Froome: ‘I don’t feel as if I’m done yet’
As he gears up for the 2021 season, his first outside the Sky/Ineos organization in more than a decade, Chris Froome is training hard in preparation for a familiar goal. In his first media appearance with his new team Israel Start-Up Nation this week, the 35-year-old Briton said that he is working on getting back to his best to contend at the Tour de France, a race he has won four times.
It has been some three and a half years since Froome last won the Tour (and a little under two and a half since he won the 2018 Giro d’Italia in stunning fashion), and much has transpired for the Grand Tour star since then. A crash during recon of the time trial stage at the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné left Froome with multiple serious injuries, knocking him out for the rest of that season, and although he got back to racing in 2020, he was unable to return to the same level of fitness of years past.
As was the case last January, when Froome was working towards his first race start in months, he finds himself in unusual circumstances again, preparing for the year in a brand new jersey, having signed on to ride for Israel Start-Up Nation on a “long-term” deal expected to keep him with the squad through the rest of his career. Speaking on a video call from California, where he has been training, Froome was optimistic about what lies ahead.
“The most important thing for me at this moment has been to try to get myself physically back to previous levels,” Froome said. “One of the biggest keys to that has been getting my rehab back on track. It wasn’t quite completed last year as I’d hoped, but I’ve had the chance being here in California to work really closely with the Red Bull High Performance Center. They’ve been fantastic in supporting me and we have been in there doing sessions three or four times a week, quite heavy, quite lengthy sessions there, and I feel like I’m much closer to where I need to be starting the season this time around than I was last year.”
Froome said that he has been working on targeting muscles in his legs this offseason, trying to build back the strength he had before his crash and the lengthy period he spent off the bike in the aftermath. Specifically, he is working out his quadriceps and other stabilizing muscles after having screws removed following the 2020 Vuelta a España. He said that he has been “making a lot of headway” over the past few weeks.
He has also been riding out on the roads of Southern California, and he plans to ramp up that aspect of his training and wind down the strength training as he gets closer to competition.
Much has changed, for both Froome and the top tier of Grand Tour racing, since he last rode the Tour in 2018. Yet to return to the fitness he had before his Dauphiné crash, with new teammates and new rivals to watch, Froome is undoubtedly facing a huge challenge in his quest to get back to his old level of success. In his media appearance on Monday, he was asked whether it would have been easier to retire after his crash, but for Froome, adding a fifth Tour title to his palmares (which would put him in the lofty company of Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, and Eddy Merckx) continues to be a driving force.
“It certainly would have been the easier option, but not the way I wanted to finish my cycling career,” he said of retiring. “One really big motivation for me was knowing that I’m sitting on four Tour de France titles and I don’t feel as if I’m done yet. I’d like to get to number five. I’d like to keep racing Grand Tours, targeting them until I’m ready to retire from the sport on my own terms.
“Just the prospect of being put out by a crash, that didn’t sit well with me. As soon as I found out that I was able to make a full recovery and there’s nothing physically that should hold me back, that was a simple decision to make.”
Froome will turn 36 before this year’s Tour. Only one rider over the age of 35 has ever won the yellow jersey (Firmin Lambot was 36 in 1922), but Froome expressed confidence that he could continue to be competitive into the latter half of his 30s.
“I feel relatively young in cycling years,” he said. “I only got into the sport a little bit later. I think the way nutrition has evolved, the way sport has evolved over the years, I think it’s certainly possible for athletes to go later and later. Just looking at a rider like [Alejandro] Valverde in his 40s already, still racing Grand Tours, still up there competing with the best in the world. It’s certainly possible and I’d like to prove that as well.”
Whatever results he manages to achieve moving forward, he’ll be doing so with a squad that was racing at the Pro Continental level less than two years ago. That’s after 11 seasons with one of the sport’s strongest teams, a Sky/Ineos squad that was dominant for years at the Tour. While Froome does have stage racing talent around him in his new team, with the likes of Dan Martin and Michael Woods as fellow members of the squad, he will undoubtedly be in uncharted waters with a very different supporting cast than he had in years past.
Froome’s optimism for the future, however, extends beyond his return to fitness and into the top level of road racing generally. As the veteran pro looks ahead to 2021 and beyond, he is taking heart in the way things played out for a 21-year-old at last year’s Tour.
“Naturally, there are some extremely strong teams in the peloton that have dominated the front of the peloton as we’ve seen over the last season,” he said. “[Tadej] Pogacar, just looking at the Tour de France last year, his team wasn’t riding like that. He ended up winning the Tour de France. Fantastic race by him, but it does show and it does give a lot of hope to the smaller teams, seeing a scenario like that coming off. At the end of the day it comes down to the strength of the leaders.”