Chris Froome seems certain not to race again this season but could end it with a seventh Grand Tour title all the same.
As the Team Ineos rider awoke following a six-hour operation to treat multiple fractures suffered in a horror crash, news broke that 2011 Vuelta a Espana winner Juan Jose Cobo has been found guilty of a doping offence and stands to lose his title.
That could elevate Froome to a second Vuelta win, and make him the first British Grand Tour winner, some 10 months before Sir Bradley Wiggins won the 2012 Tour de France.
Not that Froome is currently in any state to celebrate. The 34-year-old underwent lengthy surgery after suffering a broken femur and broken ribs in a high-speed crash during his reconnaissance of stage four of the Criterium du Dauphine on Wednesday morning.
He remains in intensive care in hospital in St Etienne, where he has been joined by his wife Michelle and Team Ineos doctor Richard Usher, and he is expected to remain there for at least two further days.
Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford said Froome was being looked after in “exemplary fashion” but that it is too soon to put any sort of timetable on his rehabilitation programme.
“First things first,” he said. “For now, let’s just concentrate on today and getting him through today, and then tomorrow et cetera and see how this situation develops from there.
“The first thing in all these situations is to get that first stabilisation, that first phase of medical surgery done really and then go into the recovery process.”
In a statement, Dr Usher said Froome had already discussed a rehabilitation programme after waking up following the operation.
“Chris will remain in hospital for the next few days for observation, but he is already actively engaging in discussing his rehabilitation options, which is very encouraging,” the statement said.
Froome was riding the Dauphine during the final stages of his preparation for the Tour, where he was looking for a record-equalling fifth victory.
Such a target must now wait and, given Froome’s age, looks a much taller order. Only one rider has ever won the Tour over the age of 35, and Firmin Lambot’s victory aged 36 came almost a century ago in 1922.
However, Froome appears likely to end the year with a seventh Grand Tour win all the same with Cobo facing a fight to retain his 2011 Vuelta crown.
A statement from the UCI said the 38-year-old Spaniard, who retired in 2014, had been found “guilty of an anti-doping violation (Use of a prohibited substance) based on abnormalities from 2009 and 2011 detected in his Biological Passport” and ruled ineligible for a period of three years.
Cobo, riding for Geox-TMC, beat Froome by 13 seconds, with fellow Team Sky rider Sir Bradley Wiggins third, one minute and 39 seconds down.
Cobo has 30 days in which he can lodge an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
If awarded the title, Froome will add it to a collection which includes his Tour de France wins in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, his Vuelta win in 2017, and the 2018 Giro d’Italia title.
A spokesperson for La Vuelta told Press Association Sport organisers were awaiting the full ruling from the UCI before making a statement.
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UAE Team Emirates star Alexander Kristoff raised his arms in triumph after clinching victory at the GP Canton d’Argovie Gippingen.
The Norwegian won in his comeback to racing after injury, beating Andrea Pasqualon in a rapid sprint finish.
The 31-year-old had already sealed victory in the GP Canton d’Argovie Gippingen, winning in 2015 and 2018. With Thursday’s success, the Stavanger native registers his fifth win of the year, while pushing UAE Team Emirates’ win tally to 19 this season.
Kristoff said: “Today I felt good and I wanted to repay the good work done by the team to control the breakaway.
“I am very happy with the win, and look forward to benefitting from the hard work of my teammates for more opportunities at the Tour du Suisse.”
Of the many qualities which have helped make Chris Froome the greatest Grand Tour rider of his generation, key amongst them has been his resilience.
Now he will need all of it to get himself back to the top of the sport after a devastating crash at the Criterium du Dauphine put him in intensive care and left his hopes of a fifth Tour de France win this summer in ruins.
When Froome first began to emerge as a contender to win a three-week race eight years ago, it was easy to underestimate him.
He looked awkward on the bike and was softly spoken off it, and hardly seemed like a man to strike fear into his rivals, let alone go on to win six grand tours to date and, in 2018, to become the first man to hold all three titles at the same time since Bernard Hinault in 1983.
But those that did not know him would have missed his stubborn streak, his refusal to give in when events turn against him.
It is the quality that helps him grind up mountain climbs. Rivals may occasionally race clear with explosive attacks, but Froome never panics as he gradually reels them back in.
That steely streak also helped propel him to arguably his greatest Grand Tour win, last year’s Giro d’Italia, when he used an audacious, meticulously-planned attack 80km from the finish of stage 19 to overhaul his rivals and wipe out a three-minute deficit.
And it ensured he could do all of that as the Salbutamol case hung over him before he was eventually cleared of a doping offence on the eve of last year’s Tour.
Now he faces an altogether different challenge. Wednesday’s crash, when Froome came off his bike at 55kmh and struck a wall, has left him with a broken femur, a broken elbow and broken ribs.
All the evidence from riders who have suffered similar injuries suggest he will not race again this season.
Instead, Froome will begin the 2020 campaign, and the last year of his current contract with Team Ineos, closing in on his 35th birthday in May.
Froome began this season with everything built around his goal of winning a record-equalling fifth Tour de France title, which would move him level with Hinault, Eddy Merckx, Miguel Indurain and Jacques Anquetil.
If he is to still achieve this, he will need to become the oldest man of the modern era to win cycling’s biggest race. Only one man older than 35 has ever won it, and Firmin Lambot’s victory aged 36 came in 1922.
A late bloomer in his career, Froome has spoken of late of continuing for several more years, believing he could continue to compete at the highest level until his late thirties.
It would be a tall order, made taller now by the hard work that will lay ahead in rehabilitation, but the cycling world has learned not to bet against him.
“One of the things which sets Chris apart is his mental strength and resilience,” Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford said after the crash.
“We will support him totally in his recovery, help him to recalibrate and assist him in pursuing his future goals and ambitions.”
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