As the finest Grand Tour rider of his generation, Chris Froome is used to honors, awards and accolades.
One thing he is not used to at the Tour de France – the race he dominated over the past decade and made him famous – is carrying water bottles for others.
In cycling jargon, it’s called being a “domestique,” and the sight of a former four-time champion in that role will be something quite unusual at cycling’s biggest event.
But a bit more than two years after a horrific, career-threatening crash that left him on the side of a road with multiple serious injuries, Froome is ready to play the sideman part. With the mindset of a rookie.
“I’m really excited for this year’s upcoming start,” the 36-year-old Froome said ahead of Saturday’s opening stage in the western port city of Brest.
“Brest was where I first discovered the Tour de France back in 2008 as a neo pro. I’m heading to the Tour de France this year with a very similar mindset as back in 2008. I’m looking to gain something through racing the Tour de France.”
For the first time since 2013, the year he won his first Tour, Froome won’t be on the starting line with personal ambitions. He has been tasked with a role of road captain at his new Israel Start-Up Nation team and will work in support of leader Michael Woods.
“Typically, going into the Tour de France I obviously got a lot of pressure on my shoulders, as a (top) contender,” Froome said. “That’s not the case this time around. This time around, I’m only (…) trying to do the best job possible to support the guys around me. For almost the last decade I had been going to the Tour de France with a team that was doing a similar job for me. It feels great to be on the other side now, and give back a little bit.”
So much has changed for Froome since that training crash during the 2019 Criterium du Dauphine, an event he had been using to fine-tune his bid for a record-equaling fifth Tour title. The accident not only left him with a fractured right femur, a fractured elbow and fractured ribs, it also cost him his spot in the Team Ineos’ Tour de France squad the year after.
After getting back to competitive racing, Froome did not return to his previous best level and lost his status as the leader of the mighty British outfit. After it was announced his contract could not be renewed and that he would be joining the fast-growing Israel Start-Up Nation team, Froome was left out of the Ineos roster for the 2020 Tour due to poor form.
The Kenyan-born cyclist is still very far from the level that helped him secure the Spanish Vuelta (in 2011 and 2017) and the Giro d’Italia (2018) in addition to his four Tour crowns. He was 47th at the Criterium du Dauphine earlier this month and has not produced a Top 10 result during the entire season.
“I would have hoped that the process would have been faster,” Froome said. “It’s an ongoing process. I’m very happy with where I’m at in terms of left-right leg balance. I think from that side of things I can certainly say that’s behind me. At the moment I’m a lot more focused on the work on the bike and to get back to my former level, having missed so much racing from obviously the downtime of the accident and then straight into the COVID lockdown last year as well.”
For now, he hopes this Tour will serve as a “stepping stone” on the road leading to his past luster.
So, returning to cycling’s biggest race for the first time in three years, would a stage win be enough?
“If you had asked me that question three years ago, I probably would not have said it really ranks anywhere on my list of priorities,” Froome said. “Of course it’s nice to have, but when (the general classification) is your sole focus, it’s not really going to change, it’s not defining in terms of your career. Now, obviously, it’s a very different scenario. For Team Israel Start-Up Nation, a stage win would be massive.”
And for him, too.