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Commentary: Bring back press conferences, Mr. Froome!

This past Saturday, Chris Froome sat in a conference room in Marseille and faced the unwashed masses of the Tour de France press corps. Do not for a moment underestimate my use of the word “unwashed” here. Marseille was swamp-hot on Saturday. Many of us had not done laundry since stage 10.

The pungent press peppered Froome with questions ranging from the bizarre (Will you come to China this year?) to the basic (What was the best moment of this year’s Tour?) to the strangely personal (You’re getting older, how does that feel?). The consummate media pro, Froome offered insightful perspective, cracked jokes, and sidestepped dozens of PR land mines, all while maintaining his usual aww-shucks demeanor.

Chris Froome is very good at media.

Yet for much of this year’s Tour, Froome kept those ninja-like media skills to himself. It is tradition at Le Tour for the maillot jaune to hold a press conference during at least one of the Tour’s rest days. The conferences provide an opportunity for journalists to pose more thorough questions than what can be asked in a post-race scrum.

This year, Team Sky held zero press rest day press conferences. Instead, it hosted an invite-only Q-and-A with broadcast outlets (no print or digital) on the Tour’s second rest day. Froome took personal responsibility for the silence, and chalked Sky’s media policy up to — you guessed it — marginal gains.

“Rest days are meant to be rest days, and a big press conference is certainly not conducive to recovery,” he said on Saturday. “I felt as though it really helped me this year, being able to switch off on my rest days. That’s what those days are there for, otherwise they’d be called media days.”

Look, I have no doubt that press conferences are annoying and repetitive and are not great for resting sore legs. You must meet with the team media director to go over the potential PR grenades, and then sit down in front of a roomful of pesky reporters (the worst!). But with all due respect to the four-time Tour champ, his 2017 media blackout stunk worse than a roomful of sweaty cycling journalists on a muggy July afternoon in Marseille. Next year I hope he brings the press conferences back. Ditching them altogether sets a bad precedent for the sport.

By inviting some media while denying others, Froome — whether knowingly or inadvertently — copied the “Bad Old Days” media playbook of Lance and Johan. I’ll save you my in-depth analysis on the power of selective media access. Instead, just compare “Every Second Counts” with “Seven Deadly Sins.” 

Froome also missed an opportunity to bring back transparency — even just a shred of it — to an otherwise cloudy year for team Sky. In case you missed the 12 months, Team Sky has endured The Year of PR Hell thanks to the cascade of bad press and and some heavy parliamentary probing due to the JiffyWiggogate mess. Froome distanced himself from the mess and clarified his perspective on the situation. Would journalists have asked Froome about Fancy Bears and TUEs and jiffy bags in a press conference? You bet. But denying reporters that opportunity just reinforces Sky’s reputation for obfuscation, not transparency.

Finally, Froome’s invite-only press policy set in motion the worst media moment in recent Tour de France memory. On the Tour’s second rest day, a reporter from Cyclingnews.com arrived at the Sky hotel without an invitation. Team Sky Principal David Brailsford reportedly berated the journalist in front of other reporters for his critical coverage of the team, telling the reporter to, “Stick it up your arse.” Details of the event quickly made their way online, adding more clouds to Sky tour.

Look, I do not wish to bore you with an insider-baseball analysis of the Tour de France’s media infrastructure. Opportunities for any type of in-depth questioning of the major players are few. Every day there are chaotic scrums, mindless TV interviews, and video chats with the maillot jaune. Few of these interactions provide the opportunity for follow-up questions or inquiries about broader topics than the race action.

Does a press conference solve all of these problems? Of course not. But these conferences do enable journalists to broach broader topics. This media dynamic is especially important for Chris Froome, because Froome has a nuanced and intelligent perspective on his sport. He has great takes!

On Saturday we stinking journalists also asked Froome about Sky’s year from hell. We asked him about his perceived place among cycling’s greatest champions. We asked Froome to share his perspective on pro cycling’s budgetary inequity, whether the sport needs a salary cap.

Froome sat for a minute to collect his thoughts, and then gave his answer:

“If you just look at football for example. You look at the best teams typically win the most and can then afford to buy the biggest players and the best players and it’s almost this cycle. We’ve found a similar thing in cycling. Obviously I think my teammates have shown that they are the strongest team in the race. We’ve won the team classification. Mikel Landa has just missed the podium as well. It’s been an amazing race for us this year. If that’s all due to budget — I can’t say. I personally think that is how professional sport works. If a team is successful it is able to reinvest its funds and develop the sport further. If you put a budgetary cap maybe it doesn’t quite incentivize successes they way it is at the moment.”

It was an articulate, thorough answer that would have NEVER come out in a post-race scrum. Froome had to be present and so did the media — stink and all.

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