Chris Froome’s hopes of securing a record-equalling fifth Tour de France title next month are over, and his chances of ever winning the race again must now be in doubt, after the 34 year-old broke his leg, elbow and ribs in a horrific 40mph crash before stage four of the Criterium du Dauphine.
Team principal Dave Brailsford confirmed on Wednesday night that Froome had been taken into intensive care and was “not in great shape”. Brailsford told Radio 5 Live: “He’s been operated on to make sure that first phase of medical care is as optimal as possible and we will manage it from there. It’s an evolving situation. It is concerning, there is no doubt about that.”
The four-time Tour champion, who had been hoping to draw level with Jacques Anqutetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the joint most successful rider in the race’s 116-year history, smashed into a wall after reportedly taking his hands off his handlebars to “blow his nose” towards the bottom of a descent.
He was immediately ruled out of next month’s Tour, with his team Ineos later confirming multiple injuries including a fractured right femur, a fractured elbow and fractured ribs.
Froome will be 35 by the time of next year’s race and only one man – 36 year-old Firmin Lambot in 1922 – has ever won the race aged 35 or older.
Froome was riding his time trial bike at the time of the crash, doing reconnaissance ahead of Wednesday’s 26.1km individual time trial in Roanne together with team mate and domestique Wout Poels. The six-time grand tour winner also crashed while riding his TT bike in practice ahead of last year’s Giro d’Italia prologue in Jerusalem, although on that occasion he escaped with cuts and bruises and was able to come back and win the race.
Eyewitnesses said Froome did not move for some time as he was treated by ambulance crew, with Cyclingtips.com quoting eye-witnesses as saying that the fracture was “open”.
Sir Dave Brailsford, Ineos team principal, admitted straight away that the crash was “very serious.
“He crashed in the downhill section of the course at high speed,” Brailsford told reporters in France. “He hit a wall. It’ll take quite a long time before he races again.
“It sounds like he’s taken his hands off his bars to blow his nose and the wind has just taken his front wheel. He’s hit a wall at 60kmh or something like that.
“It’s a very serious accident. Clearly, he won’t be at the start of the Tour de France.”
Team doctor Richard Usher later added in a team statement: “Chris was taken to Roanne Hospital where initial examinations confirmed multiple injuries, most notably a fractured right femur and right elbow. He has also suffered fractured ribs. He is now being airlifted to St Etienne University Hospital for further treatment.
“On behalf of the Team, I would like to commend the treatment he received from the emergency services and all at Roanne Hospital in assessing and stabilising him.
“We will now turn our focus towards supporting him in his recovery.”
Froome’s injury deprives the Tour of one of its biggest stars – and one of its best stories. The prospect of Froome once again going head-to-head with team mate Geraint Thomas next month had been eagerly anticipated.
Thomas won their intra-team duel last year, becoming the first Welsh winner of cycling’s biggest race. But Froome was clearly not at his best after his exertions six weeks earlier at the Giro, where he had won his first maglia rosa and third grand tour in succession.
This year both men had skipped the Giro in order to focus on the Tour and had been promising to let things play out on the road.
Thomas’s odds immediately rose sharply with bookmakers, with the Welshman now installed as the 3/1 favourite, Froome having begun the day heavily fancied at 13/8.
It remains to be seen how Team Ineos decides to play things now; whether they put all of their eggs into Thomas’s basket, or whether they decide to protect Egan Bernal and go with a two-pronged strategy. Bernal, a 22 year-old Colombian, was a revelation at last year’s Tour, pulling for Froome and Thomas day after day and still managing to finish 15th.
Despite his tender age and lack of grand tour experience – last year’s Tour de France is his only grand tour to date – Bernal had been due to lead the team at the recent Giro but fractured his collarbone in a training crash a week before the start.
Whatever Ineos decide, Froome’s rivals will be feeling far more confident than they were on Wednesday that they can break the British team’s stranglehold on the race. Ineos – in their previous incarnation as Team Sky – have won six of the last seven Tours with Sir Bradley Wiggins, Froome and Thomas. Sunweb’s Tom Dumoulin, who was runner-up to Thomas last year, will be strongly fancied, while outsiders such as Adam Yates – who finished fourth in 2016 and whose twin brother Simon won the Vuelta a Espana last autumn – will come into the reckoning.
As if on cue, Yates snatched the yellow jersey at the Criterium du Dauphine on Wednesday, finishing sixth in the TT to wrestle the race lead from Bahrain-Merida’s Dylan Teuns by four seconds. Time trials have always been Yates’ weakness but if he can compete with the likes of Thomas and Dumoulin against the clock, Yates could well be a factor.
For Froome, the prognosis is uncertain. “I hope it’s not as bad a crash as what I had in 2012, but I mean it’s also sport,” said Poels who ruptured his spleen and kidneys, bruised his lungs, broke three ribs and ended up in intensive care after a mass pile-up at that year’s Tour. “If you go down at 65kph – and he went down really, really hard – then you know it’s not really good. [But] there’s also the mentality with us that sometimes you have a bad injury or accident and then you fight back. Hopefully, you can come back stronger.”