Why ISN's Tour de France Plan for Chris Froome is a Bad Idea
Plus a few takeaways from today's US Individual Time Trial Championship
Chris Froome’s new team, Israel Start Up Nation, announced this week that they are sending him to Tour de France. This announcement isn’t particularly shocking since they are paying him €5 million a year and honestly, didn’t really have a choice. He is one of the sport’s biggest stars and if he was physically able to pedal the three-week route, he was going to be included in the squad. What were they going to do, leave him at home to collect that massive paycheck while a somewhat unknown rider took his spot?
But, what might be surprising to some is that ISN has gone out of their way to specify that while he is going to the race, he will be racing as the team’s road captain and not the actual leader.
The team’s leadership position will go to Mike Woods (more on that later), and at first glance, this all makes sense. Froome is riding extremely poorly, Woods is riding well, and the image of the veteran Froome showing the young star Woods the ropes (even though they are just about the same age) will generate a lot of positive media attention and feel-good stories. But, if we dive a little deeper, this announcement is actually quite strange, doesn’t actually make a ton of sense, and is almost guaranteed to set Froome up to fail.
First of all, it is fair to wonder what type of publicity the team will actually get once the race is underway. Froome being dropped every time the race gets hard means the cameras will be focused on his struggles and he will be hounded by the same questions over and over again after every stage. Will this actually reflect well on the team? Some might say “any publicity is good publicity,” but this isn’t actually true. I’m not sure anyone would say Bernie Madoff’s investment firm was better off after the barrage of stories about how it was actually a Ponzi scheme.
Of course, this is why the team is working the ‘road captain’ angle so hard. So that even when he is dropped, they can fall back on ‘well look how much he is doing for the team.’
Unfortunately, there are a few major issues with this plan:
1) Froome Lacks Experience
It might sound odd to say about a 36-year-old four-time Tour de France winner but Chris Froome has almost no experience as a road captain. He is a former champion and hasn’t actually built any of the skills required to be a team captain, which is mainly being able to sit in the wind to move your leader into, and hold, prime position in the pack, setting a searing pace on the front for hours to keep a dangerous breakaway in check, and dropping back to the team car to grab food, bottles, and clothing.
Fortunately for him, he has been a winner for the vast majority of his career but this makes him incredibly unqualified for this role. And this isn’t Froome specific. Nearly every major GC winner in the sport is insulated from the nitty-gritty of the race and would be ill-equipped in a road captain role.
In nearly every race he’s done in the last ten years, Froome has been escorted to the front of races and hasn’t had to think about getting a bottle, food or clothing for himself, which begs the question of how he is going to find the motor to escort Mike Woods to the front of a nuclear fast peloton.
2) Froome Lacks the Fitness
The speed of the peloton brings us to the second point. After all, it seems like every year there is a barrage of stories about how the pace and ferocity of the fight for position at the front of the peloton during the first week of the Tour de France is faster/crazier than ever. So, if we assume this to be true, it doesn’t seem like you’d want to put a 36-year-old struggling rider who has always been able to rely on others to handle this for him in charge of dealing with this.
3) Froome Lacks a Leader
Potentially the biggest issue for this plan is that, as we covered on Monday, the team’s stated leader, Mike Woods, simply doesn’t have the technical or TT skills to stay high up in the overall standings. To date, his highest ever overall finish is 32nd and he has never won a European stage race.
Making matters worse is that this upcoming Tour emphasizes the parts of cycling where Woods struggles, namely descending and time trialing. By my count, eight stages finish on some sort of descent, and there are two individual time trials that add up to 58-kilometers of total time trialing. This coming Tour is set up for a rider who loves ripping descents but hates long summit finishes (i.e. Julian Alaphilippe). Adding salt to the wound, there are very few punchy summits finishes where a rider like Woods could take time, and the few that exist will likely be won by Mathieu van der Poel.
