Blazin' Saddles: Are Brits Froome and Cavendish nearing the end?
With Chris Froome pedalling squares in Catalunya and Mark Cavendish not pedalling at all, is it time to wave goodbye to the old generation of British cycling and welcome in the new – as encapsulated by the in-form Yates twins, Adam and Simon?
It even happens to the very best in the end.
For Jacques Anquetil it came in the first mountain stage of the 1966 Tour de France when he finished seven minutes down on his team-mate Lucien Aimar (the eventual winner) and Dutch rival Jan Janssen. To cap it off, Maitre Jacques was poopooed by Raymond Poulidor in the time trial before withdrawing sick two days from Paris, a sixth Tour win beyond his grasp.
For Eddy Merckx it came on the slopes of Pra Loup in the 15th stage of the 1975 Tour de France. Leading rival Bernard Thevenet on the final climb, Merckx collapsed and conceded his yellow jersey to the Frenchman. A week later in Paris, he stood on the second step of the podium for the first time in his career.
For Bernard Hinault it came in stage 17 to Serre Chevalier when young-buck team-mate Greg LeMond prised the yellow jersey from his shoulders after the Badger was dropped on the Col d'Izoard.
For Miguel Indurain it came in Stage 7 of the 1996 Tour when, struggling on the Cormet de Roseland, Big Mig accepted an illegal bottle in the final kilometre and was docked 20 seconds. Having won the previous five Tours, the Spaniard would finish 11th come Paris.
For Chris Froome, the end may have come before he's even joined the five-Tour club.
On Tuesday, riding only his second stage race of the season and his eighth day, Froome crashed at high speed with 40km remaining of Stage 2 of the Volta a Catalunya. His injuries – most noticeably some nasty road rash – were superficial, but the damage was great: Froome shipped 14 minutes on crossing the line, his race suddenly reduced to a support role for the blossoming Egan Bernal.
But whisper it lightly: supporting Bernal in Catalunya was probably Froome's destiny regardless of that crash.
Bernal's rise at Sky has been rapid. Last year he outshone Froome in the mountains in the Tour de France; this month he bossed the crosswinds en route to winning Paris-Nice; this week he's riding with the best in Catalunya; in less than two months, the young Colombian will lead Sky's successors at the Giro d'Italia in the absence of defending champion Froome.
It is not inconceivable to imagine that it is because of Bernal's five-year contract – as opposed to the remaining two years on Froome's deal – that Sir Jim Radcliffe is bringing his INEOS billions to take over the team as of May.
Team INEOS makes its debut at the Tour de Yorkshire on 2 May which is when Froome was scheduled to make his next appearance after Catalunya. But after his crash and his continued problematic start to the season, Froome is already considering adding the Tour of the Alps to his programme as he bids to get into the requisite shape needed to have a tilt at a record-equalling fifth Tour crown.
"I obviously took a bit of a spill yesterday but thankfully it was all superficial. It took the wind out of me a little bit, but that's bike racing," Froome admitted before Thursday's fourth stage, where the 33-year-old fell even further off the pace after another day of domestique duties.
Asked about his targets for the rest of the race, Froome was stoic and supportive of his superiors: "To look after Egan. He's just won Paris-Nice, I'll try to do everything I can to contribute to him getting a result this week. He's in great shape and he's in a good position to fight for the win."
Chris Froome of United Kingdom and Team Sky / during the 99th Volta Ciclista a Catalunya 2019, Stage 2 a 166,7km stage.Eurosport
While Froome puts in a public relations appearance in Yorkshire in May, Team INEOS will instead unleash Bernal for his first tilt at GC on a Grand Tour.
You sense that the Colombian, although still only 22, is in no mood to wait around: he'll take the opportunity with both hands before, reportedly, riding the Tour in support of whoever is best placed within the team to wear the yellow jersey into Paris.
Whether that will be Froome or the defending champion Geraint Thomas – or even Bernal himself – remains to be seen. Neither British rider is showing anything remotely resembling form this season, with the Welshman having raced fewer than 10 days.
