Chris Froome: Wiggins' sidekick looks to become king of the jungle
Tour de France runner-up takes lead role in Spain for first time after long, circuitous route to the top. Alasdair Fotheringham meets Chris Froome
For the next three weeks, Britain's Chris Froome, runner-up in the Tour de France behind his Sky team-mate Bradley Wiggins, will have the chance to prove whether he too is able to clinch a major Tour in his own right.
Froome came close last year, in the Tour of Spain. Very close. In what was Team Sky's first successful assault on a Grand Tour, the Briton finished just 13 seconds behind Spain's Juan Jose Cobo, with Wiggins in third.
There is a sizeable body of opinion that believes if Sky had played their cards differently, Froome could have won the 2011 Tour of Spain. There is also an ongoing – and ultimately equally unresolvable – internet debate out there about whether Froome or Wiggins was the strongest in the Tour de France's climbs this year.
Either way, the Tour of Spain 2012, with no Wiggins taking part (he is having an extended rest), is the first chance for Froome – widely rated as the top challenger against the Spanish favourite, Alberto Contador – to prove his qualities as a team leader. But Froome, who grew up in the Kenyan outback and whose earliest training rides saw him cross paths with everything from hippos to lions, aims to triumph not just out of personal ambition. The 27-year-old also aims to act as a role model and inspiration for others with deeply unusual or unconventional backgrounds like his to fight for their own chance of success.
"It's definitely important for me, and you could almost apply it to anything," Froome tells The Independent on Sunday. "If you've got something that you desperately want to achieve, that you've got the passion for, then I don't see why you can't follow that, and I'd really like to use my case as an example for that.
"Coming into the sport so late [he didn't turn professional until the age of 22], from a background where there wasn't any conventional organised cycling, this was something that I wanted so badly to achieve," he adds. "And getting to Europe was a stepping stone towards that."
Froome's first contact with the sport was as flukish as they come. Living outside Nairobi as a teenager, he came across SafariSimbaz, a one-man NGO run by Kenya's top cyclist, David Kinjah, to promote cycling, a sport barely known in the country among young people.
"I came across them when I went to a small event on my mountain bike, and they invited me to ride and race with them. They gave me that initial passion for the sport. They were great, but they still don't have huge financial backing or any structure to bring cyclists over to Europe, which is what they need."
Froome's own route to Europe – the powerhouse of professional cycling – was certainly circuitous. The first step was thanks to his family moving from Kenya to South Africa, perhaps the one country on the continent where there is some kind of cycling scene. Then he dropped out of his degree in economics at university and was talent-spotted by an Italian sports director in the country's one top cycling event, the Giro del Capo.
A much-anticipated move to Milan and professional racing in Europe followed. Froome delivered solid results in the Giro and Tour in 2008 and 2009, but after being infected by a water-born virus called bilharzia, which causes severe fluctuations in physical condition, his first 18 months with Sky were not so successful. By the end of July 2011, his chances of remaining with the British team the next season were not at all good.
Then came last year's Tour of Spain, his second place overall and a spectacular stage win, and Froome found himself being courted by half-a-dozen teams. He settled for Sky, and his second place and a stage win in this July's Tour de France, coupled with a bronze medal in the Olympics, are his high points of 2012 so far.
A victory in the Tour of Spain would perhaps outshine all of those results since it would inevitably involve defeating Contador, cycling's top stage-racer. Since he has never raced directly against the Spaniard, let alone tried to beat him on home soil in one of cycling's three toughest races, he is deliberately playing down how big a success that could be. "This is the first time I'm leading a major Tour for Sky, so it's quite nice that it's at the Vuelta, where things are lower pressure," Froome says.
"My big focus this season was the Tour de France, so I'm almost coming to the Tour of Spain as a bit of a bonus. I've still got good form from the Tour and the Olympics, but yeah, this is definitely a great opportunity for me to see how I can do it, riding at my own pace and not at somebody else's [Wiggins] for the first time."
He doesn't feel he has a point to prove when it comes to shining in his own right in a major Tour. "I feel I've already done that. I've just always wanted this role, of being a team leader, I just hope I can make the most of it."
In the Tour de France, Sky were constantly at the front in the mountain stages, stifling even the slightest sign of unrest from their rivals with an asphyxiatingly steady high rhythm on even the stiffest of climbs. Although the Tour of Spain's climbs are shorter, punchier and often even steeper than those of the Tour de France, Froome hopes that he and Sky will be able to apply the same devastatingly effective strategy.
"It's a style of racing that's proved very successful for the team this season," Froome says, "and it will be harder to adopt that style here in the Vuelta because of the types of climbs there are. That's going to be the challenge for us, to try and carry on that style of racing, to have that momentum and bring it here, hopefully with the same kind of results.
"On top of that, anything after the Tour [de France] is hard to follow up. The Tour is the pinnacle of road cycling. And we can feel at the Tour of Spain that things are a lot more relaxed. But that's no reason for us to race any differently here. We've got a very capable team, just as strong or possibly even stronger than at the Tour."
After the Tour, though, he concedes that everybody is going to be looking at Team Sky to be leading from the front. "Yes, that's the case. But there are other teams out there, such as Saxo Bank and Contador, who will have a lot of expectations surrounding him."
Froome's Tour of Spain is a voyage in the dark in other ways. The 2012 combination of the Tour de France and Tour of Spain is the first time he has raced two major Tours in one year. And it's the first time that Sky will be aiming to make a sustained, three-week-long overall bid in two Grand Tours with the same rider.
"It's a learning curve for both me and the team. Only the race itself will show whether I physically can cope with back-to-back races," he says, "and don't forget I've done the Olympics [road race and time trial] in between."
Come what may, Froome's ultimate dream is that what he achieves on the roads of France and Spain will help promote the sport in Africa, where cycling barely has a toehold. Even if he has a British passport, Froome remains intensely loyal to his birthplace and organisations such as SafariSimbaz who set his career in motion. When he retires, he dreams of helping create a top African professional team.
"Cycling structures need to be in place for youngsters growing up, so they can see how a future in the sport is possible," Froome says. "At the moment there's very little of that for people who dream of making it to the Tour de France.
"I've got loads of contacts there, loads of ideas, and I really hope it could be something that I facilitate in the future with my example." And should he triumph in the Tour of Spain, of course, such a top-flight victory will only reinforce Froome's chances of doing exactly that.
The sprint specialist
Team Sky's Tour of Spain is not just about making as big an impact as possible on the overall classification with Chris Froome. Just as Mark Cavendish was a major factor in the Tour de France even if he wasn't Sky's main focus, their sprinter Ben Swift also hopes to make an impact.
The winner of two stages of the Tour of Poland – Eastern Europe's biggest stage-race – this July and of the Tours of Britain and California in previous seasons, the 24-year-old from Rotherham says he is highly motivated to try and win his first Grand Tour stage in Spain.
"I'm ready to go, feeling good," he said. "Poland showed my form was heading in the right direction. I've got some good guys to back me up for the sprints – [Ian] Stannard, Danny [Pate], [Juan Antonio] Flecha. If you're going to want anyone, there's guys like that."
"And although there are some top sprinters here [most notably Daniele Bennati, winner of a stage last year in the Tour of Spain and a former race leader] there's nobody stands out above the rest. But my aim is to support the team's overall bid with Chris, and that first Grand Tour stage win too. That would be something special." And it could come as soon as today in Viana.
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