It has been more than 1,500 days since Chris Froome last won a race but the four-time Tour de France champion has an unwavering certainty he can still improve, although there were moments he was losing faith after a career-threatening freak crash in 2019.
Three years after hitting a wall at 60kph and sustaining fractures to his neck, right femur, hip, elbow and ribs, the Briton fought for a stage win at the top of the iconic climb to l’Alpe d’Huez on the Tour last week.
The 37-year-old took third place, which was way above anyone’s expectations for a rider who struggled to reach the finish line on most of the days in last year’s race.
“These past five, six months, were probably the only five six months in the last three years that I’ve been able to work uninterrupted with no pain, no injuries, nothing,” Froome told Reuters on Monday.
“Nothing holding me back. So I’m still seeing improvements, seeing progressions and as long as I’m seeing these improvements, I’m going to keep working.
“I don’t know how far I’m going to get and if I’m going to get to my old level but one thing is for sure I’m going to work as hard as I can. And as long as I see these improvements, I’m going to keep the dream alive and keep working for it.”
Froome’s last victory came in 2018 when he won the Giro d’Italia after a vintage 80-km solo ride and, while he was far from that level on the way to l’Alpe d’Huez, he was in the mix, albeit only for a stage victory that went to compatriot Tom Pidcock.
“I think I managed to hold in there for four or five kilometres within sort of 20 seconds but then the light started going out to me and the elastic snapped,” said Froome.
“So at that point it was clear I was riding for third place on the stage. I had (Neilson) Powless very very close behind me. But I wanted to make the most of it and at least try to finish with a top three on the stage.”
Mission accomplished started to erase some of the doubts Froome had on his painful way back to competitive cycling. “Last year, I worked extremely hard to be ready for the Tour de France. But when I came here I was in the grouppetto (the group of riders fighting to finish the mountain stages within the time limit) battle every day,” he said.
“I was struggling. I was really fighting to finish the stages. And just to make it to Paris was a really big challenge for me last year so, yes, there are moments of course I had doubts myself.
“I was losing faith in my abilities for sure. I think naturally as athletes we doubt ourselves a lot. But when you work extremely hard and you’re not seeing the gains that you hope to get, there are definitely moments where I was doubting myself there.”
While he had many critics suggesting he should quit, Froome was surrounded by a group of faithful supporters. “I really need to say a massive thank you to the people around me and most notably my wife (Michelle). She believed in me, she’s given me motivation to continue and keep fighting and only now, three years later, am I finally starting to turn the corner and starting to see some real progress,” Froome said.
“So thank you to her and other people around me. My coach as well at Israel Premier Tech, Paulo Saldanha, is giving me a lot of motivation and a lot of encouragement through the difficult times. And now, this Alpe d’Huez stage, it’s given me more hope and more motivation.”