Tour de France 2020

Chris Froome: No more Mr. Nice Guy

Chris Froome is well on his way to becoming the best Tour de France rider of his generation, in large part due to his tough mindset.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the September issue of Velo magazine.

The defining moment of the 2015 Tour de France didn’t come on the Alpe d’Huez or in the crosswinds along the Dutch coast. Nor did it come when a spectator doused Chris Froome with a cup of urine.

If you’re looking for the moment that made crystal clear the state of things not just in the Tour but in pro cycling in general, look to the finish of stage 6. In the tense, finger-pointing aftermath of a finish-line pileup at Le Havre that could have ended several riders’ Tours (and did end the ride of Etixx-Quick-Step’s Tony Martin), the new Chris Froome — or, if you believe what team insiders say — the real Chris Froome, emerged.

In the confusion of the crash, champion Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) incorrectly assumed Froome had caused the tumble. He threw a water bottle, either at Froome or in his general vicinity, and unfurled some sharp insults. After crossing the line, Froome stormed onto the Astana bus to “clarify the situation,” as he later put it. But according to those who witnessed the confrontation, there was nothing cordial about their chat. One rider confirmed that Froome was in Nibali’s face, and the pair had to be physically separated.

Welcome to Froome 2.0.

“I try to be as polite as possible, but don’t take that for weakness,” Froome said during one of his Tour press conferences. “Don’t take that as you can push me around, or that you can get away with disrespecting me or my teammates. I will stand up for what I believe in.”

At the 2015 Tour, he had to stand up for himself on two fronts. And he showed that he can do it.

On the bike, he had to fend off the two-pronged Movistar attack of Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, which nearly dethroned him on l’Alpe d’Huez, in the Tour’s thrilling denouement. And off the bike, Froome had to battle against a level of hostility from angry spectators and incredulous journalists that seemed worse than anything in Tour history.

“I think after everything he’s endured, Chris has shown his real mettle,” David Brailsford told British television at the finish line in Paris. “[Froome’s detractors] don’t see what we see every day. He never flinched.”

After crashing out in the first week last year, Froome brought a steely new resolve to Utrecht. He was older, wiser, and more determined.

“He was so focused to win this Tour,” says Nicolas Roche, one of Froome’s key domestiques. “He is very sure of himself on the bike. He knows no one can beat him. That gives him confidence in the decisive moments.”

Brailsford, too, says Froome revealed new-found composure, especially when compared to 2013, when he was thrown into the Tour media maelstrom for the first time as outright leader at Sky. This time around, Froome was ready for the challenges that come with winning, and the pressures of the yellow jersey.

“Chris is a polite, nice guy off the bike, but on the bike, he’s the most resilient character,” Brailsford says. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like him. The way he puts up with the abuse he gets, he’s so composed. He deserves more credit than he gets.”

Fueling the storm

Anticipation was rife before the Tour’s first mountain stage, up the category 1 climb to La Pierre-Saint-Martin, lost in the clouds high in the Pyrénées at the end of stage 10.

In a matter of minutes, however, Froome destroyed the drama, throwing down one of the most devastating attacks in recent Tour history. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) lost 2:51 and all hope of winning the Giro-Tour double. His sport director, Sean Yates, would later categorize it as the Spaniard’s worst drubbing ever. Nibali was out of contention as well, bleeding 4:25. Even Quintana, considered by many to be the best pure climber in a generation, lost 1:04. As Froome and his teammates celebrated, the flames of suspicion and derision spread across the Internet and onto the roadside. Spectators and journalists alike lashed out. Antoine Vayer, the former Festina trainer and fulltime thorn in the side of the cycling establishment, said Froome’s numbers bordered on the unnatural. Laurent Jalabert and Cedric Vasseur, two ex-pros who raced during the EPO era, questioned Froome’s performance from their positions in broadcasting — an irony that Froome called “rich.”

The tension reached a boiling point after the Pyrénées, where Sky riders Luke Rowe and Richie Porte also came in for abuse, the latter being punched on the side of the road. Television images captured a spectator spitting on Froome and another giving him an “up yours” gesture. Both were outdone by the guy who doused him with a cup of urine.

“I just see [the abuse] coming along with the yellow jersey,” Froome explained after yet another day of roadside hostility. “I’ve done nothing wrong; I’ve done nothing to deserve this. I don’t take it personally.”

Incredibly, Froome never lost his cool. There were no Wiggins-like outbursts, no Armstrong blacklists. Even lesser riders will sometimes refuse to speak to journalists when things don’t go their way. Froome sat through daily 30-minute-plus press conferences, patiently answering every question, day after day.

“I do feel as if this year, even though it’s the second time for me, as a team we’ve been up against so much,” he said during one of those press conferences. “There’s been so much going on in the background away from the race which could’ve taken a lot of focus away from what we needed to achieve in terms of the racing.”

