Chris Froome and the Seventh Circle
“Can we talk about the crash?”
He doesn’t hesitate. “Sure.”
He shows me some of his scars. There is a big, reddened incision at his right hip, where they sliced through his muscle in order to screw in a plate. When the plate came out in late November, his wound reacted to the dissolvable stitches and become inflamed. Back to hospital, again. And now, two months later, the site is still not completely right. Small wonder he limps.
But that’s not even the worst of it. It is when we sit down, and he stretches those gangly legs out in front of him that have powered him to victory in all those races, that he starts to make clear the violence of his crash. He points at a spot above his right knee. And he raises a finger in the air, six inches above it. That was where part of his femur was.
“I could see bulges that weren’t meant to be there. I could see it wasn’t right,” he explains in the most matter-of-fact way imaginable. “There was something there. It shouldn’t be like that. The most noticeable place was ten centimetres above my knee. I could see the skin was raised. It was pretty obvious that the bone was poking up against the skin.”
The crash, which changed the course of 2019 and opened the door to a wildly exciting and unpredictable Tour de France, remains a glitch in the matrix, a tear in the space-time continuum of Froome’s ascendancy. One minute he’s on the Dauphiné TT course, feeling as if his season is about to start…
“I was in fantastic form. I was ready to lay it on the road that day. I remember thinking this is perfect for me; windy conditions, it’s going to be a tough TT, nice big climb in the middle.”
…and the next minute…
“I’m coming into Roanne, I can remember that. But that’s about the last memory I have. The rest is blank.
“I can remember being on the ground and paramedics arriving. I knew I was hurt. I could see straight away from the way my leg was.”
Froome pauses, and then lifts his trouser leg up again. “You see that scar there? And there?” They are extremely thick and deep looking. These ones have healed properly, but will be there for life, no doubt. Yet they were the unimportant bit of the crash; the “flesh wounds” of a Monty Python crash.
“That was a big gash. It was just open and bleeding quite a bit. I imagine that it was the bike that sliced me, that caused that. But those weren’t the issue. I was more concerned with whatever it was that was poking through my shorts. I could see my leg was in a bad way. I was also complaining about my back. I’d fractured a vertebra as well. I was in a lot of pain, lying there. I could also see my elbow was broken. It was pointing in a direction it shouldn’t have been.”
In short, it becomes apparent that, having lost control, possibly in a gust of wind, possibly because he had one hand off the bars, he slammed into a garden wall and the entire right side of that distinctive tall body took the force of the collision. His TT bike still had the speed from the descent into Roanne. There had been no time for him to react, he conjectures.
“It just makes no sense. How could it have happened?” He shakes his head where he sits. And he looks at me again, as if by patiently explaining the process out loud, he might stumble across its origins. “The logical part of me says that if I was going at 60kph towards a wall, I’d put myself straight onto the tarmac. Instantly, without even thinking. Anywhere but the wall. You put yourself down.” He looks again at that partially ruined, partially mending leg. “It just makes no sense.”
To some on the outside, it made so little sense that they concluded it had been faked so that Froome could avoid a doping test. I know that this was being said, and I know that Froome knows that this was being said, and he probably knows that I know that he knows. He brings the conspiracy theories up in conversation lightly and with a kind of detached amusement.
“All that stuff at the beginning of my rehab, that the crash didn’t even happen or it was faked; it was just water off a duck’s back.” He laughs in a manner I haven’t often heard from him before. It’s not the perfunctory semi-laugh that simply marks an attempt at humour. This is a spontaneous, relaxed laugh, because he actually finds something funny. “I was sitting there with a broken femur in two places, lots of other broken bones. I was thinking this definitely doesn’t feel fake.”
What followed in the minutes, hours, months after the accident are chilling, even by the standards of this precious, fragile sport that places its practitioners in such peril. The deep wounds to his leg were one thing, but the punctured lung and internal bleeding were of more immediate concern.
At first, perhaps out of habit, perhaps from shock, Froome determinedly played down the severity of his situation, both to himself and to his wife Michelle, whose number Gary Blem, Froome’s mechanic, had dialled. She told him she was on her way to be with him. Froome didn’t see the need. “No, don’t worry. I‘ve got the paramedics here, my team are here. Just take it easy, stay with the kids, I’ll be fine.
“At that point,” he tells me, “Gary took the phone off me and told her that she should come. This was serious.”
Taken first to the small clinic in Roanne, he was then airlifted to Saint Étienne, to a hospital which has admitted so many broken riders over so many years, from the tragic Roger Rivière in 1960 to Chris Froome in 2019. Here, surrounded by a team of clinicians, he started to realise what was happening, how little control he had, and he began to submit to his fate.
“It was a very strange feeling of dependency. I was completely in the hands of the first responders and the emergency room staff. There was nothing I could say or do. This was out of my hands. I was just lying there as if I were in a movie, just watching all these people working. It was hopelessness. It was a feeling of real hopelessness.
“They spent seven hours operating. I had broken my femur in two places. The nastiest one was the one I could physically see. It had splintered the femur into several pieces. So they needed to put that back together and puzzle that out, trying to get the fragments back into place and align them.
