This week we’re going to talk about known unknowns. Big in the early 00s thanks to George W. Bush’s warmongering defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, they relate to probability of outcomes and refer to (duh) the things that we know we don’t know. Their counterparts are the things that we know we know (known knowns), the things that we don’t know we don’t know (unknown unknowns) and, yes, you’ve guessed it, the things that we don’t know we know (unknown knowns).
When it comes to whether or not Chris Froome can win another Tour de France, too much critical focus has thus far been on the “known knowns.” Firstly, on being two years older than the last time he won a Grand Tour, secondly on suffering a major crash last year, and lastly on the recent announcement that he will be riding for WorldTour freshers Israel Start-Up Nation in 2021. All of these have led to writing off of his chances not only of winning the Tour de France this year but, apparently, anything ever again.
In contrast not enough attention has been paid to the “known unknowns.” It’s certainly true that his crash into a wall at the Dauphiné was a major setback. And it’s also the case that no rider older than 34 has won the Tour de France in the modern era, and none older than 36 years 130 days (Firmin Lambot in 1922, trivia fans) has ever won it.
As the starter to my rebuttal to these points, I am inclined to deploy another handy aphorism: “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Translated into civilian, this means that while you may not have seen something done, that is not the same as seeing proof that it cannot be done.
None of us know, at this point, what effect that crash had on Froome’s capabilities. None of us know how much the ageing process has diminished them either. While we saw Contador fading before our eyes, long before the rider himself believed it, the last time we saw Froome really racing his bike was at the peak of his powers.
As for his decision to move to Israel Start-Up Nation, this brings us to the final “known unknown.” We know that Froome cannot do it without a capable squad riding in support of him. So does he. “It wouldn’t be possible for someone to win the Tour de France without having a team of committed guys who are prepared to sacrifice their chances in the race for their leader,” he said in the 2012 documentary Bradley Wiggins: A Year in Yellow.
But none of us know that he won't have that when the 2021 Tour de France comes around. All we know is that as it stands, the ISN team is good but it is not anything like as strong as the one Froome is leaving,
It could be, though. Dan Martin, who must admit that his own chances of winning a Grand Tour are all but over, is a fantastic foundation stone. Beyond him there are plenty of riders who you could imagine being tempted to the squad in support of Froome if the price - or the promise of future leadership opportunities - is right. Of that ilk, Hugh Carthy, James Knox and Sep Kuss are the most obvious names that come to mind, but there are others.
Of the ‘known knowns,’ more meaningful than his age and the crash and the team he's just signed for, is that Chris Froome is the most capable cyclist most of us have ever seen, and none of us have ever really seen him fail.
It’s all too easy to find ourselves glibly asking, so Mr Froome, what first attracted you to the cycling team belonging to Israeli billionaire Sylvan Adams? He’s surely paid a sizeable shekel, but what if Mr Adams has actually bagged himself a bargain? What if Chris Froome is a year away from joining the five-tour club, or even being out on his own with six? We don’t know, at this point, that he’s not.