Today Chris Froome pretty much wrapped up the 2015 Tour de France.
Realistically speaking, everybody else is now fighting for the second and third spots on the podium. The second place rider is currently Tejay Van Garderen, who started the day only 24 seconds behind Froome’s yellow jersey, but is now a whopping 2:52 back. Froome took similar time out of his other main rivals, Nairo Quintana (now 3:09 in arrears), Alberto Contador (4:04), and Vincenzo Nibali (6:57). Froome got the huge lead by blowing everybody off his wheel on the very tough final uphill climb on the Col du Soudet. It is 15 kilometers long, and the first 10 kilometers have an average gradient of 8.1 %. This is the first serious mountain climb of the Tour, and most riders’ legs need time to adjust from the demands of flat and rolling daily stage routes to the sudden crunch of a long, steep, uphill chase.
But Froome had no such problems, thanks in part to his particular skill set, to lots of high altitude experience from training in his native South Africa, and to his very strong team, which has been selected solely on the basis of how effectively each rider can play a specified role in assuring that he is in position to maximize his opportunities to gain time on his rivals. After today’s stage, in fact, Froome explicitly praised his team, crediting them with making his victory possible.
In some ways Froome is an unlikely hero. He was Sir Bradley Wiggins’ main domestique (support rider) when Wiggo won the Tour three or four years back. And he won the Tour himself two years ago. Still, Froome (now 30 years old) won very few major events until the age of 25. At that point he was diagnosed with bilharzia, a debilitating parasitic disease that he may have had for some time. Once it was treated and cured, his career took off, with numerous major victories in professional stage races.
Big gaps like the one Froome holds now in the Tour are not impossible to overcome. Several tough mountain stages still lie ahead, and he could lose the yellow jersey for good with a bad day, a crash, or an outstanding series of performances by a rival. But history shows that a rider in Froome’s position usually prevails, extends his lead, crushes any tenuous lingering dreams held by rivals. In fact, from 1999 to 2005 the pattern of victory was almost identical to Froome’s. A dominant rider with a strong, disciplined team working for him routinely crushed his opponents on the first day the Tour hit the mountains. His demoralized foes fought for second and third, while the team and its leader hammered on day after day. The rider’s surprising prowess was attributed to his excellent skill set and his strength following the diagnosis and cure of a debilitating disease. That rider is a Phantom today. Despite ample evidence in the form of film, videos, and human memory, he is said never to have won a stage of the Tour, never to have stood on the top step of the podium in Paris. At the time his victories were called “unbelievable” and “incredible.” These same terms are used to describe Froome’s performance today, even by Froome himself. But the Phatom Rider’s legacy was dematerialized by drug use. And that’s the difference, because we know today that no rider, however much his performance resembles the Phantom’s, can possibly be on drugs. Don’t we?