Sean Ingle in Rome
Finally, 109 years after the Gazzetta dello Sport decided to hold a bike race across Italy to boost sales, Britain has its first Giro d’Italia winner. And while this was Chris Froome’s sixth grand tour title, following four victories at the Tour de France and another at the Vuelta a España, this was surely the sweetest.
Not everyone felt Froome should be racing given his ongoing legal battle to clear his name after twice the permitted levels of salbutamol were found in his system at the Vuelta. He also crashed before the first stage and struggled for much of the opening fortnight. And even as late as Friday morning he was in fourth place, 3min 22sec behind. Yet somehow he found a way. Again.
In claiming the maglia rosa, Froome also became the first cyclist in 35 years to hold all three grand tour titles – the Tour de France, Vuelta and Giro – at the same time, joining Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx, the Badger and the Cannibal, in a super-exclusive club.
“It hasn’t quite sunk in yet,” Froome said. “I am sure it will over the next few days when I have time to reflect. It is a dream to have all three leaders’ jerseys in the space of 10 months. I am still pinching myself. I can’t believe I am here.”
After a wild and thrillingly unpredictable three weeks of racing, the race on Sunday was more of a procession, the grunt and the grind having been applied in the Italian Alps. Having stretched his lead over his nearest rival, Tom Dumoulin, to 46sec on Saturday, Froome’s task was simple: to navigate Rome’s roads without incurring a serious injury. That was not quite as straightforward as he would have hoped given the cobbles and treacherous potholes along the 11.5km circuit. But after a pow-wow with Froome, Dumoulin and the race organisers it was agreed the stage was neutralised after three laps.
That meant that all general classification positions would remain the same, regardless of what happened thereafter, providing a rider finished the stage. Froome, understandably, was content to coast home as the Irishman Sam Bennett took the win in a thrilling bunch sprint ahead of Elia Viviani. Eventually Froome trundled over the line, 17 minutes back, having joyously wended his way past the monuments of ancient Rome. As he crossed the line he joined hands with his six team-mates, before being led to the podium to be dressed in pink.
“It was great to be able to soak up the atmosphere in Rome and all the monuments and crowds,” he said. “I have always been a little bit afraid of coming here and really targeting it because of the demands of the Giro. It is just so different to any other race. So to be in this position, and to have won, I can’t quite believe it.”
Even Froome did not think he had a chance going into the 19th stage on Friday. Only deep into an 80km breakaway, when he had established a three-minute lead to become virtual race leader, had his thoughts turned to the maglia rosa. “I felt it was game on,” he said. “It spurred me on.”
It was, depending on your view, either one of the greatest solo rides in history or something less edifying. For some observers the sensation was not unlike being on a rollercoaster: thrilling and queasy at the same time.
Froome, though, remains emphatic that he has done nothing wrong and when comparisons with Floyd Landis’s breakaway to Morzine in the 2006 Tour de France were brought up, he responded. “I can understand the parallels of comparisons being drawn by some people. But my conscience is clear. I have every confidence it will stand.”
Team Sky, for their part, regarded the stage win on Friday as somewhat akin to the perfect heist. A combination of Froome risking everything, especially on the descents, as well as benefiting from a ramshackle chase and staff being positioned along the route to give him small pots of nutrition. They also expected Froome to come on strong in the final week, given his crash on the opening stage and the fact he had saddle sores for much of the race. Froome also came into the Giro a little heavier than usual, at 70kg rather than the 67kg he is normally at the Tour de France – although by the time he rode up the Finestre his weight had dropped to 68.2kg.
Of course Froome still faces the cloud of his adverse analytical finding at the Vuelta – as well as a potential ban – although he denies any wrongdoing and insists he will clear his name.
However, on the road he remains untouchable – and while at 33 he is surely in the autumn of his career, he may not be finished yet. As the Team Sky directeur sportif, Nico Portal, put it afterwards: “He is on top of his game. If he wins the Tour it will be four grand tours in a row. And after that what next? Maybe he will go for the Vuelta. That is what exceptional champions can do. He is just phenomenal.”
Meanwhile Froome remains convinced, despite the reluctance of the race director, Christian Prudhomme, that his next big test will come at the Tour de France in July. And after this staggering victory would anyone dare bet against him winning his fifth yellow jersey?