He still walks with the faintest of limps but, given the uphill struggles Chris Froome has faced over the last few months, it’s no wonder he has been so upbeat with his racing comeback at the UAE Tour.
After all, it was only a few months ago - in early December to be precise - that the four-time Tour de France winner was forced to go under the knife for a third time following an infection that stemmed from the previous rounds of surgery on his right side and leg.
The infection was caused by an allergic reaction to internal stitches that were sewn during the second surgery to remove metalwork in November. News of this third surgery was revealed by Froome to both Cyclingnews and The Times at the finish of stage 2 of the UAE Tour.
He still carries the scars and will forever have a plate of metal along his right femur with four screws to hold it in place. Giving a rare insight into his rehabilitation, Froome described the months since his career-threatening crash at last year's Critérium du Dauphiné.
There have been several key points since last June. After the surgeries, Froome had to spend months in bed recovering and then spent time in a wheelchair as his rehab began. Learning to walk, he said, was one of the hardest points.
"That was tough. That was really tough," Froome told Cyclingnews and The Times.
"It’s not something that you think about until you’re in that sort of position. For sure, after weeks of being bed-ridden and then weeks of being in a wheelchair, walking just felt so foreign.
"That was much harder than getting back on the bike again. On the bike it actually felt pretty natural and pretty easy but trying to walk normally was by far the hardest part of the rehab."
It wasn’t just a physical struggle, but a mental one too.
"Mentally it was just tough, when I was in that position of barely being able to walk, thinking about being a professional cyclist again seemed so far away but it’s amazing what the body can do and how it recovers," Froome said.
"I’m incredibly fortunate to have been surrounded by really good people, with rehab and physios, and the general team around me. Everybody had really high morale and positive energy. It made it a lot easier."
Froome has reached several key milestones during his continued comeback but when asked what the biggest breakthrough was during his time away from professional cycling, he picked one that didn’t involve the bike at all.
"I can remember, it must have been after a month and a half or two months, and getting in the pool for the first time. That was liberating because until that time I’d been bed-ridden. Getting in the pool and being able to move again was probably one of the biggest milestones because at least then I could swim every day and keep active. Until that point, it was pretty hard to do anything."
'This is only the start for me'
The UAE Tour has seen Froome back in action for the first time since last June. He sailed through the opening stage but when the road started to climb to Hatta Dam on Monday he understandably suffered.
He still managed to put a shift in by supporting his teammate Eddie Dunbar when the pace began to rise, and even battled back after being dropped on the penultimate climb but, as he told Cyclingnews at the start of the week, he is simply here to train and see the week out.
After the UAE Tour, he returns to Europe for another altitude camp. Other races have been discussed but as yet he has not made his schedule public.
"I wasn’t in pain but I’ve not raced for eight months," he said in relation to his recent outing in the Middle East. "I’m sure I just need more racing. I’m feeling good, and for a first race back I’m feeling really happy. I’m happy with how the legs feel and the shape.
"I was just trying to do a job for the team and try and keep Eddie up there. He’s in great shape for him so we’re going to try and do everything for him, and keep him in a position to get a result."
Froome was asked how he felt when the peloton initially dropped him before he chased back before the final climb.
"It just keeps me motivated to keep progressing. This is only the start for me and I’m really happy with the feelings so far. I’ve got a long way to go but, like I said before the race started, this is the first test for me now."
While racing, Froome's rehabilitation programme takes something of a back seat. He admits that stretch training on his weaker right side remains a priority, and although that limp is still just about present, it should be eliminated as he continues to improve.
"Naturally, the right side hasn’t been loaded this heavily for a long time now. There’s a lot of little things that I need to work on," he said.
"There’s still a limp there but that will go. It’s a lot better now than it was a few months ago."
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