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Chris Froome: ‘I’m a spokesman for clean cycling and I want to set a good example’

Mark Bailey
24 Mar 2017

With a fourth Tour de France victory in his sights, Chris Froome tells Cyclist about his journey to the top of cycling. Photos: Pete Goding

Picture, for a moment, being Chris Froome. It is 24th July 2016 and you’ve just won your third Tour de France. You’re standing on a podium on Paris’s sun-drenched Champs-Élysées, your leg muscles convulsing after enduring 3,500km of racing and 60,000m of vertical ascent.

You’re handed a bouquet of flowers (a timely gift for your wife Michelle, who you’ve barely seen during the weeks of pre-Tour training on a barren volcano in Tenerife) and a cuddly toy lion (perfect for your infant son, Kellan, whose growth spurts you’ve charted only via FaceTime catch-ups from far-flung hotels). 

The British national anthem fires up, giving you a moment to reflect on your improbable cycling journey from the red dust of Kenya to the yellow jersey of the Tour de France

‘When you stand on the podium and start thinking about all these things it is completely overwhelming,’ says Froome, sitting on a sofa at Team Sky’s training base in the hills above Monaco.

The Kenyan-born British rider, who turns 32 in May, is trying to explain a sensation none of us (future British Cycling prodigies aside) will ever know. 

‘You think about what it has taken. You have days when your legs feel like jelly and just to stand up is an effort. You think, “This is relentless.”

‘Not just the three weeks of the race but the months of hard work and the time away from family. You think about the nutrition and dieting and the team. Not just the riders who have given up their ambitions in the race so I can stand on that podium, but the mechanics and carers who are up at 5am and working until after midnight.

‘There are huge crowds and friends and family have come to see you… then someone hands you a microphone and you have to talk.’

Froome is a quiet man at the head of the most rambunctious sporting carnival in the world. His words are an engaging reminder of the silent, swirling emotions behind the high-profile moments captured by the cameras. 

In the endless soap opera of modern sport it’s easy for individual athletes to be reduced to pawns playing their part or cartoonish caricatures – above all in cycling where riders’ eyewear and helmets mask their faces and depersonalise them even more. 

This strangely warped reality, combined with Froome’s natural reticence, explains why we know a lot about Froome the athlete, including intimate details about his weight, heart rate and lung performance, but little about Froome the man: the tall, skinny dad who enjoys fishing for dorado with his spear gun and who has a far from superhuman weakness for pancakes and milk tarts. 

A man apart

So who is the man standing on the podium? Christopher Clive Froome is undoubtedly happy to be an outsider.

He would, you sense, be content to win races then quietly disappear back to his flat in Monaco with his family. He’s always been this way, even when growing up outside Nairobi with his British parents Jane and Clive and his brothers Jonathan and Jeremy.

While his friends were playing video games he hung around with an eccentric gaggle of older Kenyan cyclists called the Safari Simbaz. 

Fuelled by sweet tea and ugali, they would go on epic rides to the Ngong Hills, cycling past waterbuck, baboons and giraffes. When in his teens he moved to South Africa with his father following his parents’ divorce.

He would get up at 6am, wrap plastic bags around his hands for warmth, and embark on self-flagellating training rides before school. He sold avocados, taught spinning classes and offered bike courier services to help fund his cycling dreams. 

‘I was always encouraged that I didn’t have to fit in or follow the crowd. My parents brought me up to make my own decisions. I was always out exploring. I think it was an amazing childhood because of the freedom I had on my bike.

‘At first I really enjoyed doing tricks and stunts in the garden. I also did a lot of mountain biking in the beautiful highlands of Kenya and the tea and coffee plantations.

‘My parents were strict when they needed to be but they allowed me to make my own mistakes and gave me room to become independent.’ 

This need to do things his own way extended into his formative professional cycling career. He enthusiastically emailed hundreds of pro cycling teams before getting his first pro contract with Team Konica in 2007.

Back then he turned up at races with hemp clothing and long hair. He sometimes crashed into flowerbeds and marshals, confusing the peloton with his awkward style and boyish enthusiasm. 

‘I definitely felt different back then. I still wear a kikoy [a Kenyan sarong] now – just so you know, it’s great to sleep in. But I felt a big difference compared to my teammates who came into the sport through structured academy programmes.

‘But in terms of my cycling career I have always looked at things differently and I don’t follow the crowd.’

One example of this was the time he maintained what is best described as a travelling allotment. ‘That was part of my learning curve when I was trying to see what works for me and, erm, what doesn’t,’ he chuckles.

‘At that time my friend from Johannesburg, a Scottish boy called Patrick, had turned full vegan and was telling me how when grains and seeds like quinoa and beans start sprouting they release lots of amino acids. He said they have protein too.

‘So I would travel around with lentils, mung beans and quinoa growing in little trays in my suitcase. I was adding them to my morning porridge until one day at the [2009] Giro d’Italia the quinoa had taken a turn for the worse and I can’t remember ever feeling so ill. I was throwing up during the stage.’

Lean machine

The story says much about the quirky enthusiasm that has driven Froome to the top. His willingness to experiment with nutrition is a key part of his success.

When he submitted to independent testing at the GlaxoSmithKline Human Performance Laboratory in late 2015 the experts’ analysis suggested weight loss had been a major trigger for his progress.

He has always been blessed with outstanding endurance, possibly as a result of training at altitude in Kenya: the report found that as far back as 2007 Froome had a VO2 max of 80.2ml/kg/min (40 is average), which by 2015 had reached 88.2ml/kg/min.

But the key differential was his weight which had dropped from 75.6kg to 67kg, boosting his power-to-weight ratio. 