“There was another fracture at the top of my femur. They placed a plate with a hook over my hip in there to secure that fracture. And they also put a rod from my hip all the way down to my knee, with screws in both sites to hold everything in place. That’s staying in there now. It’s in the middle of the bone, so I don’t feel that at all. It’s basically taken the place of the bone marrow. And they also needed to work on the elbow, and put screws and wires in there too.”
In recovery, he never once thought that his career was over. Within an hour of coming round, the surgeons and physiotherapists told him that all of his injuries were, in theory, recoverable. But it would be a long journey back.
“I spent six weeks just lying flat in a bed. Not able to even go to the toilet on my own. Then I made it into a wheelchair, probably for another month and a half. While I was still in a wheelchair, they lifted me up and put me on a turbo trainer, so I could ride with my good leg. It was quite an ordeal, manoeuvring myself from the wheelchair onto the bike. Then I transitioned onto crutches. It was a big old process just to get to the winter.”
“Okay, so listen,” I switch to the future tense. “How are you going to win the Tour de France?”
He exhales loudly. “It’s going to take a hell of a lot of work. I’m so up for it. I feel as if I might as well not have won anything. I’ve still got the same hunger, but I’ve got a new freshness about me.”
I put to him that he only needs to concentrate on the (not insignificant) matter of his physical condition. The other big stuff is already assumed; race craft, tactics, psychology – he’s got that all deeply engrained.
“That’s it,” he agrees. “You win the Tour in the months before the Tour. You don’t win the Tour during the Tour. You win the Tour in preparation. That’s what it comes down to. I know what to do there.”
“There’s so much I don’t understand about you, Chris,” I say, as we are heading towards some form of conclusion. “I don’t know where you get the mental resolve from to go into battle again.”
He looks at me, quizzically. I continue to develop an observation that had been germinating all day in my mind as I watched him train. It has to do with his status. “In your generation of riders you’ve seen off Contador, Nibali and Quintana. Those three guys will be remembered as three of the very best stage racers of their age. But, at least at the Tour, you’ve basically seen them all off. Do you ever stop and think about that?”
He looks at me as if he has never before stopped and thought about that. “Not really, no.” Then he stops and thinks about it. “It’s funny hearing you say that now.”
“But now,” I continue.
“But now,” he echoes.
“It’s a whole…”
“A whole new challenge.” He completes my thought. “It is.”
“I don’t want to spook you, but…” I say, trying to spook him.
And then he spooks himself. “Just look at Jumbo-Visma, for example.”
“They’re a bit serious, aren’t they?” I suggest.
“Yeah,” he agrees. “They should just chill out and stop taking it so seriously.” He smiles.
With sudden enthusiasm, he expounds upon the point. “They’re a huge challenge. They’re probably going to be our biggest rivals this year. The margins are getting slimmer and slimmer. Everyone’s training at altitude now. Everyone’s working on the nutrition side. It’s getting harder to find those gains on other people.”
I have one eye on my wristwatch. We’ve been chatting for a long time, and I am conscious that Froome has done a seven-hour ride, been in physio for two hours, still hasn’t eaten and needs to go back to physio after dinner. With the exception of his trusted wingman Michal Kwiatkowski and two members of the Ineos staff, he is training alone on the island. The rest of the team have flown away. He is left behind with all this way to catch up.
We return to the notion of winning the Tour de France, which has taken Froome over entirely: his every thought, his every deed, his every waking moment.
“I’ve got the hope, the desire. I’ve got the motivation to do it. All the ingredients are there. I’ve got the support. I’m the one who needs to make it happen. But that’s great. This is actually the side of cycling that I love: the commitment, the long hours, the dedication and single-mindedness that you need to win the Tour de France. This is what I’m going to get stuck into now.”
After his first victory in 2013, he was taken to lunch in Monaco in the company of Eddy Merckx. Froome, still largely unversed in cycling history, asked Eddy how many Tours he’d won and had been surprised by Merckx’s response. Five seemed a lot.
A lot has changed since then, of course. Froome understands his own context, and his place in the record books. “Now you know the significance of number five, don’t you?”
“I do, I do. I do. It’s a big deal. Probably even bigger than number one. I’m so close.”
“In a funny way, is it going to feel like your first?”
“It’s a completely new challenge. It feels like I’m starting from below zero. First, I have to get back to zero again. Then off I go.”
It’s time for us to leave him alone, in his soulless hotel room surrounded by training kit drying on the backs of chairs, with no reminders of home, no frippery, no distractions. Our time together has felt, for me, like another deep dive into this ordinary-seeming man’s exceptional psychology. I am left with the urge to press fast forward and to find out what will happen in July.
Predictions are idiot things. Asking riders to make predictions is stupider still. That doesn’t stop me from sitting forward in my chair and asking him to make one.
“Is it a fair question to ask you whether or not you think you’ll win the Tour de France?”
“I think I will,” he replies without hesitation.
“That’s a good answer,” I tell him.
There are many ways in which he could have avoided making this bold claim. He chose to decline them all. I will is not the same as I can.