Chris Froome: Rider on the storm

The British cyclist's ruthless ascent to the top of his sport has provoked envy and innuendo in France.

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As a boy, Chris Froome had two unusual pets: a pair of pythons. They needed feeding, and their meals had to be alive. Mice at first, then rats. But as they grew they needed something more filling. So he raided the rabbit hutches in the kindergarten across the road.

“Young children would arrive at the class next day and their little baby bunny rabbits would be gone,” he wrote in last year’s autobiography, The Climb. The rabbits would squeal as the snakes tucked in, he recalled. “I felt like intervening and stopping it. But the pythons had to be fed and it was my responsibility.” From the outset Chris Froome did what had to be done.

That quality has helped to bring him to the brink of a second Tour de France victory. Had he not crashed out of last year’s title defence he might now be looking at his hat-trick – the kind of run not seen since Lance Armstrong.

And therein lies the only blot on an otherwise shining horizon. For every turn of the pedal in this year’s Tour there seems to have been a shout of protest. As with Armstrong, the French media has waged a sustained campaign of eyebrow-raising. That mood has spread to the roadside. Last week, Froome had a cup of urine thrown in his face by someone shouting, “Doper!”

After the stage he seemed to have taken it well and looked mostly perplexed – Alasdair Fotheringham, The Independent’s cycling correspondent who was one of the first British journalists to interview him, describes him as “unfailingly, almost unsettlingly, polite” off the bike.

He didn’t let it affect him – he has held the race in an unflinching grip ever since – but then he has the grit and determination that live in the heart of every sporting champion. Fotheringham says that what impresses him most about Froome is his tenacity. “In the Tour of Andalucia this spring, having been defeated by Alberto Contador [one of the few riders capable of challenging him] on one stage, he absolutely killed himself the next day to take the next stage and the overall lead. It’s a small-scale race with about a dozen journalists there, but he wanted to make a point.”

Froome likes to make points. In the 2012 Tour he was working for Sky’s lead rider, Bradley Wiggins, the eventual winner. But many felt he was strong enough to win himself – and so did he. On one stage, Wiggins, in the overall lead by two minutes, was in trouble on a climb. Froome’s job was to stick with him and see him through. Instead he took off, going for the stage win – until he was told to fall back.

Incensed, Wiggins threatened to leave the race. In his autobiography, My Time, he vented his feelings. “From that moment on I didn’t quite know what to expect from Chris when it got into the heat of the battle.”

The sports writer Richard Moore, who, like Froome, rode in the Commonwealth Games, has met him a few times. “He’s always been very polite, and he hasn’t changed in that respect, but he’s clearly very driven, very single-minded and very ambitious. We saw in 2012 that he wasn’t prepared to accept the role the team wanted him to play. He has a slightly ruthless side – it’s an unusual combination.”

In The Climb Froome was still bitter. He felt he had been sold a pup in contract negotiations by Sky supremo Dave Brailsford, who promised he would be given his head. “Dave’s approach was rather like a character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass,” he wrote. “‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.’” He was also in no mood to smooth matters over with Wiggins: “We are not a good mix. Brad is shy and reserved with people and I am much the same, which means we don’t bring the best out of each other. Actually, we don’t bring anything out of each other.”

Like many sporting champions, he had a measure of early-life adversity. The youngest of three brothers, he was born in Nairobi in 1985 to English parents, Jane and Clive, who ran a travel business. It was an idyllic life, on a 10-acre estate outside Nairobi, at least until his parents’ marriage faltered, along with his father’s business. The money ran out; his father went to South Africa and the brothers were raised by their mother.

She retrained as a physiotherapist to keep the family afloat, but died of cancer in 2008, five weeks before her son’s first Tour de France. It was a crushing blow for Froome, who credits her with giving him the moral compass that will always make him steer clear of illicit aids. “Mum instilled a sense of responsibility and good morals in me that I live by to this day,” he wrote. “Cheating would not be an option.”

Jane took him to his first bike race, which he won, when he was 13, and hooked him up with his sporting mentor, David Kinjah, who pioneered pro cycling in Kenya and ran a club for poor children. Kinjah was impressed with the way Froome, his only white rider, mucked in. “He wasn’t any better than a lot of kids,” he recalled. “But he had something about him.”

After high school in Johannesburg, Froome defied dyslexia to embark on an economics degree at the university there, but left two years into his course to follow his two-wheeled dreams. He competed for Kenya at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, and caught the eye of Brailsford.

He turned pro the following year, and in 2008 made his Tour debut with the Barloworld team. A respectable 84th place had Brailsford’s British Cycling colleague Rod Ellingworth knocking on his door. “I made it clear that I had always carried a British passport and felt British,” said Froome. In 2010 he joined both Team Sky and Team GB. (He won Olympic time-trial bronze in 2012.)

His steady rise continued as a domestique (cycling’s worker bees), working for Wiggins. His progress was hindered, though, by a worrying inconsistency – until, in 2011, he began a steep upward curve. Rapid improvements raise eyebrows in cycling, as in any sport beset by drugs, but it transpired that the inconsistency was due to the parasitic infection bilharzia, from which he had probably been suffering for years. Once treated, he was off and away.

He helped Wiggins to Tour victory in 2012, and the following year, with Wiggins out of the picture, he helped himself. He was magisterial, beating the Colombian Nairo Quintana by 4min 20sec. It was a healthy margin of victory, though not crushing, but he and Sky spent half the time fending off doping questions.

This year Sky released some of Froome’s power data from Stage 10, in which he powered his way up the climb to La Pierre-Saint-Martin and took a definitive hold on the race. Michael Hutchinson, another former Commonwealth Games time triallist, analysed the figures for Cycling Weekly and concluded that there was nothing out of the ordinary – and certainly nothing like Armstrong.

Richard Moore makes a good point for those who want to believe in Froome. “We’re now three years into his career as a Tour contender. Three years into Lance Armstrong’s reign we already had a ton of evidence. There’s nothing with Froome.”

Tomorrow in Paris, barring calamity, he will occupy once more the top step of the podium. Standing there in 2013 he declared: “This is one yellow jersey that will stand the test of time.” Legions of cycling fans will fervently hope that turns out to be true. As for the doubters, they will never go away.

Chris Froome: A life in Brief

Born: 20 May 1985, Nairobi, Kenya.

Family: Third son of Clive, a businessman, and Jane, a physiotherapist. Married Michelle Cound in 2014.

Education: St John’s College, Johannesburg; studied economics at University of Johannesburg.

Career: Began cycling aged 13, turning pro with a South African team in 2007. Joined Team Sky in 2010. Raced for Team GB in 2012 Olympics, taking bronze in the time trial. Tour de France 2013 winner. Wears 2015 Yellow Jersey.

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