The Tour de France may be more than four months away, but the pre-race hype and analysis is already in full swing, with the battle for the yellow jersey widely billed as a contest between Ineos and Jumbo-Visma, the two teams that are now home to the winners of eight of the last nine Grand Tours.
Asked for his perspective on this duel, Ineos’s 2019 Tour champion Egan Bernal picked out Jumbo’s Primož Roglič as his principal rival for the jersey, the Slovenian the stand-out candidate after his victory in the Vuelta a España at the end of last season confirmed him as the world’s number one racer.
The Tour is, though, a race apart. Victory in the Vuelta or the Giro d’Italia may indicate Tour-winning potential from a physiological standpoint, but being in the spotlight in July means being subjected to the most intense psychological scrutiny, principally from the media.
Coping in this pressure-cooker environment demands a different level of mental fortitude, and Roglic’s stuttering performance at last year’s Giro highlighted his weakness in this area when compared to Tour champions Bernal, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome – I’d even rank him behind his Jumbo team-mate Tom Dumoulin and Frenchman Thibaut Pinot here.
Of that quintet, Froome, who will be 35 when the Tour gets under way in Nice, currently looks the least likely to emerge as a contender for yellow in July. As the four-time Tour champion prepares to make his return to racing at the UAE Tour following his season-ending crash at last June’s Critérium du Dauphiné, the question is not so much whether Froome can be competitive at the Tour, but whether he can be at all.
Since that horrific incident, there have been rumours that Froome might not return to racing, stoked to some extent by his early departure from an Ineos altitude training camp in January. Crocked by age and injury, the Froome era appears to be over. And yet…
While much will be read into Froome’s performance in the UAE, his prospects of challenging for a fifth Tour title won’t become clear until his likely return to the Dauphiné in early June. Although races such as the Volta a Catalunya and the Tour de Romandie – assuming he sticks with his well-trodden path towards the Tour – will give some indication of his form, the Dauphiné will be a more telling arbiter. If he performs well there, he then has another three weeks to fine-tune his Tour preparation.
If – and, of course, there are lots of ifs attached to Froome at the moment – he is selected by Ineos for the Tour, both team and rider are likely to talk him up as being in a support role, working for Bernal and the criminally overlooked Geraint Thomas. While Froome has shown that he can fill this position of first lieutenant, he’s also demonstrated that it’s not one that he easily accepts. In the 2011 Tour, he had to be reined in on two occasions when he rode away from team-mate and race leader Bradley Wiggins, and in 2018 Thomas was never wholly convinced he had Froome’s support until he had the yellow jersey all but won.
For Froome’s detractors, these moments suggest a rider whose egotistical streak has pushed him to the verge of disloyalty. Yet, viewed with more favourable perspective, Froome has a good slice of the cussedness that propelled Bernard Hinault to so many triumphs, the desire to give the very best of himself even on occasions when it appeared beyond him or was detrimental to a team-mate’s chances.
As a result, if Froome’s form is good enough to earn him selection for the Tour – which starts, it shouldn’t be forgotten, on his training roads around Nice – I can’t imagine him being a spectator on the edge of the contest for the yellow jersey. He’ll want to be involved, still believing that he’s the best, that he can wring another astonishing performance from his recently wrecked body and join the exclusive club of five-time Tour winners.
This prospect may seem far-fetched now, even to someone like Bernal who knows better than almost anyone how far his Ineos team-mate has to go to restore his status as a Tour contender. Yet it’s still too early to write the four-time Tour winner off. If Froome does regain his best condition, Bernal may find that beating Primož Roglič won’t be enough to guarantee a successful defence of bike racing’s most prestigious title.