It seems like a long time since life, as we all knew it, stopped in March.
Life, as Chris Froome knew it, came to a grinding – and very painful – halt nearly a year earlier; the four-time Tour de France champion suffering terrible injuries in a crash while preparing for a stage during the Criterium de Dauphine warm-up race that left his life in the balance, never mind his career.
The road cycling season effectively begins again this weekend, but the 35-year-old is still playing catch-up from a year ago when he began a long road to recovery from a fractured right femur, a broken hip, a fractured elbow and fractured ribs.
Add in the coronavirus delay and, according to those within cycling, Froome is nowhere near the form he would be expected to be in leading into the Tour, which starts on 29 August.
But he’s not the only one, and the races leading up to cycling’s big one – starting with the four-day Route D’Occitanie (a southern French region bordering the Pyrenees) – are going to be critical in deciding who will be picked by their teams to race.
An intense rivalry already under way
A reminder: Team Ineos have three previous winners of the Tour to choose from this year; Froome (2013, 2015, 2016, 2017), Geraint Thomas (2018) and Egan Bernal (2019).
Ineos, with all their talent and substantial budget, have a policy that the strongest rider, by the time they get to around the final week of any Grand Tour, will be backed by the whole team. The other potential contenders must cede to that team order.
And while taking all three lead riders to the Tour is an option, it’s likely to be considered too complex a dynamic.
“Three winners on the same bus? Very tricky to manage, that. It’ll be interesting…” said one directeur sportif from a rival team.
Or, put even more succinctly: having Froome and Bernal on the same bus is not likely to work.
Evidence of this comes in the shape of the line-ups for three critical warm-up races in France. There is no Thomas for the first race. Yet Bernal and Froome are together for this weekend’s opener in Occitanie. Thomas joins the party at the Tour d L’Ain a few days later. Meaning they are all competing together for the subsequent two races.
And don’t forget, Bernal’s presence is one of the reasons Froome is leaving Ineos at the end of the season after the team decided not to renew his contract for 2021.
Froome was believed to have been frustrated with Ineos for not reprimanding the 23-year-old over comments he made in April. The Colombian told Eurosport: “I’m young, I’ve already won one Tour, and I’m not going to throw away an opportunity to win another, that’s for sure. That I would sacrifice myself being at 100%… I don’t think I’m going to do that, nor will anyone.”
Insiders felt the quote was fine, given his status as a Tour winner from last year.
But one thing Ineos will ensure is a level playing field for all contenders while this ‘ride-off’ plays out. All riders will get equal treatment and the right environment to perform.
How will they decide who goes?
Every warm-up race counts for something. But they are just that – warm-ups. You don’t usually have to win them. Just demonstrate you are producing the right numbers on the power meter.
There’s just as much merit in following your closest rival over the line right behind them in a warm-up race – so long as you are producing the power (in watts), for just as long and just as high. The higher the number compared to your rivals, the more explosive you will be on the climbs.
In the past, however, Froome, before many of his big victories, would often come out on top – a sign of his strength building up to the Tour. The Criterium du Dauphine – a gruelling trip across the Dauphine region of south-east France – is the third and final race in this year’s crucial sequence.
It was one he always seemed to monster. Froome won it three out of the four times in the years he won the Tour. And Geraint Thomas also took victory the year he won the Tour in 2018.
So what of Thomas? If anybody is a safe bet of the trio to be one of the two lead riders at the Tour it could be the Welshman. A Sky/Ineos lifer, who’s been there as long as Froome, the 34-year-old has been dutiful in his support of Froome in the past.
When he did finally beat Froome to a Tour win, it came after a gargantuan effort by Froome to win the Giro’d’Italia a month or two earlier.
Last year, in Froome’s absence, the focus was on whether Thomas could retain his Tour title in the face of Bernal’s emergence as a true Grand Tour force. He couldn’t, and played the team game well when it became apparent.
Given recent events, it seems less likely Froome would do the same.
Pride and performance
Bernal’s form is just as hard to be certain about at this stage – he had been training in Colombia after restrictions on flights in and out of the country left several of Colombia’s best riders in their homeland, before flying over to Europe 10 days ago. But he’s young and adaptable.
He knows he’s in a British team, with British riders. But performance comes before pride. So… win and you’re in.
It would be humiliating for Froome not to make this year’s race. The one he cares about the most – focused as he is on winning more Tours than anyone else. He needs two more to make it to the magic six.
His decade at Sky/Ineos has been glittering – for it to end with him missing out on the Tour would be a fall from grace, and that trademark awkward smile would disappear for a while.
The year 2020 is unique. Not just for the facemasks and cancelled holidays, but for the fact this summer’s monumental battle in the mountains of the Pyrenees and the Alps could happen before the main event itself.