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Chris Froome spent Sunday night looking back through old photos on his iPhone. It did not make for uniformly pleasant viewing. There were, says the four-time Tour de France champion, some “pretty grim, gnarly” snaps of his leg post-accident last June. “Bits of bone sticking out. Gory, gruesome pictures. Stuff I had almost put out of my mind. But it’s pretty motivational thinking that was less than a year ago – and now I am back in full training mode and hoping to win a grand tour this year.”
Froome peers down the camera lens from his home in Saint-Raphael on the Cote d’Azur and smiles. It has been 10 long months since he fractured his neck, ribs, femur, hip and elbow after ploughing into a wall at 54kmph on a reconnaissance ride during the Criterium du Dauphiné. But he knows how lucky he is to be alive, to be riding his bike again, let alone sizing up a record-equalling fifth Tour win this year, which would draw him level with Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Induráin.
While he did not have a priest administer him his last rites on his hospital bed, as motor racing’s Niki Lauda did following his fiery crash at the Nürburgring in 1976, it was touch and go for a while. Froome underwent six hours of emergency surgery after being airlifted to Saint-Etienne, with doctors initially concerned about the amount of internal bleeding suffered. One of his surgeons estimated that he had lost around four pints of blood.
Even after he left intensive care, Froome was bedridden for weeks, then wheelchair-bound, then hobbling around on crutches. He had a metal plate on his hip until last December, and even now has a rod through his right femur.
When you factor in his age – Froome will be 35 next month, with only one man in history, Firmin Lambot in 1922, having won the Tour aged 35 or older – you have to ask whether a fifth Tour win would rank up there with Lauda’s achievement of winning the F1 world title in 1977, or Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight championship win seven years after being stripped of his title and his boxing licence because he refused to be drafted to fight in Vietnam.
Froome does not make direct comparisons, but he believes it would. “It would be massive,” he argues. “If I could not only come back to pro racing but if I could actually come back and win the biggest races … it would definitely be one of the biggest comeback stories in sport.”
“It’s hugely motivating for me,” he adds. “It’s certainly going to keep me on it these next few months. I’m going to work as hard as I’ve ever worked to be ready.”
Words, surely, to place an element of doubt in the minds of any who have written him off. Froome, incidentally, does not blame anyone who has. “100 per cent. That’s how sport works,” he says. “Hopefully people will write me off a little bit after the crash and I think they have written me off to some extent. That could be to my advantage as well.”
For now, he is trying not to get ahead of himself. Froome admits the postponement announced by Tour organisers earlier this month works in his favour, giving him an extra two months to recover from his injuries. But there is still no guarantee the race will go ahead. Nor, he hastens to add, is it “something I’m celebrating in any way, not when it has been such a difficult period for so many - and quite a brutal time for the world in general”.
Froome cannot deny, though, that he is feeling more positive generally. It helps that he is now completely pain-free. He laughs when asked whether he would be able to run up Mont Ventoux, as he famously did in 2016, if it came to that. Not that Ventoux is on the Tour route this year.. La Planche des Belles Filles then? "Yes. Off the bike I have been doing a lot of plyometrics, jumping on and off boxes so there is no pain at all."
He says he is not losing sleep over the lack of out-of-competition drug testing at the moment, which French rival Thibaut Pinot recently flagged up as a concern. Froome said he had not been tested himself during lockdown but was under the impression tests were still taking place and therefore was not worried that others might try to exploit the situation. "I don’t know the numbers but I’d like to think it’s still happening. I am expecting [it] to be testing every time the doorbell goes. I think ‘that’s them now’. But nine times out of 10 it’s the postman."
Most of all, though, he is encouraged by his numbers. Lockdown training is not for everyone. Pinot openly admits he is not a fan of the static bike, sometimes climbing off after just a few minutes. Froome’s training sessions in his “man cave” in Saint-Raphael – at least according to his Ineos team boss Sir Dave Brailsford – are “insane”. And he is starting to see results. "I’m pretty much bang on where I would be at this time of year in a normal season," he says. "So that’s really encouraging.
“Certainly this situation does give an advantage to people who are able to get their head in the right space, and who are able to replicate the work they would normally be doing out on the road at this time. I guess this same situation would be disadvantageous to people who struggle to train alone and push themselves."
Froome has clearly been going full-bore. If he has not quite gone as far as sleeping in an oxygen tent (Froome used a hyperbaric chamber to help his bone regrow last year, but denies he is using it any more), he has tried hard to replicate the efforts he would normally be producing at altitude in Tenerife at this time of the year. “I think I’ve been quite successful,” he says. “I’ve done weeks of over 30 hours on the turbo.”
Time will tell whether whether the effort has been worth it. It promises to be some race if the 2020 Tour does end up taking place. Froome can expect a stiff challenge from Ineos team-mates Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas, let alone a beefed-up Jumbo-Visma squad or any of the other usual GC contenders. “There’s a whole host of guys who could make for a very explosive race,” he admits, noting that “everyone would be fresh coming in” including classics specialists and “youngsters such as Remco Evenepoel and Tadej Pogacar”.
But he is adamant he has a shot, a chance to prove his doubters wrong and pull off one of the great sporting comebacks.
"I’d like to think that chances are I can do it," he reflects. "Nothing is written in stone, or a given in sport. But I’ve got the experience, loads of motivation and I want to make it happen obviously.
“Throughout my career, I’ve had setbacks and I think I’ve always come across as someone who has stuck in there and dusted myself off after big falls and got back into the race as best I can. Obviously, in the Giro d'Italia a couple of years ago, coming back from such a big deficit and pulling off the win there. I think it’s been a theme throughout my career.
"If I’m still able to get back to the top of the pro scene after that horrendous crash last year, that would be another example.”