Froome has won Tour stages—and Tours—on mountaintops and in time trials. He’s attacked and gained time on descents, and even shown aggressiveness in crosswinds. He’s improved his once-shaky descending skills to the point that he’s now one of the better bike handlers among the GC contenders. He has a complete set of talents and rides for the strongest team in the sport: Sky, which is utterly devoted to him at the Tour, boasts a reported $40 million budget that dwarfs that of most competitors. (The Cannondale-Drapac and Ag2r-la Mondiale teams of second- and third-placed Rigoberto Uran and Romain Bardet run on less than a third of that).So in 2018, Froome will almost certainly make a run for a fifth Tour title, which would tie him with Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain for most all-time. (Lance Armstrong’s run of seven straight Tour wins was stripped when he was found to have doped for all of them.)Can he do it? Could he then, in 2019, win a sixth Tour and become the race’s winningest rider in history? It’s certainly possible. But it’s not likely. Here’s why:
The Competition is Coming
As we noted, this was Froome’s closest win yet. Four riders were within three minutes of him on GC, and were it not for Romain Bardet’s disastrous Stage 20 time trial, the top three might have been even closer.
What’s more, several top challengers either weren’t in the race or weren’t in top form. Vincenzo Nibali, the 2014 Tour winner, raced the Giro d’Italia and skipped the Tour this year. Same for Giro winner Tom Dumoulin. Top climbers Nairo Quintana and Thibaut Pinot both raced the Giro and were clearly tired from that effort. Quintana, second at the Giro, was regularly distanced on the climbs at the Tour, and Pinot (fourth at the Giro) was an afterthought and dropped out in the Alps. Two top challengers, Alejandro Valverde and Richie Porte, crashed out, on Stage 1 and Stage 9, respectively.
That doesn’t account for the coming challenge from Mikel Landa, Froome’s teammate this year and possibly the strongest climber in the race. Nor does it factor in up-and-coming riders like the Yates twins, who have each won the best young rider competition in the Tour.
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The Team’s Future Isn’t Assured
On the eve of the Tour, Froome signed a contract extension through the 2021 season. But that contract outstrips the certainty that the team will still exist. Team Sky doesn’t publicly state how long their title sponsorship deal is with Sky, the British broadcast outlet. But last year, the cycling blogger Inrng noted that the team’s annual public finance disclosure (one of the few teams required to show even basic budget numbers) showed that the team sponsorship was good through 2016.
Aside from a statement by a Sky representative that “our commitment to the sport will continue into 2017 and beyond with Team Sky,” there’s no firm report of how long the sponsorship contract actually goes.
In addition, UK Anti-Doping continues to investigate questions around some of the pro team and British Cycling’s practices, including a mysterious package delivered to Wiggins at a key tuneup race before the 2011 Tour, and the purchase by British Cycling of dozens of doses of a steroid, Kenacort, which can only be used with a Therapeutic Use Exemption. In both instances, records indicating why the drugs were ordered, who used them, and when appear to be missing. This all happened under the watch of Sky general manager Dave Brailsford, the mastermind of the team’s success. The investigation is ongoing, though, and any evidence of misdeeds by the team could cool Sky’s interest in continuing sponsorship.
All sponsorships run their course eventually, with or without controversies hastening the end. The longest-running pro team sponsor in cycling is FDJ, with a remarkable 21-year run. But most title sponsor deals last only five to 10 years at most. When the end does inevitably come, the team will be able to pitch itself to new sponsors with one of the best résumés in the sport. But they’ll also be pitching a sponsor deal that is far larger than most other teams in pro cycling.
Much has been made of the team’s “marginal gains” philosophy (which, in fact, most teams in the sport also use). But Sky’s biggest advantage is simply its massive budget. It can afford to sign riders like Michal Kwiatkowski, a former world champion, or Mikel Landa, a Giro d’Italia podium finisher, to ride support for Froome in the Tour. But keeping those riders is not easy. Landa will switch teams this year, and Kwiatkowski is out of contract as well and will be expensive to keep. If the budget drops in future years, that gets even harder.
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Froome’s Freshness Date Looms
Even if the team can manage to stay a step ahead of the competition in training and talent acquisition and budget, there’s a problem that no amount of sports science will solve: Froome is 32, toward the upper end of the age range for probable Tour winners.
It’s common for riders in their 30s to win a Tour. Wiggins, after all, was 32 when he won in 2012. Cadel Evans was 34 the year prior, as was Armstrong in 2005 at the end of his Tour run. And Carlos Sastre was 33 when a surprise sneak attack won him the 2008 edition.
But since World War II, no rider older than 34 has won a Tour. What’s more, the average age is mid- to late-20s. Nibali and Uran aside, much of Froome’s competition is markedly younger than him. Dumoulin, in particular, won’t turn 27 until November. Sky knows that Froome is in danger of decline. In fact, they have intently studied it.
In 2011, Cycling Weekly published a long profile of Brailsford that included a detailed look at his theory of a pro cyclist’s career trajectory. On a graph CW produced that represents the theory, a rider’s peak is roughly age 29, after which ability begins to tail off to support roles and podiums in lesser races. (Froome, then 25, didn’t rate highly in that matrix until his breakout performance that fall at the Tour of Spain.)
That graph is now six years old, and has likely been updated since. And Froome has extended his own performance curve significantly. But it’s a truth in all sports: at some point, an athlete’s age begins to overtake his skills. Froome isn’t at that point yet, but he may not be far away from it.
When the end comes, it’s often abrupt. Merckx won a fifth Tour in 1974 and might have won a sixth the next year, but a spectator punched him on one stage and caused extensive bruising on his chest; he finished second to Bernard Thévenet. He would race through 1978, but never won or even stood on a podium in a Grand Tour after 1975.
Bernard Hinault won the 1985 Tour and finished second the next year to teammate Greg LeMond, and retired that fall at 32. Miguel Indurain won five straight Tours through 1995 but finished a distant 11th in 1996 and also retired at 32. Alberto Contador, one of six riders in history who have won all three Grand Tours, won his second Giro d’Italia in 2015 at 32, and hasn’t finished a Grand Tour better than fourth since.
No one can say exactly what the future holds for Froome. He may also wish to broaden his results past the Tour; in four weeks, he’s due to start the Tour of Spain, a race where three times he has finished second, but never won. But the Tour de France will likely always be his biggest target. It matters most to him, and it matters most to his team, which does not yet have a ready heir to assume his role when Froome does finally retire.
It’s entirely possible that Froome could win six Tours. But some combination of the competition, market forces and what history tells us about what happens to riders as they approach their mid-30s makes it unlikely. Whatever else, it will be fascinating to watch.