Chris Froome believes he can continue challenging for Tour de France victories for the best part of the next decade – but history suggests that time is not on his side.
Asked by the BBC’s Dan Roan whether he could win the race five more times, the Team Sky rider, who last month took his second overall win in the French Grand Tour, replied, “Why not?”
That would put Froome above five-time winners Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the most successful rider in the history of the race.
Is 31 the peak age for multiple Tour wins?
But when the 103rd edition starts in Normandy next year, Froome will be 31 – the same age Hinault and Indurain were when they took their fifth and final victories.
Merckx was aged just 29 when he won the race for the last time in 1974, while Anquetil’s fifth yellow jersey came at the age of 30.
In an extensive interview for BBC Sport, Roan initially asked Froome how many Tour de France titles he believed he could win.
“It's tough to say but I'd love to keep racing until my late 30s, for as long as my body will allow me to,” replied Froome, who was also runner-up to Sky team mate Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2012.
“I'd like to think I could go back again for the foreseeable future, four or five years at least,” he continued.
The BBC sports editor then asked Froome outright whether he thought he could win the race five more times.
“Why not? I'm 30, other riders have won Tours into their late 30s, potentially I've got another eight or nine years left in me,” he replied.
In fact, only one rider has ever won the Tour de France beyond the age of 35, and that was almost a century ago – Firmin Lambot, who was 36 when he took the 1922 edition.
Riders to have won the race in their early thirties in recent years include Cadel Evans, 34 when he became the oldest victor in almost 90 years in 2011, and Wiggins, who was 32 during his golden summer of 2012.
Perhaps unintentionally, Roan’s reference to a potential five further victories also evokes thoughts of the darkest period in the race’s history, since it would take Froome to seven successes – the same as Lance Armstrong claimed between 1999 and 2005.
The American, who was 33 when he won the last of those, was banned for life and stripped of his seven yellow jerseys in 2012 and subsequently admitted that he had cheated throughout his dominance of the race.
Abuse by fans fuelled by French pundits
Froome himself faced insinuations in the French media that he was cheating during last month’s race, and it was that whispering campaign led by ex-pros turned pundits such as Laurent Jalabert that led to some spectators targeting the Team Sky rider and some of his colleagues during the race.
“I don't think any sportsman should have to go through what we went through,” Froome said. “I mean urine thrown at you, Richie Porte was punched, I was spat on by spectators. I don't believe that should happen.”
He went on: ”I'd love to have a conversation with these people and say to them: 'What's the issue here? Because I know there is nothing untoward about what I've done to get here.'
“But if people are being told otherwise that's what they're going to believe, especially if it is by supposed cycling experts.
“It's pretty damaging but it's important to say that it wasn't the whole of France doing this, it was scattered individuals. If you think of the 12 million who came out to support the Tour, it was probably less than 1 per cent who were negative and anti-Sky – although you hear that 1 per cent, they're louder than the majority.”
The Monaco resident pointed out however that those instances of abuse he received during the Tour were not reflective of his wider experience of riding in France.
“No, it's absolutely the opposite. And I did some criteriums in France after the Tour and the reception was incredible.
“All the kids and parents came out and they were loving getting a photo with me. There was no negativity whatsoever. I really think that is going to continue next year.
“The negativity was all about certain French commentators doing their job in a way that was very irresponsible.”
Unprecedented Tour-Vuelta double will be tough
Froome, twice second in the Vuelta, has confirmed he will ride the Spanish race which begins in Andalucia a week tomorrow. Only two riders have ever won the Tour de France and Vuelta in the same season, and none since the latter was moved from spring to its late summer spot in 1995.
“It's been on the back of my mind [to ride the Vuelta] from the start of the season but I wanted to see how I felt after the Tour and check that the motivation is still there,” he said.
“Once I was able to get out for a few rides I could see I didn't feel too bad and could give it a go. And it's just that: I'm not going to make any big promises or set the bar too high.
“I can go in there and give it my best shot. If it works out, fantastic; if not, I'm sure I can do a job for somebody else in the team.”
Regarding the prospect of a Tour and Vuelta double, he said: “With the way the schedule is these days, it is very difficult to back up Grand Tours like that.
“We've seen Alberto Contador not quite at his best at the Tour having done the Giro earlier, and I also did the Vuelta in 2012 after I came second in the Tour and I really felt it was hard.
“When it came to that last week I was on my hands and knees. So I'm hoping I don't end up in the same boat but I'm realistic and I know it could be the case.”
Froome - the eternal Etranger?
Despite being the first Briton to win the Tour de France twice, it’s fair to say Froome will never win the hearts of the British public in the same way Wiggins has.
In part that’s a reflection of the two men’s very different personalities, as well as Wiggins’ Olympic success, which puts him in front of a much wider audience, as has his regular racing in the UK where he always the star draw, attracting fans who otherwise might not attend a bike race.
But it also perhaps reflects the fact that while both were born abroad – Wiggins in the Belgian city of Ghent, Froome in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi – the former grew up in London and lives in Lancashire, while the latter was schooled in South Africa and lives in Monaco.
If that means that he is viewed by some as an outsider, Froome – both of whose parents were born in Britain, but who raced under a Kenyan licence until 2007 – does not seem fazed.
“I really appreciate that people have recognised the accomplishment [in winning the Tour twice] and how much hard work and dedication that takes, that is a great feeling,” he said.
“But at the end of the day I'm not racing for recognition, I'm not racing for popularity, that's not who I am.
“I'm focused on the result and trying to get the best out of myself from a sporting capacity. That's what really motivates me.”
Other than last year's Tour de France Grand Depart, Froome last raced in the UK in August 2012 when he took bronze at the Olympic time trial in London, won by Wiggins less than a fortnight after that historic win in Paris.
He hinted however that British fans may get to see him racing on home roads next year.
“I'd love to do more racing in Britain,” he said. “I'd love to do the Tour of Britain but it's always such a hard choice for me to do that or the Vuelta, which is a Grand Tour.
“I'd really like to do both but they clash. But who knows, maybe next year I could come over to the Tour de Yorkshire. I'd certainly like to do more racing in the UK,” he added.
What do you think? Can Chris Froome do what Merckx, Hinault and others haven't and keep challenging for the overall victory in the Tour de France into his late 30s?
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.