It’s Time For Team Sky to Worry About Chris Froome

Chris Froome wound up to unleash a trademark attack on the final slopes at the Tour of the Alps. This was not a surprise, this is business as usual for the Briton. It’s what he does, he crushes the souls of his competitors in the final uphill kilometers of stage races. However, what has stood out at the Tour of the Alps is that his attacks have dropped almost no one, and have appeared to hurt Froome more than his competitors.

While we’ve seen Froome start his season slower and slower with every passing year, it’s unusual for him to look this vulnerable two weeks from a major target. It could be time to ask if we are watching Chris Froome age out of his grand tour dominance. Sky needs to seriously consider hedging this risk and putting plans in place to line up a viable plan B.

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After today’s botched attack at Tour of the Alps, Froome pulled off the front to examine the carnage, only to see a group of five, led by Thibault Pinot, not only still with him, but launching counter-attacks (it really doesn’t get any worse than being unable to drop Pinot).

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Froome clearly hasn’t been able to find the form that propelled him to four Tour de France victories this season. With his first big goal of the year, the Giro d’Italia, only two weeks away, it’s a very real possibility that he shows up to a grand tour only to get his butt kicked by a wave of young, hungry Froome-stoppers.

We could be watching Froome fall off the cliff that has befallen every great champion before him. It’s always shocking to see a champion lose their top end. It happens faster than anyone can imagine. Everyone looks unbeatable until they aren’t.

While it’s difficult to imagine the controversy around his adverse analytical finding from last year’s Vuelta and a looming suspension isn’t affecting his performance, Froome’s increasing age is likely to cause a greater threat to his performance than a looming legal case.

If Froome does go on to find his old form and win either the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France, he would have to beat some steep odds. Only 3 riders have won the Tour de France at the age of 33 or older in the past 38 editions. While Froome is one of the best grand tour riders we’ve ever seen, shucking off the realities of biology to win another grand tour is a tall order.

Team Sky needs to seriously look at these odds and reconsider deploying 100% of their resources to exclusively back Froome. We could be in for a summer of watching Froome experience a few unprecedented bobbles, and they would be wise to take a look at their deep bench of domestiques to create a solid succession plan.

Causation or Correlation: Does Rider Height Matter at Paris-Roubaix?

Now that we find ourselves firmly in cycling’s “holy week” (defined as the start of the Tour of Flanders and the finish of Paris-Roubaix), it is time to take stock of the usual contenders and see who has the best chance of winning Paris-Roubaix this Sunday.

Predicting Paris-Roubaix is always difficult. While the strongest rider almost always wins Flanders, Roubaix has the unique ability to serve up wildcard winners like Johan Vansummeren in 2011 and Matt Hayman in 2016. While this can make predictions difficult, there is a common thread through most Roubaix winners. They are almost all over 6-feet (1.83 meters) in height.

Since 1999, 14 editions of Roubaix (73%) have been won by a rider over 6-feet tall, with only 2 winners under 5 feet 11 inches. Compare this to the Tour of Flanders, which, in the same timeframe, has seen 11 editions won by riders over 6-feet tall, with 6 editions being won by riders under 5”11. 

The difference is even starker when we pull out this comparison to every Monument. Milan-Sanremo has only seen 4 editions won by a rider over 6-feet since 1999, Liege-Bastogne-Liege 3, and the Tour of Lombardy with only 2 (note: these 2 editions were won by the same riders, Phillipe Gilbert).

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(These numbers are obviously nuanced and complicated due to factors like repeat winners and potentially inaccurate rider height data and should be taken with a grain of salt.)

A factor for taller riders triumphing at Roubaix is that it features the least amount of climbing of any major race, and taller riders tend to be heavier than shorter riders.

This extra weight not only makes it difficult to get up and over climbing-heavy courses but also helps when dealing with the constant punishment dished out by the cobblestone roads. A slightly-built rider like Michał Kwiatkowski is always going to have difficulty managing the rough, 6+ hour ride over the Napoleonic roads of Roubaix.

However, if weight was the only factor, one would think there would be heavy riders under 6-feet winning the Queen of the Classics.

This leads me to wonder if there something about Paris-Roubaix that actually rewards taller riders.

Let’s take a look at a list of the lead contenders for Sunday listed in order of height.

