As part of Eurosport and Global Cycling Network’s collaboration to produce the Giro Classics Stages show, we spoke to Chris Froome about the day that he attacked on the Finestre and effectively won the 2018 Giro d'Italia.
Chris Froome’s ride in Stage 19 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia is recognised as not just one of the greatest individual performances in recent years, but one of the best in the history of cycling. On a day that the race reached it’s highest point, Froome attacked on the Colle delle Finestre with 80 kilometres and two substantial climbs still to come, riding away to win the stage. Froome finished a full three minutes ahead of the small chasing group on the day coming from over three minutes back in the General Classification to take the leader’s jersey, the Maglia Rosa, and open up a 40-second gap, going on to take the title in Rome two days later.
Here Froome explains just how he produced such a phenomenal performance and tells some never-before-heard anecdotes of special memories and his personal experiences on one of the most extraordinary days in the sport’s illustrious history.
The build-up to Stage 19
Chris Froome: “Obviously the Giro up until that point hadn’t gone to plan. I’d lost buckets of time in the first part of the race, and crashed and wasn’t really myself in the first part of race. But I think what was quite important to note was I think it was a day or two before stage 19 that Simon (Yates) had lost a little bit of time coming into the finish, he just wasn’t able to follow the final moves. It was that little chink in his armour that made me think maybe it’s possible he’s on the limit, maybe he’s not the way he’s been the last two and a half weeks.
“With Simon showing those signs of weakness, it was only really the main guys to worry about, Tom Dumoulin particularly, and thinking about how I could distance myself from him.”
How the decision to attack came about
“I remember thinking that if I left it to last climb, if I was on a really good day, sure I could probably take 30 seconds or 40 seconds out of him if we left it until then. But actually to come back from over three and a half minutes back I’d have to do something a lot more bold and a lot more risky if I did want to be racing for the win.
I think at that point I remember weighing up the options and thinking actually, a podium at this point, as good as it is to finish on the podium, after winning four Tours and two Vueltas, I preferred to go all in. Basically go all-or-nothing for that stage, Stage 19.
“Obviously the risk was that I’d attack early, 80 kms to go, the guys would form a chase group and reel me in at the foot of the last climb, and then drop me going up the last climb. So that was the risk.
“I remember thinking well, yeah basically I’ve got nothing to lose at this point. I was feeling better and better as the race went on. I was getting over the injuries that I’d had earlier in the race. I just remember being really up for the race and saying to the team ‘listen, let’s do everything we can to make this work’. I remember coming up with the idea and a few people raising eyebrows; you could see them nodding as if they were going along with it but maybe not really believing it, but as the stage played out it just felt as if I could see things falling into place.”
The pre-race strategy
“Obviously we had to come up with a great strategy of how to actually get to the point where I could attack that wouldn’t be teams of riders left to chase me down, to try and isolate the leaders and then to move as far out as I did. And then to try and plan a fuelling strategy for that and all the different feed points and having the Colle delle Finestre in between, which happened to be the highest point of the Giro, almost seemed like the perfect launch pad for it.
“We obviously set that really high tempo early on, whittled the bunch down as much as we could, then as soon as we got on the gravel that’s where I wanted to start working on trying to build an advantage over the other GC contenders. I think at that point they wouldn’t have followed me.”
The Finestre and how the climb itself helped
“The gradients on the Finestre aren’t crazy steep once you hit the gravel. It’s long, yes it’s a very long climb, but it’s a climb that you can ride with a relatively high cadence and really just sit in quite a comfortable gear. Especially for me, that suits my riding style quite a lot. And being on the gravel as well you don’t want to be bogged down pushing a heavy gear, you want to be quite agile. So that definitely suits me.
But the earlier slopes, before you hit the gravel, that’s where you get the steeper bits, and that was actually perfect for us to commit as a team up until that point to really sort of make the pace unbearable. And a lot of people were looking at us and thinking ‘it’s 80kms to go or more, there are three big climbs, these guys are just going too hard’, and forcing people to sit up at that point and isolating team leaders quite far out. In a way it was absolutely perfect for us.
