An upbeat Chris Froome (Israel Start-Up Nation) has insisted that neither age nor a slower-than-expected recovery process from his crash will be obstacles when it comes to fighting for a fifth Tour de France this summer with his new squad, and he has also described the win by the second-youngest-ever Tour champion, Tadej Pogačar, as "giving hope to the smaller teams."
Should Froome, 35, capture the Tour de France this summer, he will be the second oldest ever to do so in the race after Belgium's Firmin Lambot won it at 36 way back in 1922.
But to judge from his first, full Israel Start-Up Nation team press conference on Monday, potentially becoming a runner-up to Lambot nearly a century later in the history books is not a cycling statistic that Froome particularly feels is relevant in his case.
"Age is a state of mind. I feel relatively young in cycling years because I only got into the sport a little bit later," Froome said.
Speaking from his current winter base in California, while other team leaders like Dan Martin, Michael Woods and Sep Vanmarcke as well as management and owners took part in the same conference from the ongoing training camp in Girona, Spain, Froome argued that he can keep competing into his late 30s.
"The way nutrition and sport have evolved over the years, it is certainly possible for athletes to go on later and later," he said.
"I'm looking at a rider like Alejandro Valverde in his 40s already, still racing Grand Tours, still up there competing with the best in the world, so it's still possible and I'd like to prove that as well."
Valverde, set to turn 41 in April, first raced a Grand Tour back in 2002, taking third overall in the Vuelta a España in 2003. The best part of two decades later, he finished second overall, with a stage win, at the Spanish Grand Tour in 2019.
Despite his last victory in the Tour dating from four years ago, Froome argued that a fifth record-equalling triumph in the race was far from beyond him, and that while quitting after his crash would have been the easier path, it wasn't really one he was prepared to take.
"It would have been the easier option, but not the way I wanted to finish my cycling career. One really big motivation was knowing that sitting on four Tour de France titles, I don't feel as if I'm done yet.
"I'd like to get to number five, and keep racing and targeting Grand Tours until I'm ready to retire from the sport on my own terms. Just the prospect of being put out by a crash didn't sit well with me, so as soon as I found out I could make a full recovery and there was nothing physically that should hold me back, that was a simple decision for me to make."
Froome said that despite expecting a faster recovery from his crash, he was optimistic about his chances of being in the thick of the action come July. And he also argued that rather than the bigger, more experienced WorldTour teams always dominating the Tour, Pogačar's win had been a reminder that it was not just theoretically possible for less successful teams in that Grand Tour field to upset the applecart, it could happen in practice as well.
"As for how realistic it is to aim for the Tour de France this year, my number one goal remains getting back to the 100 per cent level again and obviously everything depends on that," he said.
"Last year I thought I'd come a lot closer to where I needed to be than where I actually was, but it was only really when I got back into racing again that I felt exactly where I was and realised the weaknesses I still had and what I still needed to work on."
Froome said that doing major workouts three or four times a week at the Red Bull High Performance centre in California will hopefully help him reach his old level once again in 2021.
"Hopefully that's been a great learning experience for me, something that has driven the decision to be out here, specially this year during the winter and I can work on things hopefully to get myself back to that top level again."
Regarding the Tour itself and how Israel Start-Up Nation could handle the bigger or more experienced squads, Froome said: "Naturally there are some extremely strong teams that have dominated the front of the peloton as we've seen in the last season. But Pogačar, if you look at his team in the Tour de France last year, his team wasn't riding like that and he ending up winning the Tour.
"That was a fantastic race by him, and it does give a lot of hope to smaller teams, seeing a scenario coming off like that, and at the end of the day it [victory] does come down to the strength of the leaders."
As for what specific work Froome was doing to improve his physical condition during his recovery to get back to his best , the Briton said that: "Pretty much straight after last year's Vuelta, I had a bit more hardware taken out of my leg. I had a couple screws removed from just above my knee they were causing a bit of irritation in my quad while I was racing in Spain.
"So it's good to have those out now. Since then I have been working pretty hard, mainly on the quadriceps because in cycling terms they were the biggest ones that were damaged, as well as a lot of the stabilizing muscles on the side of the legs. I feel as if I'm making a lot of headway towards where I need to be."
While Froome's recovery and team change are dominating the short-term news cycle concerning the Briton winner and his options on a fifth Tour feature strongly further down the line. But Froome said he was also fully on board with the squad's aims of expanding and improving the team.
"This is very much a long-term commitment from my side, being with the team is something I'm committed to til the end of my career and potentially beyond that. So I'm very much looking at it as something for which I'm all in. I want to give everything I can to try and better the team in all the ways possible."
Froome was not willing to discuss yet what his race programme could be, given the uncertainty dominating the current calendar. But his main goal for 2021 is clear and to judge by Monday, the Briton is clearly determined to give it 100 per cent to get there, regardless of the obstacles.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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