Niki Terpstra-6”3
Sep Vanmarcke-6″3
Wout Van Aert -6”2
Jasper Stuyven-6”1
Zdenek Stybar-6”0
Philippe Gilbert-6”0
Gianni Moscon-6”0
Peter Sagan-6”0
Oliver Naesen-6″0
Alexander Kristoff-5”11
Arnaud Demare -5”11
Greg Van Avermaet-5”11
Edvald Boasson Hagen-5″11
John Degenkolb-5″11

Now let’s look at the list listed in order of their odds according to Sky Bets.

Peter Sagan-11/4
Greg Van Avermaet-7/1
Niki Terpstra-7/1
Philippe Gilbert-9/1
Sep Vanmarcke-9/1
Zdenek Stybar-12/1
John Degenkolb-14/1
Arnaud Demare-18/1
Wout Van Aert-18/1
Alexander Kristoff-20/1
Edvald Boasson Hagen-22/1
Jasper Stuyven-22/1
Gianni Moscon-25/1
Oliver Naesen-25/1

It is possible rider height matters at Roubaix. It is also possible this is simply a crackpot theory. But judging from recent history, if you are in interested in picking possible winners, the smart money should go with a rider measuring 6-feet or above.

What Happened to Peter Sagan at Flanders?

Peter Sagan’s 6th place on Sunday at the Tour of Flanders would have been a career-defining result for most riders. However, Sagan isn’t most riders and with every passing spring, the triple World Champion is letting chances to win coveted Classics and cement his legacy slip through his fingers.

While the Slovak has looked a bit off his best over the past few weeks, he still bagged an impressive 8th place at Strade Bianche, 6th at Milan-Sanremo, and a win at Gent-Wevelgem. Most importantly, he seemed to be floating up the steep bergs and breathing through his nose through the decisive moments of Flanders.

Following Greg Van Avermaet’s brutal attack on the Taaienberg with 39 kilometers to go, Sagan’s Bora team put their last remaining domestique, Daniel Oss, on the front to reel in a dangerous attack by Zdenek Stybar, Gianni Moscon, and Jürgen Roelandts. Once they attack was managed, Bora opted to Oss there to keep the pace high to deter attacks from the Quick-Step team, which still had four riders remaining in the group.

However, as soon as Oss was distanced on the Kruisberg 10 kilometers later, the situation quickly began to deteriorate for Sagan. He covered a promising move containing Michal Kwiatkowski, Vincenzo Nibali, and Stybar. This move soon faced a stalemate as each star was unwilling to work for the others, and they were quickly reeled in by the chasing group. In the ensuing lull, Nibali attacked while the favorites were caught literally starring at each other. Sagan calmly watches the Italian fly by, but in retrospect, he most likely let his train to victory leave the station.

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As long as Sagan remained in the group, he was going to be forced to chase down every attack from Quick-Step team. But if he could have gotten up the road and capitalized on the break in pace, he would have been able to let the race come to him when Terpstra launched his winning move.

The main problem with this hypothetical scenario is that there is absolutely no way Terpstra would have worked with Sagan once they were up the road. Remember, Sagan and Terpstra have a sordid history when it comes to sharing the workload in a group. Terpstra proved at the 2017 Gent-Wevelgem that he isn’t afraid of tanking a race out of spite (finally proving that spite is indeed a valid reason).

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This would have forced Sagan to either pull Terpstra into the final two climbs and attempt to dispatch him there or sit up to let the group reel them in. This would have forced him to respond to endless Quick-Step attacks until they inevitably caught him out.

Once Terpstra got away, Sagan’s group was never going to have the horsepower to reel the Dutchman in. Quick-Step was able to strategical roll through and slow down the bunch, and for most of the riders, a podium position at Flanders has the potential to add significant value to their career by way of bonus and additional zeros on future contracts.

To his credit, Sagan recognized this and surged clear at the top of the Paterberg with 13 kilometers remaining. Sagan hit the descent with 30 seconds to close on Terpstra. Peak Sagan could have closed down this gap without breaking a sweat. But, it soon became apparent that Sagan simply didn’t have the form that allowed him to hold off a chasing Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke in 2016.

For reference, check out Sagan’s metronomic, “on-form,” pedal stroke as he holds off the chasers on his way to winning the 2016 edition solo.

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Compare that with his herky-jerky, never-seems-to-be-comfortable style on display during his attempted solo pursuit of Terpstra on that same run-in to the finish in 2018.

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Racing slightly off his top-form, lacking serious team support, and facing a Quick-Step group with numbers, Sagan was up against steep odds no matter what we did at Flanders. The answer to what happened can likely be answered with his extremely high salary limiting the quality of his teammates, along with his suspect training schedule over the past few months.