NOTE: This is a story I wrote for Cycle Sport magazine back in August when the Tour de France champion and his Sky squad came to race in the Colorado Rocky mountains.
Now that that issue has come and gone, I’m posting it here. It will also give regular readers of Twisted Spoke a chance to see a slightly different writing style. As part of the story, there’s also a short but interesting interview with Froome and plenty of quotes from Richie Porte and company.
Okay, away we go ….
Rocky Mountain Sky.
It’s after the Tour de France and before the Worlds in Florence, which puts Chris Froome high in the Rocky mountains of Colorado. The US Pro Cycling Challenge is mostly altitude training but there’s a holiday vibe and like the slogan on the back of Sky’s rented Monte Vista RV proclaims, they’re “going places with smiling faces.”
Perhaps it’s the shortage of oxygen in Aspen, elevation 2400 meters, but Froome is already doing something strange for someone who a month ago destroyed his rivals in France. He’s on water bottle duty for Sky’s young American Joe Dombrowski. The team is riding in support of the kid for a GC podium and even Dombrowski finds this role reversal disconcerting.
“He’s getting me bottles and keeping me at the front and I’m thinking why is Chris Froome dropping back to the car to get me bottles? It just seems kinda stupid.” The word stupid takes the form of a compliment. “It shows just how much class this guy has. He’s a true team player, a real champion.”
Quiz Froome’s teammates in Colorado about his personality off the bike and the responses read like a perfectly executed Sky media script. He’s humble, down-to-earth, respectful, genuine, a true gentleman. And yet guys like Richie Porte and Danny Pate and Kanstantsin Siutsou are so effusive that it’s difficult to hold a professional skepticism.
Froome’s unfortunate burden is that he creates disbelief both on and off the bike. His athletic performance seems impossible: how can he annihilate rivals like Alberto Contador on Ax 3 Domaines and Ventoux, winning the Tour by over four minutes? And off the Pinarello, how can he be so genuine, soft-spoken and kind — where is the ego, the self-absorption, the nasty edge of a killer?
“He’s so relaxed and he has respect for everybody — the staff, the fans. it’s rare that he’ll turn away an autograph. It doesn’t happen,” says close friend and teammate Richie Porte. “You can’t say that for most Tour winners or even most bike riders.”
In France, Sky finally released Froome’s SRM data to disprove the negative rumors. Perhaps in Colorado he should have provided a psychological report as proof that he’s both a Tour champion and a perfectly normal, incredibly nice guy.
Sky is having fun in Colorado minus the Jaguar sedans, the famously expensive team bus and compared to the domestic WorldTour team like Garmin and BMC, they’re traveling budget. Froome seems to enjoy the boisterous enthusiasm of the Rocky Mountain fans who respect anyone who can fly up a steep grade. His fiancee Michelle shoots photos as he signs autographs after autograph.
The unstartling news is that Froome hasn’t changed a fraction since he stood atop the podium in Paris on the evening of the 21st of July. Not that anybody in a Sky kit expected he ever would.
“Before the Tour, after the Tour, he’s always so friendly. He always says thank you for this, thank you for that. He’s happy for everyone,” says Siutsou. “He is like me — he comes from Kenya, I come from Belarus, a small village, so he respects everyone.”
If anyone would have detected a suspicious flash of ego, it’s his roommate Porte. “He’s just a super normal guy. He’s won the Tour de France and he hasn’t changed at all,” says Porte. “If people knew the real Chris, then he’d be an bigger star than he already is.”
Ian Boswell, the other young American on Sky, is also a Froome fan. “He’s an awesome guy. He genuine, he cares, he’s friendly,” says Boswell. “He’s interested in the food in America, he’s asking Joe and I questions about the Colorado mountains — he’s very well-rounded.”
The dissenting view is delivered just for shock value and comedic effect. “He’s a total asshole,” jokes Sky DS Dan Hunt. “No, the best thing about Chris is he’s so genuine and what you see is what you get. He doesn’t doesn’t put one face on with the media, one face on in the race and another face on off the bike. He’s honest and a real gentleman.”
The rumor is that Froome has a good sense of humor but like all things Froome, it’s the nice version. “He’s funny but it’s not harsh,” says Boswell. “He doesn’t pick on people. Some people are funny because they put people down. He’s not like that.” Hunt seconds the gentle humor. “He don’t go around poking fun. He’s too gentlemanly for that.” There’s the gentleman thing again — Froome is the boss of the peloton and the patron with the best table manners.
I interview Froome in the gift shop commissary of the team hotel after the Vail time trial. He’s there with his fiancee Michelle Cound. If you didn’t know, you’d guess happy couple in Vail to check out bike race because that guy who won the Tour is here!
In person, he’s exactly as promised. He shakes my hand, looks me in the eye and often leans forward to listen thoughtfully. He is, to use the Buddhist term, “fully present in the moment.” There’s zero sign in attitude or body language that he’s the superstar who a month ago demolished his rivals in the most brutal endurance event in all of sport.