Chris Froome of Team Sky during the 99th Volta Ciclista a Catalunya 2019, Stage 4 from Llanars - Vall de Camprodon to La MolinaGetty Images
Of course, judging Froome before the Criterium du Dauphine – or Thomas before the Tour de Suisse – is unfair and fraught with difficulty. Prior to Froome's fourth Tour win, he finished 30th in Catalunya, 18th in Romandie, and only fourth at the Dauphine.
In fact, he's never particularly shone at Catalunya, having previously finished eighth, 71st and sixth. And look how rusty he looked in Israel at last year's Giro before his sensational third-week comeback. As such, not everyone has written him off just yet…
So, perhaps it's a little early to be consigning Froome to the rubbish tip. But you nevertheless sense that this season will be key for Froome and his legacy: if he fails to win that fifth Tour, he won't get another shot at INEOS while Bernal's around.
There's another reason Froome really needs to ride the Tour of the Alps: as things stand, Catalunya will be his last race in the colours of Team Sky, the team that made him. The next INEOS chapter may be still ahead, but a heavy crash and a bit-part role as a domestique in Catalunya will be a sorry way to end his era at Sky.
Meanwhile, as both Froome and Thomas struggle to find their feet this season, fellow Brits Adam and Simon Yates have shown enough to suggest that they're ready to take on the baton.
Simon, the defending Vuelta champion, won a stage and the mountains classification at the Ruta del Sol before taking the time trial in Paris-Nice. Adam won a stage at the Volta a la Cominutat Valenciana, missed out on winning Tirreno-Adriatico by less than a second, and sits in second place on GC at Catalunya after winning the queen stage to Vallter 2000.
With the Yates twins' contracts at Mitchelton-Scott also up after 2020, you'd think that Sir Jim Ratcliffe couldn't do much better by spending his billions on beefing up his British backbone by bringing in the brothers (or at least one of them) and letting Froome go.
By then, Froome may well have had his "it came" moment on any of the five high-altitude finishes in this year's Tour route. Heck, it may already have come last year when Froome somersaulted over his handlebars in the opening stage of the 2018 race, which put him behind Thomas irreparably in the pecking order.
As for Mark Cavendish, the jury's out whether he'll even race again let alone get back to winning ways. It's a sad demise for arguably the best sprinter of his generation – and one of the sport's greats – but his on-going battle with Epstein Barr has clouded the twilight of Cavendish's career.
Whether these clouds will clear and they'll be an Indian Summer – perhaps one that will see him topple Merckx's record stage haul for the Tour – remains to be seen. Latest developments suggest it's wishful thinking even for the staunchest supporters of the Manx Missile (Bernie Eisel aside).
Last weekend Cavendish skipped Milan-Sanremo for the first time since he won the Monument on his debut a decade ago. In three stage races so far this season, he has only once finished inside the top 10 – an eighth place on his first day back at school in San Juan. His third race, Paris-Nice, only lasted a day before he quit in the crosswinds.
Dimension Data manager Doug Rider told Cyclingnews this week that Cavendish's was "a tough situation" with no decision made as to when the 33-year-old will race again.
"Nothing has been ruled out. We just haven't got a real update in terms of his racing," Ryder said.
" He's working hard. We have to wait to hear from him, and the whole performance team. There are a lot of people involved, but there's no update. He has trained well, and he's doing everything needed, but we're just waiting to see. He has been on track, sure. He's professional, he wants to race his bike and do the best he can. But it's a tough situation."
But with the likes of Elia Viviani and Dylan Groenewegen in such good form – and Fernando Gaviria and Caleb Ewan chomping at the bit – it's hard to see where the wins could come for Cavendish, even if former rival Marcel Kittel's struggles at Katusha continue apace.
Cavendish being written off is hardly a new thing. It happened in 2016 and he went on to win four stages at the Tour. Repeat that this July and his name will draw level with Merckx on 34 career wins. But Ryder won't select riders on sentimental grounds.
Like Froome, Cavendish needs to prove his worth and form ahead of the Tour if he wants to be selected. It doesn't look good for either rider, but there is still time to turn things around.