This is a season of purgatory for four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome. In a normal year, the British rider would be gearing up to defend his three straight yellow jerseys and tailoring his entire season around the Tour, as he’s done every year since he became a contender. However, Froome failed a drug test last September, as he came up positive for twice the allowed amount of the asthma medication salbutamol. Because the UCI’s suspension procedures require a full investigation into Froome’s case, his fate is still in the balance five months after the news first broke. He could easily lose his Vuelta a España title and receive a 12-month ban from the sport, which would prevent him from racing the Tour.
Which is why he’s in Italy right now at cycling’s second-biggest Grand Tour. Racing the Giro d’Italia is not a good way to prepare for the Tour since it tires you out, but since Froome might not get to race the Tour at all, might as well go for the first Grand Tour of the season. Alberto Contador followed a similar path in 2011, and he won the race only to have the results stripped months later.
At first, Froome did not seem likely to win the race. He fell before the opening day time trial, then scuffled around in the first few mountain stages before rebounding and winning atop Monte Zoncolan. Froome put forth a decent time trial, but race leader Simon Yates looked too solid to dislodge, and Froome needed four minutes to take the pink jersey. Yates struggled on Stage 18 yesterday, but even then, Froome was in fourth and the real race appeared to be between Yates and defending champ Tom Dumoulin.
Froome will now likely win the race. As Yates completely collapsed on the slopes of the Colle delle Finestre, Froome was beginning one of the most dominant solo attacks in the history of the Giro d’Italia. A few kilometers before the summit of the climb and 80 kilometers out from the stage finish, Froome leapt away from the peloton and rode the final three climbs of the day all by himself. He descended the Finestre one minute faster than Dumoulin, then buried everyone, finishing the stage three minutes ahead of the surviving general classification contenders and 40 seconds ahead of Tom Dumoulin for the overall race lead. He was alone for three hours and he destroyed a pack of five determined chasers. It was easily the ride of the stage-racing season, and the most dramatic comeback in recent Giro d’Italia history.
A lengthy solo attack is the hardest way to win a bike race. Nobody will draft for you, while the entire rest of the peloton gets to work together to reel you back in. You also cannot fall or suffer a mechanical issue, because you have no teammates to pace you back to the action. Froome was perfect today, and he only needs to keep Dumoulin within 40 seconds of him on tomorrow’s final mountain stage to win the race. Dumoulin is an inferior climber, and Froome almost certainly has this wrapped, unless he’s too drained from his efforts today to keep the Dutchman in his sights.
All of which makes the impending possibility of a suspension feel that much worse. Froome could very well win the maglia rosa in Rome on Sunday then be forced to give it up in shame the next day. What he did out on the road today is genuinely historic, but it might be stricken from the record books, like Floyd Landis’s incredible Stage 17 win in the 2006 Tour de France. Every elite rider faces some degree of scrutiny from a public made wary by the last 20 years of cycling history, and Froome’s results in particular will now always be viewed with acute suspicion. Coming out of nowhere to win by three minutes will raise plenty of eyebrows.
Look no further than the guy who dragged a faux inhaler up a mountain to wave it in Froome’s face.
It’s unclear how long Froome’s victory will stand, and if we’ll remember this as a defiant moment en route to a historic Giro-Tour double or a shameful, Landis-esque victory. Team Sky deserve plenty of scrutiny, and their reputation as zero-tolerance leaders has already been shown to be just marketing bullshit. Still, Froome’s ride was genuinely impressive, and no matter what happens now, it will be one of the most memorable wins of his career.