Wiggins and Froome: Cycling's odd couple
They have paradoxical personalities and a competitive rivalry but, they tell Robin Scott-Elliot, the pairing works
Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome have similar physical make-ups: the bendable build of the professional bike-rider, both a little over 6ft, each a little over 10 and a half stone. The same construction, two utterly different men.
They sit side by side in a covered patio of a hotel on Majorca's north coast, heaters protecting Britain's two leading riders from a chill winter's evening. They are dressed similarly, sporting the black-and-blue colours of Team Sky, whose training base this is. Froome sits neatly upright, composed, offering a polite smile to questions. He sips from a steel flask filled with green tea.
Next to him, Wiggins is all arms and legs, his large hands chopping the air as he makes a point. Occasionally he gently ribs his team-mate. Wiggins dominates the conversation, as he has dominated their relationship on the road. But this is the year that is supposed to change.
It is back on the bike that the two converge again. Each has immense talent for road racing. Except that Wiggins has been there, done that and got the jersey; now Froome wants to go there, do it and have his turn in the most famous jersey in sport. It makes for a different dynamic.
In May, Wiggins will strive to replace the maillot jaune with the maglia rosa – yellow with pink, the Tour de France with the Giro d'Italia. Froome, meanwhile, is being prepared – both now work under the direction of Tim Kerrison, the understated former swimming coach recruited by Dave Brailsford two years ago – to lead Team Sky to back-to-back Tour wins five weeks later, with Wiggins in the ranks.
It makes for a compelling story before they even swing themselves into the saddle of the £10,000 training bikes that lean against the wall of the hotel, and that is in part down to their differences and to one moment in particular in Wiggins' road to glory in last year's Tour. Wiggins can be unpredictable in public – part of Sky's plan to win the Tour was to get him in yellow early to allow him time to deal with the pressures that brings, notably facing the media daily – whereas Froome appears collected, guarded, speaking with the clipped tone of a young man raised in South Africa compared to Wiggins' Kilburn consonants.
But it was on the 11th stage last year, from Albertville to La Toussuire, that Froome, out of the blue, did the unpredictable. He shook things up. He started edging away from his leader; a gap opened. In the team car it caused consternation. Sean Yates, the sporting director, barked orders for Froome to hold on for Wiggins and after a moment or two orders were followed.
In his book published after the Olympics, Wiggins criticised Froome's actions. It has meant theirs is a relationship closely observed.
"I was annoyed that people played on that," says Froome. "To me it was a real non-factor in the team… I felt I was always doing my job. I know there were moments of miscommunication which could have been portrayed as me going against Brad but at the end of the day I always did my job. I stayed with him when I needed to and helped him all the way through and that was the goal of the team. Being pro bike riders that's our job and, the way it's shaping up this year, our roles will be reversed and he'll be doing the job for me."
Froome finished second in the Tour last year, in itself a historic achievement for a Briton, but this year the course, with its greater emphasis on the climbs, is supposed better to suit his capabilities.
"Like with all my team-mates, the more time you spend together you get that camaraderie," says Froome. "We've got a perfectly good working relationship, contrary to what everyone makes out. We do what's needed of us. I wouldn't say I spend time with him off the bike. For one thing we live in different countries, and he's older than me, he's married."
The winter's mood music has been set by Wiggins' declarations of intent for 2013. He hadn't made his mind up… he was concentrating on the Giro… the team hadn't made its mind up… he wanted to win a second Tour, maybe this year.
"I'm sure he would like to win a second Tour this year, next year, five years from now… who knows?" says Froome. "It's not a surprise to me, it's a huge achievement and I can understand why he would want to win another one."
There is, in public at least, no obvious warmth between them. Brailsford, the team's principal, insists the relationship is not an issue. "It is very different to how it's perceived," he says. "They are both responsible professionals, they both understand that they are in this team for the team to win. They are both acutely aware that if both are in great shape and riding together it promotes the chances of one of them winning. If they are both in great shape riding against each other it probably promotes the chance of neither of them winning."
It was in this hotel, in the bar behind where they sit now, the night before he won Sports Personality of the Year, that Wiggins was convinced by Kerrison to target the Giro in 2013 and then play a key part in the Tour also, despite the physical demands making it a double challenge that has traditionally been avoided.
"Chris's focus is the Tour de France," says Wiggins. "My focus is the Giro – I'm going to be doing that for the month of May. But then my focus straight after the Giro finishes is recover – like we did for the Olympics – and build to the Tour. Obviously, there is an element of the unknown with the Giro. So the likelihood is that we will get to the Tour, Chris will be the leader if all goes to plan for him and I will be there in a supporting role, as he was for me last year.
"That supporting role does not mean from day one I'll be doing 200k from the front every day, swinging off and losing 20 minutes on the run-ins. I'll look to be there as close as I can be through those mountains and if called upon, if there's a moment where we need to ride, then obviously that decision comes."
Neither appears a natural leader. "I was a prefect at school," says Froome and grins. Leadership was a role Wiggins had to adjust to, and it is one Froome will have to learn over the coming months.
"I like to feel I lead by example, by training together, working hard together, establishing that camaraderie between the guys," he adds. "I am who I am. I'm not going to change who I am just because I'm in a different position. I'd like people to feel at ease with me being leader and be able to come and talk about something. I'm a reasonable guy, I'm not a dictator."
Wiggins compares their relationship to that between Chris Hoy and Jason Kenny in the Olympic track team – competitive but respectful. That head-to-head went the younger man's way.
"I'd love to win a second tour. I'd love to experience that again," says Wiggins. "It may be this year, it may be next year. At the moment I'm just focused on May and not too far ahead – I learnt that lesson a long time ago."
For all the team policy – and the fundamental fact that this year's Tour suits Froome better – that known unknown remains: what will Wiggo do? "It may be this year," he said of that second win. He will not let it go, not just yet.
For the first time, this year's Tour finishes in the evening. The two are asked what that will be like. "I haven't given it much thought, to be honest…" starts Froome. Wiggins interrupts. "It's going to screw up the parties," he says. Chalk and cheese.
Wiggo & Froome: how they measure up
Height 6ft 3in
Lives Lancashire with his wife Cath and two children
Honours Four Olympic gold, six world titles, one Tour de France
Favourite film 'Platoon'
Favourite band The Jam
Height 6ft 1in
Lives Nice and South Africa with his girlfriend, Michelle Cound
Honours Olympic bronze, second in Tour de France
Favourite film 'The Shawshank Redemption'
Favourite band Coldplay
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