Chris Froome won his sixth Grand Tour in Rome yesterday and it will go down as his most remarkable.
He may have been one of the pre-race favourites when the 101st Giro d’Italia began in Jerusalem, but a succession of crashes and cracks left him almost five minutes down as the final week began.
Perhaps the ongoing battle to clear his name after a positive test for Salbutamol at last year’s La Vuelta had taken a bigger mental and physical toll than anyone expected.
Or perhaps he was simply finding out how difficult the ambitious Giro-Tour double, last achieved by Marco Pantani in 1998, really is.
As his deficit grew there were even rumours of Froome withdrawing from the race to concentrate on the Tour, but this is the Giro d’Italia – a race known for late twists in the tale – and Froome vowed to race on and do the best he could “whether that be 20th, second or first”. Against everything facing him on and off the bike, Froome produced a most remarkable comeback to become the first man since Bernard Hinault in 1982-83 to hold all three Grand Tour titles at the same time, adding the Giro to last year’s Tour de France and La Vuelta victories – even as he fights to keep that Vuelta crown.
As he spent the second rest day staring at that yawning deficit to the leader’s pink jersey, no doubt he knew the race’s history.
This is the third year in a row the race leader’s pink jersey has changed hands in the final three days, with the first of that run won by Vincenzo Nibali who had, like Froome, been almost five minutes down inside the final week.
But he also knew that his training programme for a rare assault on the Giro-Tour double meant he had arrived at the race undercooked, looking to peak in the final week and sustain his form into July.
It appears that plan has been executed perfectly.
Froome’s victory on stage 19 – the day he effectively won the Giro – will live long in the memory, a most daring attack from 80 kilometres out on what race organisers had labelled the queen stage.
The attack obliterated Simon Yates, the 25-year-old from Bury who had illuminated the first two weeks of the race with an attacking style which earned him a long run in pink. This experience will have been painful, but will only stand him in good stead for a bright future.
Froome’s Team Sky are often criticised for making races ‘boring’ with their controlling tactics but, while that may be true of the Tour de France in recent years – of which Froome has won four of the last five – this victory came off the back of an extraordinary ambush and display of attacking bravado.
Their tactics are not dogma, simply a case of what works.
But no matter how hard he soared on the final Friday of the race, Froome cannot escape the Salbutamol cloud that continues to hang over him.
Soon after he launched his attack on the Finestre, two fans dressed as doctors ran after him brandishing a giant inhaler, and after he crossed the finish line he faced more questions from the media.
“I know I have done nothing wrong and soon that will be clear to everyone,” said Froome, who held a spirited series of attacks from defending champion Dumoulin on stage 20 from Susa, to stretch his lead to 46 seconds.
“There will always be one comment or another but the fans in Italy have been great.”
Froome could yet lose his Vuelta title over the issue, but Giro director Mauro Vegni has said he has reassurances from UCI president David Lappartient that he will keep his pink jersey.
Neither man wanted Froome to be at this race – the easiest way to avoid the rush to add asterisks to his result – but neither can now deny the pure drama his performances brought to the final days.