Blazin' Saddles: What next for Chris Froome?
After becoming the first Briton to win La Vuelta off the back of his fourth Tour de France triumph – and in so doing securing an unprecedented double in cycling's modern era – Chris Froome is arguably the most successful cyclist of his generation. So, where does the 32-year-old take his career from here?
No sooner had he secured his prestigious double in style – contesting the bunch sprint in Madrid to protect his green jersey lead over Stage 21 winner Matteo Trentin – than Froome was quizzed about his next challenge.
"Obviously it's very early to say," Froome nevertheless said, "but of course the Giro has come up in question a few times. I'm not going to say no, I'm going to have an open mind about next season, and over the winter I'll come up with a plan for next year.
"But," he admitted, "one year I'm going to have to target the Giro d'Italia."
One day after this passing reference to the only Grand Tour to have eluded him, Froome was cast by some bookmakers as the 7/4 favourite for the 2018 Giro, which starts in – no, this is no typo – Jerusalem on Saturday 5 May.
The odds seem overly short – especially considering that this humble cycling commentator rates Froome's chances even featuring on the Giro startlist as a far longer 5/1.
After all, there's no way Froome will skip the Tour next year – and look at the hash Nairo Quintana made of riding four Grand Tours in a row: his own Giro-Tour double attempt finished on the second step in Italy before he even had the chance to drop outside the top 10 in France.
Froome takes his cycling history very seriously and there's nothing he'd like more than becoming the fifth rider to win five Tours. Drawing level with the likes of Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain will be his priority – without a doubt.
Until he has that record, there is next to no chance that Froome would let the Giro compromise his ambitions of reaching cycling immortality – especially not a Giro coming off the back of a gruelling Tour-Vuelta double.
Indeed, it's risible that the last man to achieve the feat reckons his successor should not only target the 2018 Giro, but should aim for a wholly unprecedented Grand Slam (for which the bookmakers have already offered odds of 25/1).
"He should try that," said Hinault, who won the Vuelta-Tour double in 1978 before the Spanish race was lengthened and put later in the season.
"He has proved that you can win the Tour and the Vuelta in the same year, so why not the Giro? What he has managed in Spain is a great thing because the general view was that it was not possible to win either the Giro and Tour or the Tour and Vuelta in the modern era. He wasn't as dominant as usual in the Tour but he's really rediscovered his true capacity at the Vuelta – in spite of having one or two difficult days."
But the reason why Froome was perhaps not as dominant in the Tour was that his season was shaped with this particular double in mind.
Froome knew that it was possible after coming within an Alberto Contador ambush on that memorable stage to Formigal of winning it in 2016. So, what did he do? He gambled on entering the Tour a bit undercooked – but far fresher than usual – so that he would be in the best position to win in Spain, following three near-misses as runner-up.
That explains why Froome failed to win any races before the Tour, why he admitted his fourth Tour crown was his "hardest" of them all, and why he secured yellow without a single stage success.
"We did it [the double] by backing off earlier in the year – [with] much fewer race days before the Tour – [and] coming in fresher to the Tour," Froome said after his Vuelta victory on Sunday.
" Maybe I wasn't quite at 100% for the start of the Tour. If I'm brutally honest, my climbing wasn't up to scratch at the Tour."
It may have been a gamble, but, to borrow a popular line from Sean Kelly, Froome had made the calculation. Anyone watching Quintana toil on the road of France in July will appreciate that the Colombian was fatigued and over-raced. It's one thing doing an Adam Hansen and completing 19 consecutive Grand Tours – but riding four in a row for GC just isn't feasible.
Which is exactly why Froome will put his unfinished business with the Giro aside until he has matched those five-Tour legends.
In fact, given the way he was motivated by the rare opportunity of winning the points classification on Sunday, he may well want to stand alone at the top of the history books with six Tour wins before properly trying his hand at the Giro.
Make no mistake: Froome will want to win the Giro at one point – and in so doing join Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador in the short list of current riders to have won all three of cycling's major stage races.
His only two previous experiences with the Giro came before Froome's breakthrough 2011 Vuelta – and the second of which culminated rather ignominiously with him being disqualified for holding on to a motorbike while climbing the Mortirolo. A year earlier Froome, then at Barloworld, finished 32nd in Rome – 10 months after finishing a lowly 83rd in his debut Tour.
Now 32, Froome is older than Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault and Indurain all were when they won their fifth Tour. But, a late bloomer, he seems to have time on his side – having recently signed a new contract with Sky through to 2020.
So, with this 20-20 vision, what next for Froome, if the 2018 Giro is out of the question?
In the immediate future, there is the World Championships at Bergan – for which Froome has been named on Great Britain's 13-man long-list.
The road race may be quite hilly, but it wouldn't be a surprise if Froome gave it a miss and focused on the time trial which, culminating with a steep climb, suits his strengths perfectly.
A rainbow jersey would be a first for Froome – and would set him up nicely for a couple of minor domestic awards, namely the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award (which has yet to win) and a knighthood.
With Andy Murray injured, you'd think Froome would be a shoo-in – although the British public don't seem to have taken much to the shy man born in Kenya, in the same way that Mo Farah's blend of gold medals and robot-themed celebrations have yet to endear him, either. (It seems that the question marks surrounding their respective teams and training methods do not help garner support among the wider public.)
It's worth adding that a four-time Tour-winning Froome probably lacks the knighthood Bradley Wiggins received on winning a single Froome-assisted Tour for precisely the same reason that many BBC viewers would rather vote for Froome in the Overseas Sports Personality of the Year category. But we won't dwell on that one.
Beyond TV awards and whether the OBE behind Froome's name becomes a Sir in front of it – (while we're on the topic, did you know that Froome's middle name is Clive?) – it looks like 2018 will see a Tour-Vuelta double-double attempt.
This would open the door for Froome to ride the Giro 2019 as a recce ahead of an attempt to win a sixth – and final – Tour in July. Then, presumably, it would be all in for a rare Giro-Vuelta double in his final season for Sky in 2020 before Froome retires, aged 35, the most feted Grand Tour rider in the modern era.
But, of course, a lot changes quickly in cycling – and with the rise of Tom Dumoulin and a refocused, fresher Quintana, perhaps Froome will never add a sixth Grand Tour to his name. Or perhaps – ironically – his best chance will come from a Giro lacking any of his big rivals. Time will tell.