There are increasing doubts about whether Chris Froome can return to the level that saw him land seven Grand Tour titles, with Israel-Premier Tech director Rik Verbrugghe saying he no longer 'dares' to answer that question.
The Israeli team signed the Briton while he was still deep in his rehabilitation from his career-threatening 2019 crash, and voiced full belief he could get them contending for Grand Tours and land a record-equalling fifth Tour de France title. Froome also aimed high, insisting he was working to again be competitive in Grand Tours.
However last year Froome was a shadow of his former self as he continued to work back to full strength. Despite glimpses of promise in the latter part of the season, Froome has since been knocked back by separate issues, firstly a flare-up of the parasitic disease bilharzia, and then by a knee tendon injury at the start this year.
The injury was said to be caused by trying to rebuild through other sports, such as swimming and running, and it has caused his season debut to be pushed back into March and possibly beyond.
"It makes no sense to make plans about his racing programme now. First he has to be 100 per cent fit. I hope he can start racing from mid-March," Israel-Premier Tech director Verbrugghe told Het Nieuwsblad.
“In any case, Chris is extremely motivated and just one of the guys during the training camp. In February he goes on a camp with the boys from the development team to work on his form. We know what needs to be done to get him up to standard and we're going to do everything we can."
As for whether that will be enough to get Froome, 36, back to where he and the team want him to be, Verbrugghe's non-answer was a significant development in the team's messaging around their highest-paid rider.
"Whether Chris is still able to achieve the achievements of yesteryear, I don't dare answer that anymore," Verbrugghe stated, justifying Froome's role in the team and his salary.
"There is more to such a contract than just the sporting aspect," he added. "Chris is a big name. His presence opens doors that would otherwise remain closed. Cycling is also about reputation and prestige. Chris plays a major role in this and is an example for young riders within our team."
Froome last publicly addressed his injury issues at Israel-Premier Tech's team presentation during their training camp in Spain, where he has been riding his bike but at low intensity.
"I didn’t make it to this camp last year, so I’m really happy to be here and starting training with the guys, but my preparations have definitely been delayed," he said.
"I’ll only start racing a bit later as well. I’m happy to be here getting the work in. I’m not feeling pain at the moment but I have to take it steady with a slower progression in the first part of the season."
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