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Most have looked at the lack of time trial kilometres as the reason why Chris Froome has said he might give the 2015 Tour de France a miss but, according to Sean Kelly, another factor is likely the real reason.
“I think the Tour organisation took a risk last year of doing the cobbles and we saw the consequences. It was a disaster for Froome. It was lucky they didn’t lose more of the favourites, given the weather conditions,” the former world number one told CyclingTips.
“You are always at the mercy of the weather. So I am surprised they went back and are went for cobbles again. Now we hear there is a possibility Froome might not be going to the Tour. For me, that is not surprising.”
Froome crashed the day before the pavé section and fractured his hand. The nature of that injury was not clear and he started stage five to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, resolving to see how he felt. However he fell again and suffered another fracture to his left wrist, causing him to retire from the race.
Kelly acknowledges that this crash occurred long before the first pavé section, but says the cobbles were a factor anyway.
“We saw that the race was so nervous on that day, with riders fighting for position. Froome crashed very early in the stage. It is not surprising that he decided, or hinted, that he might not do the Tour next year.
“That’s the reason I would say I am really surprised that the Tour de France went down the road again. It was always going to be a risky one if you put cobbles in again. Froome was perhaps always going to say ‘I am not going to that f**king race.’”
Froome finished second in the 2012 Tour de France and then dominated in 2013. After that victory he said that he was hungry to take multiple editions of the race, but had the setback this year of having to retire from the event.
The race is the biggest in cycling and is a major goal for Team Sky and its sponsors. Cycling is at an all-time high in Britain but, undoubtedly, a yellow jersey in the Tour would gather far more publicity than the Maglia Rosa in the Giro.
For that reason it was expected that the race would be a major target for Froome in 2015. His stated concerns about a lack of time trialing are curious; while he would undoubtedly take time out of rivals such as Nairo Quintana (Movistar) against the clock, the 2013 Tour and other races show that Froome is arguably the strongest climber anyway in the sport when he is on his top form.
For Kelly, mention of a lack of time trial kilometres is a likely red herring. Instead, he believes that Froome’s bike handling is the real issue, plus fear that he could be badly hurt again.
“It isn’t difficult to see that he struggles,” he said. “Before this year’s Tour he said that he had ridden over the cobbles with the team and he felt comfortable.
“However, as I said on Eurosport [where he is a commentator – ed.] that it is a totally different situation riding over the cobblestones with your team-mates, with eight, ten, twelve riders, than when you get into the peloton with 190 riders fighting for position. It is a different thing altogether.”
Kelly has plenty of experience riding the cobbles, having won two editions of Paris-Roubaix during his long career. He thrived on the pavé while finding the mountains tougher; he accepts that the reverse is true for the lightweight Tour contenders.
He believes that Froome won’t be the only one concerned by ASO’s decision to bring the pavé back.
“When you consider the cobbles and what might be more bad weather conditions, then for the climbers it is going to be a difficult one to get through those early days without problems. They could have a lot of time to make up.
“Are the climbs and the mountain top finishes enough to balance out the time they can possibly lose on the cobble stage? Is that going to be enough to make up? I don’t know.”
He points out that it is not just about potential time loss. Conceding minutes is one thing; ending up on the deck with bad injuries is another.
“The big problem for the climbers is that the cobbles are so dangerous. They might not get over them,” he warned. “I think it is going to be very difficult for Froome to get over. The next one is Quintana – will he go for the Tour? I’ll not be surprised if we hear that he is not going to do the Tour next year because of the cobbled day.”
“That whole first week is going to be hectic. Not just the pavé, but also the stages from Holland and then Belgium. It is not the mountain stages the climbers are going to be thinking about in the beginning. It is getting through the cobble stage and the others ones early on.”