Chris Froome during his ITT effort on stage 5 of the 2021 Tour de France.

Chris Froome asks: do gravel, cobbles and TTs have a place in stage races?

The seven-time Grand Tour winner has big questions about the safety and fairness of stage racing.

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Chris Froome has chipped in on the gravel-sections-in-stage-races debate, and in doing so he brought cobbles, and even time trials, into play.

“It’s a tricky one, and the same goes for including cobbles or a Paris-Roubaix stage at the Tour de France,” Froome said in his latest YouTube video entitled ‘Do Time Trial Bikes Belong in Road Cycling?’. “It is a tricky one because it does give excitement to the race, it’s just such a big risk as well.

“I mean you think of what it takes to be ready to go into a race for the general classification, it’s months of dedication, not just from the team leader, but the team around him, the whole support crew, everything, the investment, the resources, everything into that, which literally can just be all for nothing. You get into a cobbled section or a gravel section, a touch of wheels, fighting for position, and bang, the whole race is over.”

This latest episode in the gravel debate was sparked by Remco Evenepoel’s comments last weekend after losing the GC lead of the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana on stage 3’s summit finish, which included a short and sharp stretch of gravel.

“It’s always special to have these gravel sections, but it was a bit on the limit,” Evenepoel said after the race. “There were quite some rocks. I think it was getting close to mountain biking. On such a hard climb we don’t need that. There is one race in the year that is known for its gravel – Strade Bianche. But on a finish like this it makes it even harder.”

Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl) lost the race lead to Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) after the Russian attacked on a contentious gravel section.

The 22-year-old had a 19-second lead over Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) going into stage 3, but he couldn’t hold on when the young Russian made his race-winning move on the steep gravel section. Though Evenepoel has a tricky history with gravel, he conceded that he was fairly beaten, ultimately finishing eighth with a 41-second deficit and dropping to second overall.

“I think that the best guy won today,” Evenepoel said. “If you can ride away from everyone then you’re the best and Aleksandr really deserved this victory. He’s shown his good level. I felt good today but on the gravel section the legs were getting full of lactate. I think the race for me was maybe 1km too long. Second in such a hard race is still very good for the first race of the season.”

The 5.5-kilometre climb of Alto Antenas del Maigmó Tibi was new to the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, marked out for its 1.7 km of sterrato, which ended a kilometre from the summit. The organisers hoped for a thrilling battle through the forest, and although Vlasov’s stinging acceleration received only tentative reaction from his rivals, the gravel certainly provided the setting for the race-defining moment – a bit like Froome’s own race-defining moment on the Colle delle Finestre at the 2018 Giro d’Italia, albeit on a very much smaller scale.

Like many others, including Evenepoel, Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) and Johan Bruyneel – check out the latest CyclingTips podcast for more on this – Froome’s concerns about gravel centre around luck and chance: “it really is rolling the dice in terms of risk versus reward for the GC guys.”

Which, in light of recent events – and his own TT training ride that preceded his making the video – led Froome onto the subject of time trial bikes.

“How many roads do you know around you where you can literally ride for an hour in almost closed road conditions where there’s no traffic, no stop signs, no traffic lights?” He asked the camera. “Those kind of conditions just don’t really exist in the real world. When you’re on your skis on the time trial bike you’ve got no brakes right there, you need to actually sit up. It’s not really that safe. It’s one thing when you’re racing and you’ve got closed roads – and even then we see some pretty horrendous accidents – but it’s completely another thing when you’re out on open roads.”

The seven-time Grand Tour winner was quick to point out that many of his accolades have been at least partially achieved via time trial success, but he has questions. Big ones. 

“Is it really necessary for us to have time trial bikes in road cycling? Given the dangers inherently involved with both training and racing on time trial bikes, and also the discrepancy between the equipment in terms of trialling, would it not be a lot more uniform to have time trials done on road bikes? Without a doubt, I think it would be making it more of a level playing field, and it would make it a lot more about the skill of the individual riders as opposed to necessarily so much about the R&D.” 

He has a point, but in Froome’s version of the future, would all stage races really be devoid of gravel, cobbles and TT bikes?

Chris Froome on his way to time trial victory on stage 18 of the 2016 Tour de France.

“Personally I find it quite ironic that the UCI have introduced things over the last couple of years to try and make the sport safer, like limiting the positions you can use while being on the bike,” Froome went on, referencing the ‘puppy paws’ ban, “but in my opinion, something like this, which would be something pretty easy to introduce and to implement, would have a far greater impact on the safety of professional cyclists.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of time trialling and I realise most of my accolades have come from events with time trials in them, but at what point do we start thinking more logically about our sport and introducing measures to make it safer?”

There are two issues here: safety and fair racing, and it’s important to separate them. While time trials and TT tech are unlikely to go anywhere anytime soon, rider safety is an issue, especially in training, which Egan Bernal knows all too well. But TTs add a lot to stage racing, especially where small margins are in play. And that’s what gravel and cobbles give races too. These elements throw something new and challenging at the riders, and offer GC contenders another opportunity to demonstrate their consistency.

Do Froome and co. have a point? Should cobbles and gravel be left to the one-day specialists? Or should cycling and GC riders move with the times and get used to the rough stuff. And if they can’t ‘get used to’, then strike a balance, attack where they’re strongest and limit losses elsewhere.

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