“I think we're probably one of the only sports in the world where if someone says there's a dangerous little bridge or a pinch point in two kilometres time, the whole peloton speeds up because everyone wants to get there first. In other sports I've seen, in Formula One and everything else, if there's danger ahead, everyone slows down. It seems to be the opposite in cycling.”
Chris Froome is one of the most successful riders in modern cycling history. It’s easy to forget as headlines and cameras flash at young prodigies like Remco Evenepoel, or multi-disciplinary super talents like Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel, but Froome has four Tour de France titles, two Vuelta a España titles and a victory at the Giro d’Italia to his name.
After almost a decade in the professional peloton, the 37-year-old admitted, speaking at the Tour de France Prudential Criterium in Singapore, that the sport has changed in recent years. “Races are being taken on earlier,” he told Rouleur. “But the older way that a race would be ridden can no longer be the rulebook, or the stencil, for how races are ridden now.
“We're seeing guys attacking a lot further out. We're seeing a lot more aggressive racing on the descents now than previously. It used to be something that was almost frowned upon in the peloton, if the team that was controlling the race just suddenly go full gas down the descent and split the peloton, whereas now it's almost become the norm for that to happen,” the Israel-Premier Tech rider explains.
He notes that new technology has been a driver for these changes in recent years. “I believe a big contributor to the way racing has changed is actually the access to information that's available. All the race directors in the cars have the application Velo Viewer, that really shows every little pinch point or every danger point on the road so every single rider in the peloton knows there's danger coming.”
After suffering a career-threatening crash while on a recon of the Critérium du Dauphiné time trial in 2019 that left him with a fractured right femur, a fractured elbow and fractured ribs, Froome has struggled to come back to full health and fitness ever since.
He explains that he’s had to learn how to adapt to the new style of aggressive racing that’s ripping through the peloton. “It means you have to be a little bit more prepared. You have to really rely on the people directing us in the cars even more for that information before other people get it so that you can move up in time before it gets too full at the front, racing is certainly changing. I think everyone's everyone's having to adapt.”
It’s not just a change in attitudes towards racing that has been a phenomenon in the peloton in recent years. The age of riders winning Grand Tours is getting younger and younger. Remco Evenepoel, who won the Vuelta a Espana this year, is only 22-years-old.
“We've quite a few younger riders of [Remco’s] generation, it's been pretty amazing to watch really. At such a young age, being able to achieve what he has already is incredible. But it obviously begs the question: what's still to come? I think that's what everyone's waiting in anticipation to see,” Froome says.
“Obviously now he's won the Vuelta. There'll be a lot of questions as to where he goes next year, will he target the Tour de France? That's the biggest event on our calendar and it's an event that's known outside of cycling to the general public. That's where I imagine his next real test will come. But who knows? Who knows if that's going to be next year? I think a lot of people would like to see a real challenge with him, [Tadej] Pogačar, Jonas [Vingegaard] , all the top guys racing it out.”
On a personal level, the British rider explains that the 2022 season was the first that he has seen progression in his form since that dreaded day in 2019. A third place in stage 12 of the Tour de France to Alpe d’Huez year showed a glimpse of the old, Grand Tour winning Chris Froome, and was his best result in the last three years.
“Actually, my main goal for the season was to get to the Vuelta in my best shape possible and I was using the Tour de France as a stepping stone to get there and build through it.” Froome explains. “I certainly felt as if things were on the right trajectory until I got COVID [Froome had to retire from the Tour on stage 18], but I think Alpe d’Huez was a stepping stone and it was nice to be in the race and at least fighting for the stage win that day.”
Despite being in the later stages of his career and all of the races he has won, Froome seems incredibly motivated, speaking with the enthusiasm of a neo-pro when he discusses his aims for next season.
“It's just how I feel about cycling. I genuinely love the sport. I love the process of training and dedication of trying to get the best out of myself. Since my big crash in 2019, it's almost as if I've gone back to being a neo-pro. I’m trying to break through to get back to where I left off,” he says.
“It certainly hasn't been easy. The last three years, I've had to overcome a lot of challenges. Building up to the Tour de France this year and through the Tour, I felt as if I was starting to feel a bit more like myself again and like I was on the right trajectory until I got COVID. Being ashmatic, it affected me pretty badly, but I’d like to pick up where I left off before COVID and try and build on that.”
Whether Froome can better his third place in a Tour de France stage in 2022 depends on more than just his own form, though. His team, Israel Premier-Tech, are set to be relegated and leave the WorldTour in 2023 should the UCI implement its regulations. Things will be up in the air until the team licences are announced by the sport’s governing body. CyclingNews reported in September that Sylvan Adams, the Israel Premier-Tech's owner, is considering legal action to fight for his team to remain in cycling’s top tier. According to CyclingNews, Adams called it a “bastard system that doesn’t work.”
When questioned on his thoughts about relegation, Froome agreed that it's a system which needs to be improved. “There's definitely some flaws with it,” he says. “I think first and foremost, with it being a three year, three year rolling system, that's a death sentence to a lot of teams. I think there are a lot of teams that are literally living year by year and if you have to say to a team, you're potentially not going to be in the Tour de France for the next three years, a lot of teams will just close their doors. I'd love to see that change to one year. If you're relegated down, that's a bit of a wake up call to the team to get everyone together and pick things up for the next season. But if it's three years out, I think we could be losing two teams every time that happens.”
Froome also noted that he thinks the points allocation scheme is unfair and needs to be rethought. “We won two stages of the Tour this year but when you actually look at how many points you win, for winning a stage of the Tour de France, it can be equal, in some cases, to having two guys in the top-10 of a small French cup race, for example.”
For Froome himself, this winter will be about continuing to build his fitness and form, trying to put aside any doubts about the future of his team. He explains that 2022 is the first year where he has been able to race without any pain relating to his 2019 accident, and this gives him hope for the upcoming season.
“There’s a lot of steps I need to take before I get back there but I'm not missing any motivation or will. I'm willing to train as hard as I ever have before, hopefully having the experience of the last 12 or 13 years will help” Froome says.
As for winning a fifth Tour de France title, “the dream is always there,” he smiles.