Everyone’s talking about the Tour’s most surprising rider, Chris Froome; Bradley Wiggins’ teammate and all-round nice guy. But it was his upbringing in Africa that is the key to his success.
By James Startt
A fervour swirls around the Team Sky bus each morning at the Tour de France. Crowds gather, and some fans wait for world champion Mark Cavendish while others stand by for a glimpse of Bradley Wiggins, the current race leader. And now there are many in this mass who wait patiently for Christopher Froome, one of the true sensations of this year’s race. Currently sitting in second place, he is just two minutes and five seconds behind his team leader.
Ironically, Froome is quick to apologise for his tardiness when he descends from the sleek team bus to speak with reporters. “I’m really sorry to keep you waiting,” he says.
Froome first came to international attention when he finished second at the 2011 Tour of Spain. Even more surprising was the fact that he beat Wiggins, Sky’s team leader. But Froome’s life and career has always veered toward the unexpected.
Froome’s path to professional cycling is unlike that of any other rider. Born and raised in Kenya, he started riding BMX and it was only when he moved to South Africa for his studies, that he discovered road racing.
“I was always out on my bike,” Froome says of his upbringing. “Biking was my freedom. It was my way to see friends or go exploring.”
One such adventure ended when Froome was forced to scamper up a tree to flee a charging hippopotamus. “I was fishing on this river when it came up out of the water. I had to run for my life,” says Froome, laughing as he tells the story.
Froome’s twists of fortune aren’t lost on his team. “Chris sort of has his head in the clouds. Crazy things just happen to him that don’t happen to anyone else,” says Sean Yates, Sky’s sports director. “I mean who gets chased up a tree by a hippo? But he loves adventure. He likes to discover things.”
At this year’s Tour, Froome has discovered he is one of the race’s elite riders. He quickly confirmed his potential when he won Stage 7 on the steep pitches to La Planche des Belles Filles. And then on Stage 11 he gapped Wiggins with a blistering attack in the final kilometres to the La Toussuire ski resort. Some now believe he may be in a better position to win this year’s Tour than Wiggins, his teammate. For his part, Froome has insisted that he is playing his team’s strategy.
Regardless of this year’s results, those closest to Froome see a star in the making.
“Chris was just an unpolished diamond,” says former American professional Bobby Julich, Froome’s personal trainer for the past two seasons. “As soon as I met him, I could see that he was switched on professionally, but maybe he was a bit over his head in the day-to-day life stuff. But right away I could see that his numbers were great.”
Although Julich immediately saw Froome’s potential, he was puzzled by his inconsistency. But after examining the rider’s records and training journals, he discovered that Froome had suffered from the rare parasite Bilharzia.
“In the 2011 Tour of California, he was amazing one day and really bad the next. So we tested for Bilharzia again and sure enough he had it. And once he got treatment, he started progressing again.” The Bilharzia has returned on occasion, but Julich and Froome can now immediately identify the symptoms.
“He is just not like other cyclist,” says Sky teammate Michael Barry, who often rooms with Froome at races. “He doesn’t come from the same background. He’ll go spear fishing in Monaco or on a safari in the off-season and I think that’s good. As a result he doesn’t know a lot about the history of cycling. He doesn’t know a lot of the big riders and so he doesn’t get intimidated by them. He is just very happy-go-lucky and down-to-earth. He isn’t caught up in the stardom thing.”
Froome says growing up in Kenya helps him to keep things in perspective. “It made me realise that nothing comes easy, nothing is given to you,” he says. “In Africa, I realised you have to make things happen.”
With the Pyrenees on the horizon, many wonder what will happen within Team Sky. Will Wiggins survive the final week without cracking—something he has yet to do in a three-week race—or will Froome take over?
Whether it happens this year, or sometime down the road, many expect to see Froome standing atop the podium soon.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chris win a grand tour in the very near future,” Barry says of his teammate. “A lot of guys have had a breakout performance like he did in the Vuelta last year but they don’t back it up. He’s backing it up right now.”