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 by: Bill Oetinger  6/1/2018

Froome at the Top

Wow, wow, wow! And then some more wow.

What just happened at the 2018 Giro d’Italia is so epic, so historic, it’s hard to find the words to describe it. The short version is that Chris Froome (Sky) won the Giro, :46 ahead of the defending champ, Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb). In doing so, Froome becomes only the third rider in history to hold the championships for all three Grand Tours at the same time, having won last year’s Tour de France and Vuelta a España. Only Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault have done it before. That is heady company.

But more than the simple fact of winning is the story of how he did it, which I hope I can tell well enough to convey the stunning impressiveness of it. I will make that attempt presently…

But before I do, I want to deal with the big asterisk hanging over the event and over Chris Froome: his still-unresolved case of an over-the-limit reading for salbutamol, the controlled drug in his asthma inhaler…a reading taken after a stage of last year’s Vuelta. Initially they said the case would be decided before the Tour de France. Now they’re only 50-50 on that. It’s an incredibly complicated case and in fairness to all parties, it needs to work its way through the judicial system without any undue haste.

Chriss FroomeFroome of course protests his innocence and makes a fairly compelling point: as the leader of the Vuelta for almost every day of its three-week run, he knew he would be tested after each stage, so he made every effort to keep his asthma medication within the very clear limits. What went wrong? That’s what his team’s lawyers and doctors and the assorted drug-enforcement folks are trying to sort out. He insists he has all the evidence to support his innocence and that all of it will be presented in court and then be made public at an appropriate time.

Now Bernard Hinault has weighed in, telling newspapers that Froome’s name should not be associated with his; that Froome is dirty. That is not yet established while the matter is still in process, and his bloviating about it does no one any good. It insults Froome and makes Hinault look like a jerk. A pro gets only so many years at the top of his game. To suggest—as Hinault does—that Froome should not be allowed to compete—that his career should be put on hold—while his case is pending is to suggest that he is guilty ahead of a final verdict. That’s not how our judicial system works. If Froome is ultimately found guilty then Hinault can insult him all he wants, but until then, he should keep his opinions to himself.

If Froome is exonerated, everyone is happy, except perhaps the most cynical of the doubters. If he ends up nailed for something—some degree of guilt—what will the penalty be? Certainly it would mean the loss of the Vuelta laurels. Would it extend forward or backward to include other races? Last year’s TdF or this latest Giro? I have no idea.

Without that final decision, how can we even discuss the race? It’s so frustrating. However, I will follow the lead of all the other journalists covering the Giro and accept the racing on its own merits, setting aside for the moment the court case we know is looming out there. But let me just make one other point: we now see Froome in the company of two of the greatest to ever throw a leg over a top tube, Merckx and Hinault. If you think those two old warriors didn’t dabble in whatever performance-enchancing substances were around in their day, then you’re even more naive than I am.

But just because they may have had their hands in the cookie jar back then does not absolve Froome now (if he is found guilty). Two wrongs or three wrongs do not make a right. But to consider what he has done—what they all have done, each in his own era—it perhaps gives us a better perspective to remember that.

Enough said about that for now.

So how did Froome win the Giro; how did he manage to insert himself into the elite company of the Cannibal and the Badger? For almost the entire race, it didn’t seem as if we would be having this discussion at all. First off, he crashed on a recon ride of the opening time trial course the day before the Grio began. He was pretty banged up. Then he crashed again on Stage 8. Neither crash was catastrophic. Racers hit the deck frequently and usually get back up and back on the bike. He could still ride but his performance seem to be blunted a little.

On paper, his chief rival at this race was going to be Tom Dumoulin…good in the hills but even better in the time trials. After his first crash, he lost :37 to Tom in that first ITT. Then, over the course of the first two weeks of the Giro, he seemed to be suffering and struggling. He lost little chunks of time on several days and not such little chunks on at least a couple of mountain stages. By the end of Stage 13, Simon Yates (Michelton-Scott) was in the pink jersey with Dumoulin less than a minute behind, but Froome was down around the bottom of the top ten, a hefty 3:20 in arrears.

Simon Yates was emerging as the hot story of this event. He and his twin brother Adam have been hovering just outside the inner circle of dominant stage racers for a couple of years now, looking almost ready to move to center stage. In this Giro, Simon arrived. He moved into the lead with a good showing—second but equal on time to his teammate Esteban Chaves—on the uphill finish to Mount Etna on Stage 6. He kept the jersey until Stage 19 and defended it with energy and panache, winning mountaintop finishes on Stages 9, 11, and 15 and looking like the real deal. A star is born! 

We’ll leave Yates there, still in pink for the moment, after Stage 18, and go find Froome again. Stage 14 featured the brutal ascent of Monte Zoncolan, one of the nastiest climbs in Europe. All of a sudden, Froome rediscovered the slumbering champion within and won the stage, with an impressive, grind-it-out attack. But Yates clawed back across a big gap at the end to finish just :06 back. Dumoulin was another half-minute adrift.

However, the big effort seemed to knock Froome back a bit. The next day Yates was on the attack again, winning the stage impressively, while Dumoulin lost :41 and Froome a distastrous 1:32. That left Dumoulin 2:11 behind Yates and Froome almost five minutes back…a Grand Canyon of a deficit.

