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Giro d'Italia

Commentary: Is this the end of the Froome era?

Between his struggles in the Giro d'Italia and his ongoing anti-doping case, have we seen the last of Chris Froome's dominance?

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Yesterday I posted a Tweet, “Is this the end of the Froome era?”

The Twitter police quickly handed me the “hyperbole” yellow card, and perhaps rightly so. Chris Froome will still win races, but from what we’ve seen so far, he isn’t going to win this Giro d’Italia.

Sunday’s long grinder to Gran Sasso was one of those old-school, no-hiding stages that make or break grand tour ambitions. To see Froome crack like that on such a decisive day against his direct GC rivals suggests he is far from having the legs to win the race.

The Gran Sasso summit wasn’t one of those short, explosive finales where Froome might be excused to lose a few seconds against the likes of pink jersey holder Simon Yates. Nor can the stage be written off as a “bad day,” as Team Sky was quick to paint it. Froome’s been struggling since this Giro started. [related title=”More Giro d’Italia news” align=”left” tag=”Giro-d’Italia”]

And that’s what is so surprising about the Froome we’re seeing so far in this Giro. Since the 2011 Vuelta, Froome has been the standard bearer of grand tour racing in the modern peloton. He’s either won or finished second in 12 grand tours he’s started, except three. He crashed out of the 2014 Tour and the 2015 Vuelta, and was fourth in the 2012 Vuelta. Otherwise, Froome has enjoyed a near-perfect grand tour run.

On Sunday, Froome got dropped like he’s never dropped since his grand tour breakout seven years ago. Something is clearly different this year.

Froome and Team Sky are nowhere near their typical dominance in the first half of the Giro. In fact, in every key stage since Jerusalem, Froome has either lost time or hung on by the skin of his teeth. Two crashes didn’t help, either. That hardly engenders confidence for a second-half rebound.

The line coming from Team Sky is that Froome is racing this Giro as the first act of a two-part series that also includes taking aim at a record fifth Tour de France win. That means Froome is racing his third consecutive grand tour with an eye on being at his best for July to make it four in a row.

The hope is that Froome will somehow magically peak in the third week of this Giro, just in time to claim the pink jersey and ride to Rome victorious. That’s a big ask.

One could rightly argue that Froome is not that far out of contention and that he should never be counted out. Now 11th on GC at 2:27 back, he’s less than two minutes off the podium. Everyone knows Froome is capable of chipping away vital seconds on decisive climbs or clawing back minutes on the pure climbers against the clock.

So far this season, however, Froome has revealed nothing to suggest that he will have the firepower to do either. To play the time trial card in Trento, first he needs to avoid losing more time to the climbers. Zoncolan on Saturday will be a critical test in the race.

To write off Froome entirely is a stretch. Alberto Contador once famously said you needed to pound a nail through Froome’s heart to beat him. Froome is one of the most determined and gritty fighters in the peloton. The fact that he is still within striking range will only fuel his ambition to prove everyone wrong going into the second half of the Giro. Froome’s rivals know they need to keep attacking his flanks and take more time before the Trento TT.

If Froome can rebound to win this Giro, however, he will need to do something he’s never done in his grand tour career. In every grand tour he’s won, he’s taken early gains and defended the leader’s jersey by racing aggressively at the front. Froome has never had to come from behind and erase major time gaps to a direct GC rival since winning his first Tour in 2013. That’s not to say he can’t do it, but he will have to ride out of his comfort zone to win this Giro.

Also, he usually is safely hidden behind the citadel of Fortress Froome. Sky’s “Giro Eight” isn’t quite a Tour de France-caliber team, but it’s close. And so far, Sky has not been able to smash it against the squad’s rivals. Without that strength in numbers, Froome’s struggles will likely only continue.

And then there’s the (pink) elephant in the room: Froome’s ongoing Salbutamol case. His Giro and his immediate future remain in limbo.

It seems everyone assumes the case will be resolved before the Tour and that Froome will be taking a forced vacation. It’s clear, however, that Froome is training and racing on the supposition that he will be lining up on the Tour start line in July. In fact, Froome has repeatedly stated he is confident his lawyers will be able to demonstrate he did not break WADA rules when he tested for high levels of the asthma treatment drug last September.

If Froome had some insider knowledge that he would not be racing in July, it would seem logical to put everything on winning the pink jersey. Instead, it seems that Froome is biding his time in this Giro with the Tour firmly remaining the season’s primary target.

There’s no guarantee things will go Froome’s way, however, and that’s where things could go off the rails.

If Froome loses his case and is issued a two-year ban — most likely served forward from the date of the ruling — then the Froome era could be winding down sooner than anyone expected.

Froome has been seven years at or near the summit of the grand tour pyramid. He’ll turn 33 in a week’s time, and although he believes he can remain competitive for “another four or five years,” that’s overlooking a deep pool of rising younger talent already nipping at his heels. A lengthy ban could see a 35-year-old Froome trying to make a comeback.

No one knows who can knock off the king until they do. Yates is in the pole position right now in this Giro, but both Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) look very strong at the Giro’s midway point.

Froome still might be able to win this Giro, and if he avoids a ban, even win the Tour to continue his remarkable grand tour streak.

Yet if a few things don’t go his way, it’s also just as possible the Froome era ended Sunday on the slopes of Gran Sasso.

An American in France

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