On paper, it had everything: the first British cyclist to conquer the most fabled summit in the world’s greatest race. Where Tom Simpson had failed 46 years earlier, falling dead on the slopes of Mont Ventoux, a yellow-clad Chris Froome had triumphed, powering up it with such attacking spirit he would need oxygen to recover.
Yet Froome’s exploits earned just a brief mention in that night’s sports bulletins. He struggled even to make the front of the following day’s sports sections. And where he has featured in the final week of a thrilling Tour, the story hasn’t been about victory in the making as often as it has been about talk of doping.
Rewind a year and the contrast is stark. Sir Bradley Wiggins, too, faced the suspicions that are Lance Armstrong’s most poisonous contribution to cycling. But he was a hero and his face seemed to beam daily from the news-stands. What does Froome have to do to get some love?
For a start, he could grow some sideburns, which isn’t as facile as it might sound. They are a symbol of something Wiggo had that his successor lacks – a winning personality.
Froome is the calm Austrian surgeon to Wiggins’ brash lead guitarist. Moreover, for a Kenyan-born man who grew up in South Africa and lives in Monaco, there is what might be called the Rusedski effect.
“I think the British public will always struggle with Chris Froome,” says Ned Boulting, who is covering his 10th Tour for ITV.
“He speaks with the wrong accent and his British heritage is paper-thin. I wonder if the British sporting public would have warmed more to the story of the first African to win the Tour.” But Froome, whose father was born in England, would have a PR mountain to climb even with a true Brit background.
Wiggins was the Olympic champion who grew up on a north London housing estate and nearly threw it all away to drink. His was the kind of sporting biography that editors dream about.
In this scenario, Froome becomes Kevin Pietersen to Wiggo’s Freddie Flintoff – arguably the better sportsman but less of a lad, and a bit South African.
The cricket analogy holds, too, when you consider the sports story that did make the front pages on Monday – England’s remarkable Test victory in the Ashes. Cycling might be booming, but it knows its place.
All of which is to say, poor Chris Froome. “It’s a shame,” Boulting says. “They are the opposite as men and riders. Eyes were drawn to Brad when he talked, but he was like watching paint dry as a rider. But Froome is riding with pure panache and instinct.”
Naturally we care less about the prospect of a second British Tour winner than the first, but Froome’s fighting spirit is earning him huge respect among fans still hooked on the Tour.
And in a Team Sky missing the strength in depth that Wiggins enjoyed, a victory this weekend would surely be the greater achievement – as Sunday night’s news bulletins will, hopefully, reflect.
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- Freddie Flintoff
- Great Britain
- Kevin Pietersen
- Mark Cavendish
- Performance-Enhancing Drugs
- South Africa