Crashes and injuries are, unfortunately, part and parcel of professional cycling. So much so that riders become almost inured to the ever-present danger. After a close shave with a car in Tenerife last month, Chris Froome told the Telegraph he did not waste time worrying about such things. “Every day we have scares,” Froome said. “Something runs across the road, or you hit a stone in a corner and think ‘Oooh, that was close.’ It’s just how it is. If it happens, it happens. Don’t waste time worrying about it.”
He will be worried now though. As will his team and family and friends – Froome was undergoing surgery on Wednesday night to his fractured femur, right elbow and ribs and his health is clearly the immediate priority. But as the wounds slowly heal, about his long-term prospects, too. At 34, put simply, time is not on Froome’s side.
Of course, Froome is already the greatest grand tour rider of his generation. With six grand tour wins, including four Tour titles, he could never race again and nothing would change on that score. But he is clearly hugely motivated to draw level with the greats of the past – Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain – and claim that record-equalling fifth Tour crown.
History suggests that was already going to be difficult aged 34. Only four riders have ever won the Tour aged 34 or over, and three of them were before 1948. In the modern era only Cadel Evans, who was 34 years and 160 days when he won in 2011, has bucked the trend. Before that you have to go back 71 years to Gino Bartali who was 34 years 8 days when he won.
Froome will be 35 by the time next summer’s Tour comes around. Even assuming he makes a full recovery from his injuries – and others have managed to do so including Jack Bauer and Alexander Vinokourov – the odds are heavily stacked against him. Only Fermin Lambot (36 years and 130 days) has ever won aged 35 or older. And that in 1922.
Froome was unaware of those statistics when they were put to him. “Really?” he said. “That does make me feel old.” But he added that he saw no reason why he could not make history by winning five, even six titles.
“Looking at that list most of the multiple grand tour winners started in their early 20s,” he noted. “I imagine they got to a point where they’d won four or five and they went ‘I’ve had enough’. And maybe I’d feel differently if I’d started winning grand tours at the age of 23/24. But I didn’t. I was 28 when I won my first. I’m still hugely motivated. My numbers are still good. Almost every year I’ve found my PBs are getting higher…”
Froome’s other issue, of course, is that Ineos (who must be cursing their luck after losing Bernal for the Giro and now Froome for the Tour since taking over the team on May 1) have another Tour winner already in their ranks in Geraint Thomas, plus a host of other riders gagging for the opportunity to show what they can do.
It’s what makes them such a formidable team. The next generation – Egan Bernal, Pavel Sivakov, Ivan Sosa, Tao Geoghegan Hart – are already chomping at the bit, let alone established grand tour riders such as Wout Poels and Michal Kwiatkowski.
One thing is certain, it would be undoubtedly the greatest achievement of Froome’s career if he could come back and pull off that fifth Tour win next summer. In the meantime, the sport will wish him well on his long road to recovery.