Froome’s Emergence from the Shadows

Chris Froome used to be bad at cycling. He joined the Barloworld team in 2008 and from then until the 2011 Vuelta he managed only one victory, in the Giro del Capo in South Africa.

‘Bad’ is all relative of course. He was good enough to be a professional cyclist and he was also good enough to be signed by Team Sky. But the story goes that before that 2011 Vuelta the team were done with him. They wouldn’t be renewing his contract because he wasn’t worth paying anymore.

But then he finished second in the Vuelta, a Grand Tour, ahead of his team leader Bradley Wiggins. If time bonuses weren’t awarded during the race, Froome actually would have won. He had clocked a faster time around Spain than eventual winner Juan José Cobo.

It is this transformation that sceptics use as as a stick to beat Froome with. This performance came from nowhere. He had shown no signs of being able to race like this before – in any race, let alone a Grand Tour. Cyclists weren’t supposed to be able to do this. They’re either supposed to be world beaters from an early age like Eddy Merckx and Bernard Hinault or they’re supposed to gradually improve year by year until they finally crack the big time, like Miguel Indurain and Carlos Sastre.


Froome finished on the podium of a Grand Tour having never before even finished anywhere near the top 10 of one. Is it really that unusual? Is it really a reason to cast doubt and aspersions on all of his subsequent performances and Tour de France victories?

Let’s let the stats do the talking.

I‘ve number crunched the last 30 years worth of Grand Tours to find out if there are any riders who have done something similar. The following table shows eight riders who suddenly finished on the podium of a Grand Tour having never before finished in the top 40. It shows each of these riders best previous result in each of the three Grand Tours and their average finishing position across all three before they made it on to the podium.

Average over 40.0 (no single result under 40)

1994Evgeni BerzinGiro 1stN/A90N/A90.0
1991Melchor MauriVuelta 1st78987182.33
1987Erik BreukinkGiro 3rdN/A71N/A71.0
2012Thomas de GendtGiro 3rd62N/AN/A62.0
2001Unai OsaGiro 3rdN/ADNF5656.0
2004Santiago PerezVuelta 2ndDNFDNF4444.0
2014Fabio AruGiro 3rdN/A42N/A42.0
1999Igor Gonzalez de GaldeanoVuelta 2ndN/AN/A4242.0

Of the eight riders in the table above, only one went on to win a Grand Tour after their inaugural breakthrough performance – Fabio Aru at the 2015 Vuelta. Whereas Froome continued to improve and continued to win. He followed up his 2011 Vuelta with two more second places at the same race and three wins in the Tour de France.

Obviously, Froome is not present in this table because he actually did finish in the top 40 of one of his earlier Grand Tours. He was 34th in the 2009 Giro. So let’s change the criteria to riders who popped up on a Grand Tour podium having never before finished in the top 30.

Average over 30.0 (no single result under 30)

1994Evgeni BerzinGiro 1stN/A90N/A90.0
1991Melchor MauriVuelta 1st78987182.33
1987Erik BreukinkGiro 3rdN/A71N/A71.0
2012Thomas de GendtGiro 3rd62N/AN/A62.0
2011Chris FroomeVuelta 2nd8236N/A59.0
2001Unai OsaGiro 3rdN/ADNF5656.0
2003Isidro NozalVuelta 2nd3868N/A53.0
2004Santiago PerezVuelta 2ndDNFDNF4444.0
1999Igor Gonzalez de GaldeanoVuelta 2ndN/AN/A4242.0
2014Fabio AruGiro 3rdN/A42N/A42.0
2013Nairo QuintanaTour 2ndN/AN/A3636.0
2004Damiano CunegoGiro 1stN/A34N/A34.0
2010Peter VelitsVuelta 3rd32N/AN/A32.0
2007Alberto ContadorTour 1st31N/AN/A31.0

Increasing the scope from those who had never before finished in the top 40 of a Grand Tour to those who had never before finished in the top 30 gives us six new riders in the list – Froome, Isidro Nozal, Nairo Quintana, Damiano Cunego, Peter Velits and Alberto Contador.

It’s interesting to see both Contador and Quintana appear on the list now – two of Froome’s biggest rivals at the Tour de France. All three fall into this category of achieving a Grand Tour podium position having previously not performed in a three week race. And obviously all three also went on to win multiple Grand Tours after their initial breakthrough performances. Again there’s perhaps a fact which sets Froome apart from the others on the list which is the number of Grand Tours he had ridden before his first podium – and a related fact, his age.

So let’s alter the table a bit to include these two pieces of information and instead of ordering it by average finishing position, let’s order it by the number of prior Grand Tours each rider had taken part in.

