You can’t knock the enterprising racing, the route or the vast roadside crowds at the 2017 Tour de Yorkshire. The only minor quibble? The three-day men’s race lack of a headline act.
The biggest names in attendance were Thomas Voeckler, Mat Hayman and Nacer Bouhanni. There was no Greg Van Avermaet like in 2015. No Mark Cavendish (out with glandular fever) or Geraint Thomas (gearing up for the Giro). And where was Chris Froome? Away at the Tour de Romandie.
Despite sending a skeleton squad of six riders, Team Sky were visible: Classics colossuses Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard seemed to spend half the race on the front of the bunch. British talent Tao Geoghegan-Hart performed admirably, finishing eighth overall, shaking off the effects of the finish line crash on day one. While it didn’t quite match their mob-handed performances in 2015 and 2016, resulting in wins for Lars Petter Nordhaug and Danny Van Poppel respectively, it was nice to see a young rider being given a chance to lead.
Geoghegan-Hart is one for the future, but Team Sky should have considered bringing their powerhouse of the present: both for extra firepower and a public relations victory. Chris Froome is a British three-time Tour de France winner whose profile seems peculiarly disproportionate to his achievements.
SportsPro Media published their annual top 50 list of the world’s most marketable sportspeople last year, based on the criteria of value for money, age, home market, charisma, willingness to be marketed and crossover appeal. Three cyclists featured: Lizzie Deignan was 46th, Nairo Quintana 37th and Peter Sagan was 26th – one spot ahead of Lionel Messi. Froome didn’t make the cut.
His omission from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year shortlist last winter, after arguably his most eye-catching Tour de France win, also hinted at his lack of popularity. His battle for mainstream British hearts and minds is ongoing.
A PR open goal
Imagine if Froome had raced the 2017 Tour de Yorkshire. While he could probably have done with a confidence-boosting stage or overall win, the result would barely have mattered. It would have been a PR open goal (something Team Sky and British cycling could do with after recent crises) for him and the race, and a memorable communion with the estimated 2.2-million on the Yorkshire roadsides.
Instead, it was felt that the Tour de Romandie’s six-day length, WorldTour prestige and two time-trials made it a better test, given his Tour de France ambitions. The race didn’t go well for Froome: the weather was worse than in God’s Own County and he finished 18th, affected by a minor back injury.
So, the 31-year-old remains a great Briton who rarely races in Great Britain. In the last five years, he has competed in one domestic event: the 2016 RideLondon Classic. To give him his due, that was a bold move: he could easily have swerved it before heading to the Rio Olympics.
The desire is evidently there. “I’m pretty sure I’ll go to Yorkshire one day. I’d love to race more in the UK,” he told Cyclingnews last week.
“I’ve been saying that for a while now, that timing wise there are always events that clash – like this [Romandie] or the Vuelta a España, with the Tour of Britain and then the nationals coming just before the Tour. I would like to get there one day.”
Froome: a man for Man?
That raises another point: there is nothing stopping Froome from racing the national championship road race in late June, six days before the Grand Départ. While there is a minor risk of crashing before his seasonal raison d’être, rivals like Romain Bardet, Vincenzo Nibali and Alejandro Valverde habitually use that competition as a final tune-up without problems.
While his avoidance of drag-strip courses in the past is understandable, this summer’s circuit on the Isle of Man is better suited to the climber. And turning up to the Tour in national champion’s garb – as Bradley Wiggins did in 2011 (below) – would serve as a clear statement of intent.
Froome and Team Sky appear to share an inflexible, pragmatic desire to do whatever’s best for winning big bike races. It’s sport, not a popularity contest, after all.
But cycling is a sport rooted in emotion and tangibility too: seeing a champion up close always trumps watching his exploits on TV. The sport’s top races are so centered on the European mainland that a rare homecoming from a British champion – a Froomecoming, if you will – would be even more memorable.
Team Sky’s figurehead may talk of his intention to race in the UK, but actions speak louder than words. Perhaps if the Tour de Yorkshire extends to four days in 2018, as Sir Gary Verity has suggested, it might clinch an overdue, rapturous homecoming for Froome.
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