There are two advertisements vying for prominence along the sides of the trams that glide through the centre of Nice. Each proclaims an event en route to a city now caught in the warm embrace of a Mediterranean summer. First, on Tuesday, comes the Tour de France, the 100th edition of the grand old race. Next month comes a festival of modern jazz: an acquired taste to follow the taste of a nation.
To many, in France and the wider cycling world, Team Sky have – at best – become an acquired taste. They are modern jazz in a world of classic symphonies played by eccentric orchestras. In a hotel just behind the seafront, Sky’s chosen front man is holding court to a small gathering of British journalists. In itself this is part of the plan to ensure Chris Froome wins the Tour of 2013. It is a plan that worked for Bradley Wiggins a year ago and one that is being executed again with typical attention to detail.
Today a five-hour ferry ride across the Med from where we talk, in the southern Corsican city of Porto Vecchio, Froome, race number 1 pinned to his dark blue top, will stretch one long leg over the frame of his bike, perhaps glance down at the words stencilled on the frame – “This is the line, the line between winning and losing,” it begins – and start three weeks of racing. If the plan works it will end 3,403km later with him decorated in yellow and back-to-back British triumphs in France’s race. You wait 98 editions for one and then…
“I am pretty nervous,” says Froome and laughs quietly. “It’s pretty daunting. But I think we are in a good position. We are lining up certainly as one of the strongest teams and having the support structure there around us gives us a lot of confidence.”
At the heart of that structure is Tim Kerrison, the former swimming coach introduced to the team by sporting director Dave Brailsford. Kerrison has become a pivotal figure, first for Wiggins and now for Froome.
“We have done everything and Chris has ticked every box that has been asked of him this year,” says Kerrison. “We are very, very confident. We have to be mindful that we don’t get comfortable. We have become very good at going to races and delivering and maybe it seems to people that it is a bit too easy. It is important to us that we never forget how hard it is, how much attention to detail goes into getting to that point, and how hard bike racing is.”
In December Froome and Kerrison sat down to plan a season that can complete the transformation of Froome from skinny Kenyan wannabe via best supporting act for the Wiggins show to leading man. What they discussed, Kerrison explains, was “what it takes to prepare someone to handle all the extras [that come with] one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
“We know from last year that physically he is able to be a contender. We needed Chris to get as experienced as possible in dealing with the media every day, the public, doping control... the extra demands when you are in the jersey take a lot of extra time out of your day. You have to get more efficient at recovering in between each stage with less available time.
“So we went through the season with Chris aiming to spend as many days – as with Brad last year – in the leader’s jersey, getting used to being the favourite, and I think he copes very well. He is a very likeable guy, very polite. If anything, he is too generous with all the extra demands. But I think he has handled it well so far. He is as ready as we could possibly get him.”
It has not always been so smooth a journey for the 28-year-old rider. His initial season at Sky was erratic, limited by the recurrence of bilharzia, a waterborne virus he had picked up on a childhood fishing trip in Kenya, where he was born to an English father, Clive, and his late mother Jane. Its impact on his training was at first not realised and it was only after a visit home that he received proper treatment.
“It feeds on red blood cells so your immune system is always lower, your recovery is not as fast,” says Froome. “I would do a hard training day and I would be absolutely nailed at the end of it. I would get a cold that lasted for weeks until I stopped training completely and then had to start all over again. I found myself stuck in this cycle, so in a way it was a relief when I found that I had it.”
He returns every six months to Africa for a course of treatment – the last was in January and the next will be straight after the Tour. The treatment is harsh and wipes him out for a day or two. There will be some tightly crossed fingers – not a usual Sky approach – that the disease does not make the untimeliest of returns in the next three weeks.
Getting a grip on it is one key chapter in the Froome story. Another was written two years ago as he rode with Wiggins towards the windswept Covatilla summit in the Sierra de Bejar in western Spain during a notably demanding stage of the Vuelta a Espana. It was the moment he convinced himself he was among equals. “It was a big turning point,” he says. “It was my job to be there with Bradley in the mountains and that was the first time I felt, ‘OK, I feel comfortable around these guys and I can do this.’
“I had always been frustrated that I could do these great things in training but never really be able to take that potential out on the road. Believing in myself was a big thing because I didn’t always think I belonged to that group of top contenders. That day on the Vuelta there were crosswinds at the top of the mountain. Brad was second or third and I was hanging on the back for fourth or fifth. That was the first time I had pulled in the mountains with the top guys and I remember thinking after that, ‘ooh, I can be up there with these guys’.”
He is up there now, be it in the eyes of others or his own. His insistence throughout the very public leadership debate that he not Wiggins was Sky’s choice displayed a confidence in the rider he has become. He is the man to beat and has the form to back it up: four wins this season and none more impressive than in the mini-Tour, last month’s Critérium du Dauphiné. One moment when he swept past Alberto Contador was a definite statement.
“At the Dauphiné and the other races where I’ve beaten Contador, it’s always been a really good feeling,” says Froome. “Knowing where I was at that point it was definitely good, especially at the Dauphiné, as it was only three weeks out from the Tour. But I’m fully aware that come the Tour de France that means nothing; it falls away and everyone starts on level terms again.”
Froome first watched the Tour on TV at boarding school in South Africa. It was the days of Lance Armstrong’s deadly grip on the race. Instead Froome cheered on Ivan Basso. He liked the underdog and in some ways that is how he has always seen himself, as the outsider. He lives down the coast in Monte Carlo with his girlfriend, Michelle Cound, who sits in a corner of the room as we speak. Before heading to Corsica and final preparations, they were going home for a couple of days of relaxation, although there was unlikely to be any time for Froome’s favourite hobby of spear fishing.
The interview done, another Sky box ticked, he and Cound head towards the seafront and the restaurants of the Promenade des Anglais. If Sky and Froome have their way that is what the Tour de France will be long before it hits the Champs Elysées three weeks from tonight, and for the outsider from Africa that would be the sweetest taste of all.
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