And what if Froome is actually clean? He’s certainly never going to be accused of being the most elegant rider, but maybe some of his harshest critics are overlooking, or refuse to see, what could be the biggest cycling story in a generation.

After all, Froome is now the first rider to win more than one Tour in the era of the biological passport, which was introduced in 2008. Much has been made of his performances, yet the 1:12 winning margin over Quintana was the narrowest in the Tour since 2008, when Carlos Sastre beat Cadel Evans by 58 seconds.

To combat the growing suspicions, Sky reversed its long-standing policy of guarding what it calls its “trade secrets” and publicly released important data points from Froome’s climb up La Pierre-Saint-Martin.

Pundits and experts disassembled Froome’s power numbers from that day — both the data Sky released and what various sports scientists said the real numbers would have been — but the truth is the winning differences came in the crosswinds of stage 2, the time bonuses, and a vicious attack up the Mur de Huy in stage 3.

Froome certainly looked human in the closing stages. He picked up a bug from Porte, something the team desperately tried to hide from its rivals. Froome barely managed to hang on against Quintana’s daring attack on l’Alpe d’Huez.

“I was dying a thousand deaths on the Alp,” Froome says. “There were a few moments when I thought I could have lost everything.”

Picking the moment

To understand how Froome won this Tour, one needs to travel to the early season training camps on Spain’s Tenerife. Froome and a few select teammates spent weeks training and sleeping at altitude. Their lodging was a government-run hotel perched on the rocky, desolate upper reaches of the Teide crater.

“It’s pretty miserable up there,” says Porte. “The Wi-Fi doesn’t work. There’s only bad Spanish TV. All you do is ride, recover, and sleep.”

Or travel back even further, to Sky’s first years in the peloton. The team’s head of athlete performance, Tim Kerrison, spent the first two years calculating what it would take to win the Tour. He broke down every major climb, figuring out the power numbers his riders would need to hit. Sky’s mantra, then and now: “Train hard, race easy.” Froome drinks it up.

“I love the sacrifices, the training, the hard work,” he says. “That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I love riding my bike. I love pushing my body to the limit. I love the freedom that cycling gives you.”

Three weeks before the Tour, Froome, Roche, and sport director Nicolas Portal scouted the La Pierre-Saint-Martin climb, scene of Froome’s stage 10 attack. He immediately saw the potential to do some damage on the climb, given the extended middle sector that averages a 10-percent gradient before easing off at the top. It would be ideal for making a gap and then driving home the wedge.

The timing helped, too. Stage 10 would be the first foray into the mountains and would fall after the first rest day and nine brutal stages across northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Froome knew it would be decisive.

“After seeing that stage, I said to them, ‘I am going to attack here, and make my move here,’” Froome says. “That was my strategy. Later, Quintana said he was going to attack in the Alps. And my tactic was to try to hang on.”

Coming into this year’s mountain-heavy Tour, Froome got even leaner, sacrificing power against the clock to gain an edge going uphill. He lost so much time-trial ability that he finished 39th in the opening-day time trial, 50 seconds behind stage winner Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) — a result Froome called his most disappointing of the Tour.

The new reality

Cycling has entered the Froome era. He has won two Tours in three years and could be sitting on a hat-trick if he hadn’t crashed out in 2014. But his grand tour run really started at the 2011 Vuelta, which he lost by just 13 seconds. It was during that grand tour that Froome realized he had the quiver of skills to challenge across three-week races — that he could climb, time trial, and recover well enough to go the distance.

“I had always hoped to ride GC, but it wasn’t until that Vuelta that I knew I could do it,” Froome says. “My job was to be the last man pulling for Bradley [Wiggins], and the group was only four or five guys left, and I was still feeling quite okay. I realized, ‘hold on, I can actually race GC.’”

He will continue to see the powerful backing from Team Sky and its $35 million budget, with tremendous support from trainers, coaches, and nutritionists. And where Wiggins tended to be a disruptive presence on the team bus, Froome is a generous captain who leads by example and keeps the mood light.

“Froomey is always joking around,” says Thomas. “We also see how hard he works, and how tough he is. We’ll give everything for Froomey when it counts.”

Add it all up, and Froome clearly has the talent and support to stay on top for years. And at 30, he is just hitting his physical peak.

“I do feel that I am a very different rider than I was in 2013,” he says. “I feel I know my body better, and that helps me to fight through the difficult moments. And that gives me more confidence.”

Since World War II, each decade has seen one rider more or less dominate the Tour: Jacques Anquetil in the 1960s, Eddy Merckx in the 1970s, Bernard Hinault in the 1980s. Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong book-ended the EPO era with their runs in the 1990s and 2000s, while Contador’s bid to emerge as the new dominator was stymied by his clenbuterol case.

And now it seems increasingly likely that the 2010s will be remembered as the Froome years.