You’re a Tour champion — is there a mentor or role model for you going forward? I’d have to say Jens Voigt. I really looked up to him as a youngster, how he took the race on. He was always willing to do the hard work at the front but at the same time, seemed like such an approachable guy that anybody could come up and talk to. As a role model, he’s pretty good.”
You get one famous dinner guest — who would it be and what’s the first thing you’d ask? “Nelson Mandela. Just given his past, his history, how he’s so humble. He spent 20 years in prison and to come out with absolutely no bitterness, no hatred and to lead the country to a brighter future, that’s quite an achievement. I’d ask how was he not angry with the way he was treated.”
This is such a brutal, unforgiving sport.What makes it worth it? “The big thing for me, being such a hard sport, it does reward you … most of the time … that what you put in is what you get out. If you really train hard and give everything to it, then for me personally, when I absolutely make training and preparation everything, I normally get the results out of that. I find that a great sense of achievement, It leads you to a healthy work ethic.”
You’ve said you’d like to win a few more Tours. What keeps you focused? “Well, people seem to be amazed that I’m not on holiday now. I keep getting these messages — ‘where are you now? what are you doing?‘ Basically people think I’m on holiday and I say, ‘actually I’m at another bike race.’ ‘What? Are you crazy?’ But this is what drives me — I love this. I like having that next goal, the next thing thing to prepare for. The though of shutting it down after the Tour for six months, that was actually a bit scary to be honest.”
Michelle, you know him best — what’s Chris Froome like? He’s a gentleman and very sweet. He’s a little bit forgetful — he doesn’t like admin. So that way we compliment each other. Especially after the Tour, it’s like he’s switched off.
If you look at your career so far, what has bike racing taught you? I think it’s do what you love. That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned through this. At one point I was studying economics and it looked like I was gonna go into the corporate world. Basically I had this passion for cycling, it was always just a hobby on the side. Something my mother said to me was do what you really enjoy. My mother was a firm advocate of, if you do what you love, you’re gonna do it 100%. That was a big factor for me to say, I’m leaving economics and saying right, I’m gonna ride my bike in Europe for a year and see what I can make of it. To this day, if I didn’t enjoy riding my bike I couldn’t train 5-6 hours day.”
It’s no secret Bradley Wiggins had trouble dealing with fame after his Tour win. How are you handing things? “It’s understandable, I can see why. I only had to go for coffee with my teammates in Denver to see that. We sat there and in 10 minutes I must have had my photo taken 50 times. There are a lot of adjustments. I just need to accept that if I do go to the shops I’ve got a responsability to give people a few minutes of my time to take a photo or have a quick chat.”
It’s been an incredible season so far. How do you get away from the cycling madness? “In November I’m going back to Kenya where a much smaller percentage of the population gets to watch the Tour de France or follow it. If you’re out in a game reserve, you’re with animals, for me that’s a fantastic way to switch off. Sometimes cell phones don’t even work — I love that part of Africa.”
You talked about adjustments after winning the Tour — what’s the one thing thing you’d like to change about yourself? “One thing I could improve a lot is learning how to express myself. I do shut myself off very well and I get into my own little world, do my training. I do whatever I need to do for the bike and block out everything else. Maybe that’s one thing I can become a lot more expressive — especially with my experiences, learn to be able to chat with people and motivate youngsters, maybe to be a role model to other people.”
Froome shakes my hand again and exits with Michelle. It’s been an entirely ego-free experience and there’s not a Lance Armstrong bone in his body. As Sky’s Joe Dombrowski put it, “He’s such a nice guy that sometimes I have a hard time believing he’s the worlds’ best stage racer.”
Froome referenced two names in the interview. His wonder about how Nelson Mandela could leave prison after twenty years without bitterness or anger gives a clue on how Froome himself handled the sometimes ugly insinuations of doping at the Tour de France. No anger, no snarling press conference, no caustic remarks about f***ing w*****s. To quote Dan Hunt on Froome: “He’s calm, he’s measured, I’ve never seen the guy lose his temper. I don’t think he could if he tried.”
The more expressive and open Froome was on display in Colorado and if it wasn’t Jens Voigt, it did qualify as an solid attempt at Jens Lite. Signing autographs outside the team bus in Denver, a fan shouted “How are the climbs in the Rockies compared to the Alps?” Froome smiled and ad-libbed “Pretty tough.” When the crowd began chanting for Richie Porte to step outside, it was Froome who happily joined the loud chorus of “Richie, Richie.”
Of course, Froome didn’t raise his voice to an obnoxiously high level that would disturb the peace. Voices carry in the high altitudes of Colorado and a gentlemen simply doesn’t do such things.
(BOX-OUT) Nose bleeds, a system shock and pulling Jens Voigt’s leg.
Team Sky’s modest expectations for the US Pro Cycling Challenge were quickly exposed. Racing at extreme altitudes in Colorado requires at least a week, if not two, for acclimatization but Sky arrived days before sign-in. For a team obsessed with sports science that qualifies as flagrant disinterest.
