The unstoppable Chris Froome
Chris Froome has cemented his place in the list of cycling greats with a win in the Vuelta España to add to his victory in the Tour de France earlier this season. He is the first cyclist to win the double since Bernard Hinault, the dominant rider of the 1980s, and with four TdF titles, becomes the most successful British cyclist ever on the grand tour stage.
Froome is one of the strongest climbers of his time. Yet he rides under the cloud of Lance Armstrong’s legacy. People spit at him, shout ‘Dopé!’, mimic injecting their arms as he rides past. The spectators get up close, one upturning a cup of urine over his head. A banner with the word ‘Froome’ followed by a question mark appears as cyclists take a bend. The French press label him a mutant; they say he can’t possibly be that good at climbing. There are suspicions of his sudden bursting onto the scene: from a little-known rider on the verge of being dropped by his team, he came out of nowhere to take second place in the Vuelta a España in 2011.
It’s a legacy that Froome and the other riders of his generation will have to overcome. Doping checks and regulations have tightened to an extent that it is now nigh on impossible to cheat. Froome deals with the accusations with characteristic dignity and politeness. He aims to be a role model for clean cycling.
Froome grew up in Kenya, where he used to ride through the townships and among wild animals, selling avocados off the back of his bike as an eight-year-old. ‘Cycling was my freedom,’ he says.
Froome’s first tour victory took place at the historic 100th edition of the Tour, the year after he rode as domestique for Bradley Wiggins. The role of a domestique (French for ‘servant’) is to assist the team leader by providing a slip stream so they can save energy, carrying their water or supporting them in the bunch until the moment of attack. Consequently, the domestiques are largely unknown figures, often sacrificing all for the team, peeling off before the finish line after having spent everything they had. Yet despite riding essentially on behalf of someone else, in the 2012 Tour, Froome came second.
Those crowds that line the route of the Tour give so much to the riders, a much-needed cheer of encouragement, a turbo-boosting Mexican wave, sometimes even a gentle push. It is one of the curiosities of the Tour, these crowds that spill into the road, parting at the last moment. ‘We have a unique sport; it is a privilege to be able to get up close to the race and to the event,’ says Brian Cookson, UCI president. ‘But people have a responsibility to respect that as well.’ It’s what led to the punching of Eddy Merckx; it means those keen photographers whose desire to get a close-up often results in their camera, and the rider, smashing to the ground. An ascent in the 2016 Tour saw a fan attempting to run alongside the riders, cape flowing behind him. He received a jab in the face from Froome.
Poor weather on the ascent up Mont Ventoux in 2016 convinced the organisers to bring the finish line a short way down the mountain, displacing the crowds from that top section and squeezing them into spaces already over-filled with fans. Those groups that spill into the road spilled too far and the lead motorbike had to stop, causing Froome to crash into him. A second motorbike hit from behind and broke his frame. With his support car 5 minutes back, he began to run, cleated shoes slipping on the tarmac. There’s no rule stating that you’re not allowed to run – as long as you cross the finish line with a bike. He was finally given one, and retained the yellow jersey.
Perhaps Froome will be the first to legitimately break the five-win record. ‘I don’t see anyone beating Chris Froome for the next few years,’ said Merckx.
This is an excerpt from ‘Pedal Power: inspirational stories from the world of cycling’ available to buy now