With Tom Simpson-like stoicism, one of the first questions Chris Froome asked following the terrible crash last June that nearly ended his career was "will I be OK for the Tour de France?"
The answer at the time was a resounding "no" but, seven months on, it looks like the four-time winner has a very good chance of being on the start line in Nice on June 27 — although a fifth win could prove more problematic.
On Sunday (Feb 23) the Team Ineos rider will take to the start line of his first race since the crash - the WorldTour-level UAE Tour.
"I’m really excited about getting back to racing," Froome has said. "I’ve come off a good block of training in Gran Canaria and look forward to taking the next step in my recovery and getting back to full strength."
The high-speed fall, which has since been referred to many times without any exaggeration as Froome’s ‘horror crash’, happened in the Loire town of Roanne as the 34-year-old reconnoitered that day’s Critérium du Dauphiné time trial. It’s well documented — it was a windy day typical of central France, and on a fast, slightly downhill stretch of residential road Froome took one hand off the bars to clear his nose and a gust took him straight into a wall at 60km/h.
The freakishly bad outcome involved a gruesome roll call: fractured sternum, fractured cervical vertebrae, fractured elbow, broken hip and a very nasty complex compound break to his right femur. According to one of the surgeons who operated on him, Giorgio Gresta, he also lost around two litres of blood.
Back from the brink
Even Froome himself described it as "one of those freak, freak accidents". That was eight months ago. In that time Ineos have remained tight-lipped about the progress of his recovery and declined to provide any information when asked by CW. But now he’s back, apparently at WorldTour level.
"That’s definitely amazing. It’s outstanding," says orthopaedic surgeon Dimos Evangelidis of Froome’s readiness to return to the peloton. "It shows the physiological capacities that those athletes have. Both because he was very well trained to start with… they’re, let’s say, gifted in terms of their body structuring, their natural ability.
"Definitely, this is far better than an average person," adds Evangelidis, who also has a sports diploma and works at Homerton University Hospital in London.
Being ready to race is one thing, but winning the Tour de France is quite another and Evangelidis is cautious: "He should be able to compete at a decent level, but I guess the question is whether he’s able to defend his title from previous years… I will be surprised if he could race at
"Bones heal well," he adds, "but of course, the surgery he had on his femur would leave some muscle scarring, and although they do a lot of sophisticated things to minimise it, there is some minor weakness left behind most of the time.
"I think it would be very, very difficult to perform at the level he did before. He may be fairly close, but I would be really surprised if he can be, you know, be close to the first positions," Evangelidis said.
Unlike some of his Tour performances, recovery hasn’t exactly been a smooth ride for Froome. In early November he underwent further surgery to remove metal plates from his hip and elbow, but not before he’d managed to slice open his thumb in a kitchen knife incident, meaning more time in hospital.
Evangelidis told Cycling Weekly there was a chance this extra trauma might leave Froome with some lingering aches and possibly even reduced grip strength, but in terms of the operation itself, it wouldn’t impair his recovery.
During the first months of his recovery, Froome was off the bike but active for up to six hours a day, doing physio and rehabilitation exercises.
He may have actually benefited from this time away from cycling, Evangelidis says, doing what was essentially cross-training. "For elite athletes that have been training very hard on a specific sport for many years that sometimes is beneficial, mentally you come back wanting to do better and in a way you’re fresh."
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As alluded to by Evangelidis, the mental aspect of returning from an accident can be important, and not just in terms of freshness levels.Dr Ruth Anderson, author of The Cycling Mind and CEO of Mind HQ, says managing anxiety is critical when recovering a racing mindset: "It is imperative for riders to have dealt with the psychological impact of the initial trauma, and have strategies in place to deal with any thoughts and emotions related to that experience," she says.
A fear of crashing again is possibly the most obvious potential issue that Froome might face, but Dr Anderson says: "The fear of crashing will only hold a rider back if they haven’t been assertive in dealing with it. Following a serious trauma, most riders will experience a level of fear or anxiety about returning to competition, however if a rider assertively confronts the fear and is equipped with psychological skills, it will resolve over time."
There is a possibility of a loss of competitive drive, says Dr Anderson, due to any unresolved psychological issues or ongoing pain — it’s hard to imagine Froome experiencing none of the latter, given the extent of his injuries. But, she says, "elite athletes have exceptional discipline and routinely push themselves to their physical and psychological limits. Applying their daily training habits to their rehabilitation programme will help maximise their recovery."
The number of comments along the lines of, "if anyone can recover to win the Tour, Chris Froome can", suggest that if he doesn’t manage to pull it off, it might just have been impossible anyway.
In early January a seed of doubt was briefly sown, as reports emerged in the Italian press of an under-par Froome who had to retire early from a training camp.
But only the next day Ineos boss Sir Dave Brailsford sought to quash the issue, telling La Gazzetta dello Sport: "No one should underestimate Froome… He is putting all the courage and determination into training that led him to win seven Grand Tours to be ready in time for the start of the 2020 Tour."
Froome himself was equally quick off the mark, insisting on social media: "Hope that I can
set this straight, I was last at a training camp at the beginning of December. My recovery is
going well and I will be heading to my next training camp on Thursday. Onward."
Perhaps the final clue as to whether he remains a genuine Tour contender lies in the language he is using: "The only appointment I’ve set myself is the Tour de France. The prospect of going for a fifth yellow jersey is massive for me."
It’s clear that whether or not you believe a fifth yellow jersey could be a reality this July, there’s one person who does — Chris Froome.
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.
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