Case in point: the stage two climb up over Independence Pass hit 3,687 meters -twice the elevation of Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez at Le Tour. That metric partly explains why Sky and Froome downplayed expectations and then lowered them even further. As Froome tweeted on arrival: “Shock to the system riding up around Aspen. Beautiful not much oxygen! It’s going to be a mean week of racing.”
Mean, then bloody. Sky put their GC hopes on neo-pro climber Joe Dombrowski who’d finished tenth last year at the US Pro Cycling Challenge. On the first day of racing in the thin, dry mountain air, Dombrowski had five nose bleeds. He’d have another five the next day and on doctors orders, quit the race.
For Froome, the system shock was evident right from stage one. He lost five minutes the first day and sixteen the second. He admitted “the altitude has been more of a factor than I thought.” It could have been worse — Richie Porte, languished in 115h place, nearly 26 minutes off the pace.
Young brit Josh Edmondson summed up events for the most dominant stage race squad in the world: “Realistically, we don’t have anything for the GC.”
Not that any hands were rung in the rented white RV with the Sky logo. The over-riding atmosphere around Sky in Colorado was a team freed from the glaring intensity of Romandie, Paris-Nice, the Dauphine and Tour de France. For once, a win wasn’t required. Froome, Porte and Sky could simply show up, bask in the applause and enjoy the alpine scenery.
The rider who put on the most riveting show was 21 year old Josh Edmondson. He forced his way into the break on three of six stages and delivered the best deadpan comedy of the race. Part of a five rider escape headed to Steamboat Springs, the young Edmondson moved up alongside elder statesman Jens Voigt and offered some friendly assistance — “You done this before? Do you need some advice?’”
The winner of this years’ Tour de France wasn’t faring as well. Froome told the press in Colorado that this race was harder than anticipated and given the effects of the high altitude, he was simply “trying to get through it.”
He didn’t. On the second of eight flat but furious laps on the final stage in Denver, Froome pulls off course, a high profile DNF. But in the larger sense, he was just getting warmed up. Froome, Porte and Sitsue would spend the next two weeks in Colorado quietly training in Tenerife-style but with thinner air. Expectations were low in the Rockies but sky high for Florence.
(BOX-OUT) Froome, a domestiques’ view.
Sky’s Danny Pate has ridden for several champions in his 15 years as a pro. Here’s his insider take on the Tour de France winner.
One of the biggest compliments I can give Chris is after winning the Tour, he hasn’t changed a bit. He was a great guy before and a great guy now, personality-wise. I’ve seen people get a big head and think they’re something different and that you should treat them differently. Chris hasn’t at all. It’s a really quality thing about him
The thing about Chris is he doesn’t get really fired up and order you around. Like suddenly everything he says is correct even when it isn’t. He doesn’t do something to somebody else to make an example of them. That’s a strong trait in a good leader — they don’t abuse it. I did the Vuelta last year and Chris ended up disappointed in getting fourth and midway he decided to do everything to help Ben Swift in the sprints. It’s not often you find a GC rider willing to put his skin on the line in a sprint lead-out.
On handling fame
He just won the Tour — I’m sure that’s grinding on anyone. It’s very intense what they go through. You come come to the hotel and everybody wants a piece of Chris and rip his clothes off. They have a certain amount of responsibility to everyone who’s a fan. It’s a tall task and Brad isn’t the person for that. With Chris, how much more success he has, time will tell how he handles it.
He’s one of the most dedicated athletes I’ve ever seen. Chris and Brad — there’s three names that come up — Tony Martin is the third. Those guys, witnessing them live their lives with 100% commitment –from training to sleep to recovery — everything they eat — it’s not an easy thing to achieve.They changed my whole perspective on will-power and dedication.
On Froome winning another Tour
It’s feeling complacent about what you’re achieved and you‘re the champion and you don’t need to work hard and be the best and that’s the biggest thing that goes wrong for riders when they don’t win again. I don’t
see that happening to Chris. As it is right now, I’m impressed. That’s what it takes to be the best.
Ventous 6,273′ (1,912 m)
dhuez 6,102′ (1,860 m)
Ax 3 1,375 m (4,511 ft)
Independance 12,096′ (3,687 m)
Bachelor Gulch 9,560 (2913 m)
Froome loses 5 minutes and Prote 6:41 on stage 1
stage 2 16 minutes off the pace, in 76th
JE after stage 3 “realistically we don’t have anything for the GC.”
Froome attacks early on stage 4 queen stage with Schleck, reeled in fast.
stage 4 queen satge 34 muntes back 87th.
Vail TT — finished behind Andy Scleck, 49th.
DNF climbed off suring second lap of eight — 14.5km per lap
The squad showed up in Colorado just a few days before the race and fgiven that high altitide defines the race, that’s a shcoking oversight for an outfit that obsesses over soprts science.