“I was loving it. Obviously as things were playing out, Simon had been distanced by that point already. I think Tom Dumoulin was probably down to one or two team-mates. And I remember just the excitement building up.
"As we got closer to the gravel section, I remember getting on the radio to Kenny. He was the last guy to pull before I was going to accelerate away from the other guys. I can remember just being on the radio and just saying ‘come on Kenny, come on, now now now, squeeeeeze, come on!’.
Roadside footage sees Chris Froome shout into radio as Finestre attack approaches
"I can remember, I dunno if I probably was laughing at the time because I could see how crazy this all looked, but everybody on the team had bought into it and it was such a great feeling of this is our plan today and we’re going to try and turn the whole race around.
“They rest were probably thinking ‘what are these idiots trying to do, hurting us so far out!?’.
“It wasn’t a massive blistering attack that I put in, it was just an acceleration off the front, but off quite a high pace already. I think a lot of the guys probably could have followed me but they would have been thinking ‘this is suicide, it’s 80kms to go, he’s not really going to go anywhere’. But that was obviously exactly what I wanted at that point.”
The descent, where the time gap really stretched
“It was definitely a descent where there weren’t many holds barred at all there. I was giving it pretty much everything on that descent. What had really helped was that I had ridden that climb and that descent before. I had stayed at Sestriere for training a few times. I knew the general feel of the road, and how the corners are. Obviously it does help when you’ve got motorbikes 50 to 100 metres in front of you, see the lines they’re taking.
"I also had Nico Portal in the car behind us. He was fantastic. He was egging on me on quietly. He knew I needed to take time on the descent and he was basically saying to me ‘listen you need to be fast on this descent’. He was calling out the corners before: ‘These are all fast fast fast’. He’d give me the heads up for the really steep corners and I’d back off a little bit. But I definitely wasn’t leaving much wiggle room on that descent.”
“I’m not sure if the TV picked up on this but there was actually a moment going into one of the tunnels. There was a corner inside a tunnel, and one of the leading motorbikes, which was a couple of hundred metres in front of me, actually binned it on the corner inside the tunnel. I think there was some loose sand inside the tunnel. I dread to think what would have happened had he not binned it because that obviously gave me a warning that there was a dangerous point in there. In a way I think that motorbike took a potential fall for me at that point!”
The solo effort
“I think definitely at that point it was more about just riding within myself, because it was still a long way to go. I still had the final climb to come, and the whole valley before that. So that point wasn’t necessarily about trying to push on and take extra time, it was more about riding at a speed that I could sustain, and making sure I was fully fuelled for that last big push which was the final valley and the ascent up to Bardonecchia.
“Getting to Bardoneccia, it felt fantastic. I knew I had just over three minutes advantage at that point. But it was really nerve-wracking at the same time because it was touch and go if I was going to be able to hold onto the pink jersey or not. I didn’t know how fresh Dumoulin would be, for example, how much work he’d actually done in chase group. If he’d been saving his legs then he would go up there faster than I would. I felt as if I’d given quite a lot at that point and felt as if I was just hanging on, trying to ride a pace I could sustain. But it wasn’t the pace that I’d normally ride up a final climb because of the ton of work I’d done before. I remember being really nervous about that last climb and not knowing how it was going to turn out.
I was very much in a world of my own. Just trying to go as hard as I could and trying to hold on to it, but at the same time I was waiting for these inevitable time checks to come through and expected them to be closing on me. I remember being delighted when I got three quarters of the way up and getting a time check that wasn’t too dissimilar to what it was at the bottom of the climb, basically indicating that myself and that group behind me were climbing at the same speed.