‘Being really lean but retaining muscle mass is the name of the game for us,’ he says. ‘It’s something I’m always trying to improve. In the last few years I’ve learned that timing is everything.

‘I have to think about when to eat certain food groups. I avoid gluten and salt. When you get into the routine it’s not so hard but I’m used to feeling hungry.’

Treats, like his favourite pancakes and milk tarts, are rare. ‘My wife and I only go out for dinner once in a blue moon, otherwise we are at home cooking where we know what goes into all the food.

‘When we do go out it is more to get a mental break and to socialise. But even when you do go out you try to keep as healthy as possible.’

A strict diet, innovative training protocols and hard work has enabled Froome to enjoy historic success since joining Team Sky in 2010, winning the Tour in 2013, 2015 and 2016, and claiming bronze medals in the Olympic time-trial at London 2012 and Rio 2016.

But not much is known about Froome’s life off the bike. He says he likes fishing with his spear gun and hiking in the mountains. He was recently filmed trying to wakeboard in Australia. It’s not that he lacks interests – more that he doesn’t have time to enjoy them. 

‘A recovery day is a recovery day, not a holiday. It really is a single-track life and there isn’t much room to do anything else. When we travel I get through a few boxsets but most of my spare time has been FaceTiming and Skyping with my wife and little boy.

‘It’s not just a sport. It’s a lifestyle.’

Froome maintains the same passion for wildlife as he had during his childhood when he collected butterflies and kept two pet pythons, Rocky and Shandy. He even has a rhino graphic on his Pinarello. 

‘I’m always going to have a passion for nature and it ties in to my love of cycling. Getting out on your bike every day gives you a special feeling for the environment. When you go out into the mountains you connect with nature. It’s de-stressing and it takes me back to my childhood.’

Froome is looking forward to the day when he can pedal purely for pleasure. Contrary to popular misconceptions, he’s not a huge fan of performance data, although he recognises its essential role in training and racing.

Team Sky are often chastised for riding robotically to the numbers on their power meters, although Froome himself drew praise at last year’s Tour for his aggressive attacks and eye-catching ‘super tuck’ descending technique. 

‘We follow the power meters but when I attack I don’t even look at my computer. I don’t want to know the numbers because they might hold me back.

‘I just give it everything I’ve got. Then if I get a gap I will start making calculations about what I can sustain for the rest of it. But in those big moments you just go for it.’ 

The doping debate 

In the post-Armstrong era all cyclists face doping questions but as the man with the maillot jaune Froome endures more than most.

The debate now follows a well-established narrative, with accusers and believers on either side, but Froome’s 2014 autobiography The Climb contains a story that is disturbing in its implications.

Froome recounts the day in June 2013 when, after months of hard training, he and former teammate Richie Porte rode up the Col de la Madone near Monaco.

Froome reached the top in 30 minutes and 9 seconds – 38 seconds faster than Lance Armstrong’s supposed best – with Porte just behind.

But instead of experiencing elation, they felt embarrassment. ‘We feel slightly guilty and a bit sheepish,’ wrote Froome. ‘I turn to Richie: “We can’t tell people about this.”’ 

Given cycling’s poisonous past, only a fantasist would deny the need for surveillance and hard questions, but it’s troubling to think success and progress alone are deemed so worthy of suspicion that even the riders themselves feel embarrassed to excel? The leap from scepticism to cynicism is too much for Froome. 

‘I see the bigger picture with what has happened in the past. But what’s easy is for someone to throw an accusation and say, “He’s a cyclist, he must be cheating.”

‘The sport really has come so far and done so much. That’s not to say there isn’t more to do, but I really believe cycling is leading the way in the fight against doping.

‘I’ve tried to do a lot. There is a time and a place to release information when it will not damage our competitive advantage. But this sport is about competitive advantages. For me, it is another little motivation to show that you can win the Tour de France clean.

‘I feel that because I’m in this position as a Tour de France winner, a lot of people are looking at me. And I have been calling for more where I think there are gaps in the system.

‘I feel as though I’m a spokesman for clean cycling and I want to set a good example to young riders.’

He points to the rigours of the modern whereabouts system in which riders must give their location for an hour each day, 365 days a year. Three missed tests in 12 months will trigger a two-year ban. 

‘At first it feels completely foreign having to log where you’re going and where you’ll sleep every day. But if you’re not where you say you are, you’ll be in trouble.

‘People don’t know about all this and they have this perception that things are like they were in the past, so if the testers pitch up at your front door, riders can jump out the back window and off you go, you’re free. But if you did that now you’d be kicked out of the sport.’

Wanting more

Froome admits he is driven by a hunger for more. Training is, to him, an ‘addiction’.

When he’s pushing hard, he thinks of his rivals, forcing himself to go deeper. He has the same mung bean-growing enthusiasm for self-improvement as he did in his youth. 

‘I’m always thinking about the next goal. I don’t necessarily think about winning the next race but about making the next step – like completing my next training session tomorrow.

‘I have a one-track mind. Thinking about my performance is everything, and everything I do is geared towards that.’

He is convinced this summer’s Tour will be one of his toughest. ‘This will be a much closer race,’ he insists. ‘There is only one big mountain finish and they have stripped out the time-trials so riders will have to look at other opportunities to gain time.

‘It is certainly a challenge for me. With one big mountain finish there will be no second chances and I have to be at my best that day. People say: you’ve won the Tour three times and it takes months of sacrifices so what brings you back? It genuinely is my love of racing.

‘Even after three weeks of suffering, when I get to Paris on day 21 of the Tour, I’m already looking forward to next year.’

Photos by Pete Goding

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