A broken femur and other injuries forecast a long and uncertain recovery
It was the kind of move pro racers do all the time without a thought. Four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome was in the midst of a recon of Wednesday’s individual time trial stage at the Criterium du Dauphine stage race, a key Tour tune-up, when he raised a hand to blow a simple snot rocket.
“At the start of the descent, Chris wanted to blow his nose and, at that moment, a sharp gust of wind pushed him against a low wall along the side of the road,” Team Ineos general manager Dave Brailsford told VeloNews afterward. At the time, Froome was riding a time-trial bike with a high-profile front wheel that’s more prone to being pushed around in gusty conditions. According to reports, Froome was going 37 miles per hour when he hit the wall. He is definitely out of the 2019 Tour de France.
Team Ineos issued a press release on Wednesday detailing Froome’s injuries: a fractured right femur, elbow, ribs (the team didn’t say how many), and possibly a hip. Froome didn’t lose consciousness but was apparently almost unable to speak in the moments after the crash. He was taken by an ambulance and then helicopter to a regional hospital in Roanne, and was transferred again to a larger facility in Saint-Etienne. “It’ll take quite a long time before he races again,” said Brailsford, according to the BBC.
Those are chilling words. Brailsford normally puts on an optimistic face for the press, whatever the circumstances; for him to sound so grim in this situation is telling. And he’s likely right that we won’t see Froome again for some time, almost certainly not until next season.
The femur is the largest bone in the body. It’s a relatively rare one for pro cyclists to break. Collarbone, pelvis, and wrist fractures are far more common. But partly because of its size, a broken femur also requires a longer and more uncertain recovery than other types of fractures. A small 2015 study of four professional ball-sports athletes who sustained broken femurs found an average return-to-competition time of 9.5 months. “Return to play is possible ... within one year under ideal circumstances,” the authors wrote, noting that subsequent surgery for hardware removal or soft-tissue injuries related to the fracture could complicate that timeline.
Froome is the second pro to fracture a femur this season. The other, Israel Cycling Academy’s Nathan Earle, suffered his injury on April 6 at the Gran Premio Miguel Indurain. Understandably, he hasn’t raced since.
Though unusual, injuries like Froome’s and Earle’s aren’t unheard of—and most of the racers ultimately return to pro cycling. One, Jack Bauer, is still racing at the WorldTour level four years after his injury. But in other instances, the racers’s post-crash careers tell something of a cautionary tale about the long-term impacts of such a serious injury.
In maybe the most analogous case in recent history, Spanish racer Joseba Beloki crashed heavily in the 2003 Tour and broke his femur. (This was the stage where Lance Armstrong made his famous cyclocross-style detour in a switchback to avoid Beloki’s crash.) Beloki returned to competition in March 2004 and raced three more seasons at the sport’s top level before retiring in 2006. Prior to the injury, Beloki was one of the better stage racers of his era, with three Tour de France podiums. Post-crash, he struggled to finish stage races and never finished higher than 40th in a three-week Grand Tour.
Also in 2003, American Floyd Landis suffered a femoral neck fracture in a training crash, damaging blood supply to the bone and eventually leading to avascular necrosis. He won the 2006 Tour, at age 30, on a deteriorating joint that required a full hip replacement that fall. Because of his positive test at that year’s Tour and subsequent two-year ban, we’ll never know how quickly he could have returned to racing following his surgery. But the complications he suffered are a stark example of the kind of lingering problems that a femur fracture can cause.
Not all stories are that bleak. Alexandre Vinkourov, a former top pro and Grand Tour contender, broke his femur at age 38 in the 2011 Tour de France. He came back in three months and then won the 2012 Olympic road race. But he also retired the following year, and his stage-race results in that season were lackluster at best.
Brailsford declined to speculate on any long-term prognosis for Froome’s career, saying that it was simply too early to know. But Froome’s injury may be worse than the femur fractures some other riders have faced. An AFP report on the crash noted that a witness to the accident said Froome had suffered an open (or compound) fracture, which means that a bone fragment displaced enough to break the skin. If that’s true, it’s concerning, because this kind of break can cause additional injuries and increase the risk of infection. The AFP quoted Brailsford as saying Froome was in “a very, very serious condition.”
And, past Froome’s initial recovery, there’s the question of his age and where he will fit in Ineos’s long-term plans. Froome just turned 34, four years older than Beloki at the time of his crash. We likely won’t seem him return to competition until at least spring 2020. Even if he’s racing again by then and there are few complications, the 2020 Tour may be too early for him to have returned to full strength.
Froome was already one of the older Tour winners in the race’s history. In the race’s post–World War II era, just four riders (Gino Bartali, 1948; Joop Zoetemelk, 1980; Lance Armstrong, 2005; and Cadel Evans, 2011) won a Tour at age 34. Only one Tour rider in history, Firmin Lambot, was over 35, and that was almost 100 years ago. Even before the injury, Froome’s window for a record-tying fifth Tour win was starting to close.
And Froome will return to a crowded roster at Ineos, including defending Tour winner Geraint Thomas, who is only a year younger, and rising stars like Egan Bernal and Pavel Sivakov, who are just 22 and 21, respectively. And recent Giro d’Italia winner Richard Carapaz, 26, has also been rumored to be moving to Ineos in 2020. Froome’s results will certainly keep the door open for him, although his contract is up at the end of 2020. But he may well have to work to prove he deserves leadership opportunities in major races.
None of that is Froome’s concern, or Ineos’s, just yet. “Our primary focus now is obviously on ensuring Chris gets the best possible care, which he will do, so he can recover as soon as possible,” said Brailsford in a statement from the team. Brailsford added that Froome’s hallmarks as an athlete are mental strength and resilience, and said that the team will support him totally to “help him recalibrate and assist him in pursuing his future goals and ambitions.”
What those are, no one can say. But for the past seven Tours de France, Froome has been a fixture. He is the most dominant rider on the sport’s most dominant team, possessed of a kind of inevitability that the sport has seen from only a few riders. That’s gone now. The future, whatever it holds for Froome, is anyone’s guess.