"I remember being ecstatic because that was clear indication to me that they didn’t have the legs, because if they did they would have been racing up the climb. That gave me a bit extra motivation for those last couple of kilometres up to the finish line, knowing that I had that gap.”
Some unexpected assistance
"It was just amazing how things did just sort of come together and there were bits of that day that we could have never planned. I mean stuff like, I forget his name, the Swiss rider (Sebastian Reichenbach) who slowed down Dumoulin’s group a little bit on the descent even, so that they wanted to keep him around to help work in the valleys and the flat but I think that lost them a significant amount of time on the descent, stuff like that we could never have imagined to factor in things like that. But it was just amazing how everything came together on that day."
Waiting for confirmation
“I’d crossed the finish line, won the stage, and obviously that was fantastic, but there’s this huge sort of anticipation just to see if the time checks were right, because a lot of the time checks that we get out on the road aren’t that accurate and there’s issues with communication and signal and everything else, so I didn’t really want to fully believe it and I couldn’t quite fully believe it until I actually waited for the best part of four minutes for that next group to come in.
I can remember passing the point where it definitely put me into pink and just being overwhelmed with so many emotions.
“I can remember just sort of sitting there waiting, counting the seconds as it passed. Just giving the soigneur, my carer up there, David Rozman a huge hug and just being delighted, celebrating with him there. That was quite a special moment.”
The mentality during such a performance
“It was a very sort of surreal position to be in. But there were a lot of emotions there that took me back to my childhood, and took me back to why I got into bike racing in the first place. There’s that feeling of sort of… I don’t know if sort of 'playheartedness' is the right word. It was almost this feeling of, ‘I’m off the front, come and catch me guys!’. Obviously I was trying to keep as aero as possible, I was really just giving it everything I could, looking at every stretch of road and thinking how do I fastest ride this stretch, whether it was a climb or a descent, or valley road in between. But it was just this feeling I knew this was a massive bold move but I had to make it work. It was just this mixture of pressure, but at the same time fun, that sort of childhood fun element of bike racing, which was just this surreal position to be in.
Froome - 'Finestre felt my real personality coming out, I rose to the occasion'
“I can remember coming into the one or two kilometres before the final climb, and Rod Ellingworth standing on the side of the road with a bottle with a couple of gels attached to it. I can just remember the look on his face, it was just this sort look of a) amusement, but b) just almost as if he couldn’t believe what was happening. Because there was this long straight road where you could probably see two or three kilometres behind me and there was just no-one there. It was, if you know what the front of the race looks like, it’s this sort of cavalry of cars and motorbikes and press and police or whatever, but then behind me there was just nothing. Like you could see the whole road behind me.
"I remember, it was only a moment that I passed Rod, it was only a moment that I passed him and I got the bottle and just said “cheers Rodders”, but I can remember the look on his face as if he almost couldn’t believe what he was watching. And that was really special to me, it was just a little feeling I guess that I got just before that final climb that I was doing something really special.”
Redefining a reputation
“Obviously that’s the thing that this day and age in cycling the margins are so much slimmer and everything is so much more calculated with the technology we have. It really was just this sort of leap back, however many years, to the old days where they used to attack each other far out, and there weren’t these strong teams to control it in that sense. It almost did feel like just a snap back in history in that way. In a sense that motivated even more. It was an unconventional way to win a race.
I’ve often been criticised over the years that I’m a one trick pony, I only race in a certain way, I only sit behind my team-mates and ride off the train if you like. And so to win in this way was just so different and it felt as if my personality was really coming out. Like I rose to the occasion. I think that just spurred me on even more.
“I think this day definitely tells the coolest story. If I look at a Grand Tour, that’s the day basically I won the Giro. There’s not a single day out of all the other Grand Tours that I can say that. Normally in the Grand Tours it really is a collection of three weeks of racing and just chipping away as the race goes on, but this was the day I won the Giro d’Italia, so in that sense it tells a very special story, and it’s right up there in terms of the memories most dear to me.”