant surprise ahead of his Tour de France debut. Van Aert’s form might not have been in doubt, having begun the Dauphiné with a third place on stage 1, and then a runner-up finish on Tuesday’s stage behind Sam Bennett.
However, if we needed any confirmation that the three-time cycle-cross world champion is about to become a genuine force in road cycling, his time-trial win was it. When van Aert made it two from two with Thursday’s stage victory, it was merely a confirmation of his versatility.
Van Aert’s Jumbo-Visma teammate, Steven Kruijswijk, will be one of those reconsidering his options, in the void that Froome’s absence leaves. Kruijswijk’s season to date has been nothing but impressive, but with Dylan Groenewegen commanding support for a green jersey tilt, the question of split loyalties with Jumbo-Visma remains. One almost gets the feeling that it’s the likes of van Aert, which could decide ultimate success at the Tour for Jumbo-Visma.
After eight hours of surgery, Froome may have found some comfort in the knowledge that he is on the verge of adding a seventh grand tour to his palmarès, courtesy of the downfall of Juan José Cobo. Froome finished as runner-up to Cobo at the 2011 Vuelta a España. On Thursday, the UCI announced out of the blue that Cobo was “found the retired rider guilty of an anti-doping rule violation (Use of a prohibited substance) based on abnormalities from 2009 and 2011 detected in his Biological Passport and imposed a three-year period of ineligibility on the rider.”
A long-term case, the now-retired Cobo may yet appeal the ruling. But it’s a timely reminder that a rider’s fate is never really sealed in modern cycling. Cobo, too, throughout his career benefited from similar rulings, awarded a Tour de France stage win from 2008 when his then-teammate Leonardo Piepoli was disqualified for using Erythropoietin (EPO), CERA. Piepoli was one of four riders found to have used the blood booster during that year’s Tour, along with Riccardo Riccò who was jettisoned from the event, Bernhard Kohl and Stefan Schumacher.
A comfort for Froome, albeit a little cold after an investigation into his adverse analytical finding for salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta was leaked to the press in stark comparison to Cobo’s case. And a reminder that the wheels of fortune, keep turning.