2021 Tour de France Route Breakdown:
Downhill Finishes: 8
Uphill Finishes: 2
Summit Finishes: 3
58kms of TTs
I’ve seen some pundits cite Woods’ 7th place overall at the 2017 Vuelta a Espana as an example of his ability as a GC rider, but one thing I’ve noticed since then is that while time trialing speeds have risen, Woods has failed to match this increasing pace.
For example, when he got 7th at the 2017 Vuelta, he averaged 47km/hr over the course, which was 4km/hr slower than stage winner Chris Froome’s 51km/hr pace. But at the TT stage during the 2020 Tirreno-Adriatico, where Woods was also competing in the GC classification, he averaged 49km/hr, which was a whopping 7km/hr slower than stage-winner Filippo Ganna. This isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, but it gives us a glimpse into the issues facing woods in the TT.
Perhaps most concerning was his performance in the recent Tour de Suisse, where he lost 2’32 to Rigoberto Uran in a 23km TT which featured a long climb that in theory should have meant the TT would suit him. But strangely, he didn’t perform differently than recent flat time trials. The poor performance there underlines a major issue, namely that he could have trouble matching his rivals on long alpine climbs that favor riders who can grind out consistent high watts without relying on the surging that Woods is so skilled at.
But even if he looks impressive on the climbs, it is hard to imagine Woods staying in the top ten of the GC at this Tour with his lack of descending and time trailing, which means that Froome won’t actually have a leader to support as a ‘road captain’ for. This means the ISN team will likely have to regroup as stage hunters, much like they did at the recent Giro d’Italia. This will leave little room for a ceremonial road captain and will only make the spotlight on Froome more intense and underline how much he is struggling to find even a small piece of his old form.
National Championship Week
Most Northern Hemisphere National Road Race, Criterium, and Time Trial Championships are taking place this week. Recapping all of them would be incredibly arduous, so I’m just going to focus on the US and a few interesting stories from abroad.
The first event in the US National Road Race Championships, the Individual Time Trials, took place today in Knoxville, Tennesse.
Women’s Top Five
In the Women’s race, Chloe Dygert, the 2019 World Time Trial Champion, won what is oddly her first national time trial championship. Amber Neben, in her first race of the season, proved that even at 46-years-old, she is still one of the best time trialists in the world by finishing 27-seconds behind Dygert. If we flash back to 2019, Dygert finished second to Neben by 36-seconds and averaged 44.2km/hr. Even after her gruesome knee injury in 2020, she came back in 2021 and powered over the same course at 46km/hr, while Neben performed at a nearly identical 45km/hr in both editions.
This is impressive since it shows us that Dygert is possibly stronger than she was in 2019, when she hands down the best female time trialist in the world. I think it is safe to say she is the hands-down favorite to win the Olympic time trial in July. This also speaks well of Neben, who has seemed to defy aging and continues to hold the same impressive physical level.
On the men’s side, Lawson Craddock sent a message to those who said his recent selection to the US Olympic team was out of left-field (i.e. me), by winning the individual TT championship over Chad Haga and Tejay van Garderen.
This is a great result for Craddock and marks his first-ever win, and even podium, at the National TT championships.
Men’s Top Five
Another interesting note here is Drake Deuel finished in 7th place. This is notable because Deuel has almost no experience in high-level bike races. He is a former Harvard rower who has just recently jumped over to cycling. To put this result and his improvement in perspective, he finished 6th at the 2020 Colorado State TT Champs, and just 12-months later, finishes 7th in the entire country.
We should have seen some type of improvement coming due to the fact that Deuel crushed the Haleakala Volcano KOM on Maui earlier this year. He took the record from Mike Woods, and the two previous record holders were Ryder Hesjedal and Jonathan Vaughters, so saying this put him into elite company would be an understatement. While the nuances of professional mass start racing can be a struggle for even the strongest riders, if Deuel continues his lightspeed upward trajectory, he could tempt a major team to take a chance on him in the near future.
Keep an eye out for tomorrow’s post which will include a preview of the Men’s and Women’s National Road Race Championships, which will take place on Sunday afternoon.