When Chris Froome took his hands off the handlebars to blow his nose, the Tour de France blew up.
Wind took the front aero wheel of his Pinarello sideways and in an instant, his femur, elbow and several ribs were broken. No Tour de France, no chance to join the exclusive club of five time winners.
As the shocking news flashed across the internet, the immediate conclusion was that minus the dominant Froome, this Tour would be the most open since Sky first began ruling over the French grand tour, first with Wiggins, then Froome, andlast year’s surprise, Geraint Thomas.
The narrative was that suddenly everybody in the theoretical top ten was now thinking, “Hey, I could win this thing.” Climbers like Romain Bardet (AG2R), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) were all getting goosebumps thinking about a Froome-Free Tour.
I bought that narrative but after a few days thought, I’m returning it. Yes, the absence of Ineos captain Froome leaves a massive hole but that hole will be filled by none other than Team Ineos.
Fronted by reigning champion Geraint Thomas and a red-hot Egan Bernal, who has just won two mountain stages in the Tour de Suisse, Ineos still has two potential winners and the strongest team in the race.
It was nearly disaster when Thomas hit the deck in the Tour de Suisse. The video of him gingerly moving his shoulder around had the look of a collarbone break. Fortunately for him, he got off with some serious road rash and deep bruises. He’s already back training so Ineos dodged a bullet. The Welshman should be good to go for the Tour.
Bernal has never been the designated leader in a three week grand tour. He was all set to reach that goal at this year’s Giro d’Italia before he crashed in training a week or so before the event. He was a revelation in last year’s Tour, driving on the front of every big mountain in the last week. He’s only gotten stronger and more confident.
With Tom Dumoulin’s knee injury ruling him out of the Tour and Nibali leg-weary from the Giro, that’s two serious rivals either gone or compromised. That leaves a group of skinny climbers on teams that are significantly weaker than Ineos.
Would we love to see Bardet or Pinot spring some bold, astonishing attack and run away with victory? Eh oui! Yet so far this season Bardet doesn’t seem like he’s quite put it together and while Pinot has looked strong, his history in the Tour is mostly fail other than his surprise podium in 2014.
Like many observers, we’re at a loss to explain the drop off in the performances of Nairo Quintana. Two Tour podiums, then nothing. It’s interesting that many of the interviews with Quintana all have a quote about the incredible pressures and expectations he feels like he has to deal with — both from the meteoric rise, from his Movistar team and his passionate Colombian supporters.
We always thought that Quintana was mentally strong but we’re beginning to wonder if perhaps we’ve overrated that strength. When he came in second to Chris Froome in the 2013 Tour, he and Rigoberto Uran were the only high profile Colombians in the pro peloton. Now, it seems like there are a dozen with more coming all the time.
Quintana seems to have fallen back into the pack of his own countrymen. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the rumor that he’s actually considering a step down to Pro Continental with the under-funded French squad Arkéa- Samsic. This sounds like a man who wants to go into hiding and wipe out all expectations. It’s a pro cycling witness protection program. We profoundly hope we’re wrong on that score.
With Froome still convalescing in his hospital in Saint Etienne, the Tour will move on, more open, perhaps unshackled. There is the distinct possibility of a Giro repeat — a surprise winner like Richard Carapaz, who decided to attack while all the favorites marked each other. That’s a move that a Bardet, Pinot, Kruijswijk or a dark horse will have to make, rolling all the dice and blowing the race apart.
Of course, that’s what Froome did when he crashed out of the Criterium du Dauphine.