Average over 30.0 (no single result under 30) - with experience

1991Melchor MauriVuelta 1st78987182.33525y 1m
2004Santiago PerezVuelta 2ndDNFDNF4444.0427y 1m
2011Chris FroomeVuelta 2nd8236N/A59.0326y 4m
2003Isidro NozalVuelta 2nd3868N/A53.0325y 11m
1999Igor Gonzalez de GaldeanoVuelta 2ndN/AN/A4242.0325y 10m
2010Peter VelitsVuelta 3rd32N/AN/A32.0225y 7m
2001Unai OsaGiro 3rdN/ADNF5656.0225y 4m
2013Nairo QuintanaTour 2ndN/AN/A3636.0123y 5m
2014Fabio AruGiro 3rdN/A42N/A42.0123y 10m
2012Thomas de GendtGiro 3rd62N/AN/A62.0125y 6m
2007Alberto ContadorTour 1st31N/AN/A31.0124y 7m
1994Evgeni BerzinGiro 1stN/A90N/A90.0123y 11m
2004Damiano CunegoGiro 1stN/A34N/A34.0122y 9m
1987Erik BreukinkGiro 3rdN/A71N/A71.0123y 1m

Froome is third in the list having previously taken part in three Grand Tours before the 2011 Vuelta (including a disqualification from the 2010 Giro for holding on to a race vehicle). He’s also the second oldest after one hit wonder Santiago Perez. The reigning Tour champion was also almost two years older than Contador and three years older than Quintana both of whom had only ridden one previous Grand Tour as opposed to Froome’s three.QuintanaCartoon

Races, teams and the dynamics therein are always more complicated than a set of numbers in a table. For instance, in 2007 Contador had already won Paris-Nice and the Vuelta Castilla y Leon and was heading for the Tour with a shared leadership with his Discovery Channel team-mate Levi Leipheimer. It was a similar story for Quintana who in 2013 had won the Tour of the Basque Country and the Vuelta a Burgos. This led to a shared leadership at the Tour with Alejandro Valverde.

Before the 2011 Vuelta, Froome had won nothing which meant he was there very much to ride in the service of team leader Bradley Wiggins. But did Froome not win races because he wasn’t trusted with leadership of a team or was he not trusted with leadership because he didn’t win races? This is a question that a spreadsheet or a set of statistics cannot answer.

Froome did come from nothing to finish on the podium of the 2011 Vuelta. He wasn’t the first to do something like this, he won’t be the last. But given his age, the number of Grand Tours he had already ridden and the phenomenal sustained success he has achieved since then sets him apart from others.

But is this enough to cause the scepticism and from some quarters, downright accusations, which Froome has had to endure over the last five years? As usual with all things related to Froome, or indeed Team Sky, everyone probably has their mind made up by now and no amount of numbers and tables are going to change that.

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  1. Hoofguy - February 17, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

    Bilharzia… was his tue initial start… motors on the cols for his 15 second bursts…. never really out the saddle… if he is that good going uphill why does the effort not make him streets ahead on the tt??

  2. Irish Peloton - February 17, 2017 @ 6:34 pm

    Well it’s a little more complicated than the idea that going fast uphill means you’ll be fast in a time trial. Think about Joaquín Rodriguez. Good climber. Shite time triallist.

    Besides, I’d have said Froome is one of the best time triallists around, no? Two Olympic medals.

  3. Zlatko - February 18, 2017 @ 1:00 pm

    Here’s my conspiracy theory- Sky realizes that they can’t go in grey areas (tue’s) team wide because it’s too risky so they do it only with Wiggo or limited number of riders. Then they notice that Froome can beat Wiggo without getting creative Tue’s so they test the theory at Vuelta. Rest is as they say history…

  4. Austin - February 18, 2017 @ 1:09 pm

    Really good work Cillian. So easy to churn out the ‘came from nowhere’ line to attack Froome, but it’s never that simple of course.

  5. Corky - February 19, 2017 @ 11:29 pm

    You only need to look at Froome’s freakishly thin body to know he is taking/doing something that his rivals are not. Is it doping? Is it cheating? Is it outside the rules? Perhaps not. But there is something going on. Look at Wiggins’ body in 2012 when he won Tour and Olympic ITT. It was so obvious. Sky argue his TUE was within the rules, but where is the evidence that TUE(s) were for genuine medical need? There is more to Froome’s success than meets the eye, surely.

  6. Chris - February 20, 2017 @ 2:15 pm

    First of all – great work, as ever !

    To expand on the point I made on twitter – neither Cobo nor Froome had much pedigree before the Vuelta in 2011. For two riders to emerge from the shadows simultaneously suggests that the race was an anomaly, rather than the riders. Which is why I suggested a weak field – big names perhaps, but maybe tired at the end of the season (or coming back from injury)

    Cobo was 10th in vuelta in 2009. Is that the worst second best by a GT winner ? Has any GT winner failed to make the top ten at any other GT ? (Fire up the spreadsheet – you know you want to!)

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