That brought us to the only full-distance time trial of the Giro. Last month, in my spring review/preview, I ventured this observation: “Could it be the year for some specialist hill monkey who can survive the time trial and pile up enough time in the mountains?” I had a few guys in mind but not Yates. He had flown in under my radar. He’s not a strong time trial rider but he had indeed piled up enough time in the mountains to survive the ITT. He conceded 1:10 to Dumoulin and 1:02 to Froome, but that still left him with a :56 lead over Dumoulin and a seemingly insurmountable lead of 3:50 over Froome. With three more mountain stages to go—his strong suit—he looked like winning it all.

Not so fast…

On Stage 18, he faltered just a bit at the finish and was gapped. His lead to Dumoulin was cut in exactly half, from :56 to :28. It was the first sign of weakness he had shown. Was this a momentary lapse? No, it wasn’t. The young rider had run out of steam. Defending the maglia rosa for 13 stages finally caught up to him. There are two parallel story lines about what happened on Stage 19, but the first one is simple to tell: Yates totally collapsed. Early in the stage he was already in trouble and went well off the back of the lead group (a lead group being whipped along by Froome’s Sky teammates). By the end of that extremely long, hard day, he had lost almost 39 minutes and any hope of a respectable finish. 

We all know what it means to really and truly bonk, when our legs are dead and our minds go vacant and stupid. It happens to pluggers and it sometimes happens to pros at the worst of times. Yates was not alone in this. On the next stage, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) who had worked his way up to third overall, did almost exactly the same thing, losing 40 minutes in one stage. His meltdown was so comprehensive he had to go directly to the hospital and they are now saying he may not be recovered in time to ride the Tour de France. Stage racing is a tough sport!

Anyway…so much for Yates (and Pinot). That should have left Dumoulin in the lead, right? Again, not so fast. The other story of Stage 19—the really compelling story—is what Froome did. It was so audacious and so outrageous that it will echo down the decades, as long as cycling fans still celebrate great accomplishments (regardless of how his court case plays out).

Froome and his Sky team knew he wasn’t going to pull back over three minutes on Yates and Dumoulin by waiting to attack on the final climb of this stage or both of the remaining hilltop finishes. He was going to have to pull off something really extraordinary and the team was going to help him do it. With three summits to go—one moderate and two very hard—Sky put their best mountain goats on the front and drove the pace hard. This was on Colle delle Finestre, a monstrous, 13-mile ascent, with the upper half on hard-packed gravel. The hard tempo whittled the lead group down to just a handful of riders, including Froome and Dumoulin. 

Right about the point where the gravel starts, with 80 kilometers to the finish, Froome made his move. He jumped off the front and no one could hang with him. He just kept banging away at it and increasing the gap. I’m not going to do play-by-play of every moment of his amazing, long breakaway. If you want the details, read this report on the stage from Cycling News. The upshot of it all is that he kept widening the gap between himself and a group containing Dumoulin and Pinot until, at the end of the stage, he beat Tom by 3:23 and took the leader’s jersey by :40. Dumoulin worked his ass off trying to limit the damage but he simply didn’t have enough. 

Two interesting sidebars on this astounding breakaway. 

First of all, the doubters out there immediately started suggesting he was totally juiced to throw down such an unreal performance, rather like Floyd Landis’ drug-infused magic carpet ride to Morzine, back a few years. To somewhat counter that suspicion, Froome pointed out that he actually gained more time on his chasers on the downhills than he gained on the uphills. It’s true. The stats are out there on the internet if you want to get into the numbers. Froome is a brilliant, fearless descender and he maxxed out on every descent, in particular the technical one off the far side of Finestre. (That’s the same descent where Paolo Salvodelli—another crazy-fast descender—reeled in Gilberto Simoni in another Giro a few years back.)

Second of all…how was Froome going to keep fueled up, off on his own for 80 K? The team planned that out the night before. They sent every mechanic and soigneur and staff person they had up the road, even team manager Dave Brailsford, with fluids and food to hand up to him as he came by. It was all carefully calculated and put into play…and thanks to having probably the best rider of his generation to pedal the bike, it worked.

The final mountain finish on Stage 20 didn’t change things much. Dumoulin launched several attacks on the last big climb but Froome covered every one of his moves. Finally, on one of them, Froome counterattacked and immediately opened a gap on Dumoulin. Tom finally got the message: this is not going to work. He waved the white flag and even allowed Froome to grab a few more seconds at the end, padding the eventual margin of victory out to :46. There was a final, mostly processional Stage 21 in Rome, but that didn’t affect the outcome.

I cannot overstate how impressive this victory is and how astonishing that 80-K break was. Froome says he’s never done anything like it before and it’s the greatest thing he’s ever accomplished. And bear in mind: as he proved in winning last year’s Giro, Tom Dumoulin is the absolute master of riding his own hard tempo to bring back attackers and breaks. No one does it better. He had a good group of riders with him for the chase, although not all of them were working as hard as he was. Even so, the group should have reeled in the solo rider, especially with a diesel like Dumoulin driving the train. Didn’t happen. 

Now we’re heading toward the Tour de France, with a nice assortment of smaller stage races coming up where the riders can sharpen their claws for la Grand Boucle, most notably the Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse. And there’s that pesky little court case to be sorted out. Stay tuned…

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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