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It’s a safe bet to say that Team Sky’s Chris Froome was the big revelation of the 2011 Vuelta a España.
Even with the unexpected overall victory of Juan José Cobo (Geox), Froome’s second overall caught most – if not all – observers completely off-guard. Among the most surprised was Fromme himself.
The 26-year-old matched the best-ever grand tour result for a British rider, previously held by Robert Millar with second in the 1987 Giro d’Italia.
Froome delivered the kind of racing that many long expected from the African-born all-rounder. Now in his fourth full season in Europe, the key element of Froome’s sudden success was a return this year to full health.
Froome told VeloNews he was suffering with bilharzia, a water-borne disease that he picked up on a trip to visit friends and family in Africa. The disease was only diagnosed last winter and treatments that finally cleared up the problem this summer allowed him to perform at a higher level.
Froome has one of the most unique backgrounds in the European peloton. Born in Kenya, he moved with his family to South Africa as a teen-ager. In 2008, he changed his nationality to British.
Froome’s stage-victory at Peña Cabarga and podium was the first ever achieved by an African-born rider in the Vuelta.
VeloNews caught up with Froome to learn more about his long road from the bush of Africa to the final Vuelta podium in Madrid. Here’s what he had to say:
VeloNews: A little bit about your background, are your parents both from Africa?
Chris Froome: My mother was born in Kenya and my father was born in the UK, but they both spent most of their lives in Kenya. My father’s now moved down to Johannesburg and my mother passed away in 2008.
VN: So you first started to ride a bike while you were a kid in Nairobi?
CF: As a child, it’s got to be one of the best places to ever grow up. You’ve got so much freedom. Your parents are not trying to keep you indoors because some strange man might take you away. I had my little bike and I would go out and see my friends. I just lived an outdoor lifestyle. We were about 30 minutes from city, out in a residential area. On weekends, my mother would take me down to the Great Rift Valley road, which is very bush. A very rural area.
VN: Is there any danger of riding your bike out in the bush?
CF: There are no fences for the national parks. Yes, you’re riding with animals. Even last November, I went to a mountain bike tour from the base of Mount Kilimanjaro down to the coast over nine days. We went past elephants, lions; it’s just normal there. That was an organized event and I went along to help out.
VN: So how old were you when your parents moved to South Africa?
CF: I was 14 when I moved down there. I finished up primary school in Kenya and went to high school and university at Johannesburg. I did a major in economics, something very far from cycling. I pulled out with a year to go. I got offered a contract to come to Europe and I took it. It was my last year in Under-23, and I thought it’s now or never. I was already quite late getting into the sport.
VN: How did you first start to get interesting in road racing?
CF: I started racing on mountain bike. I had a couple of friends from school who would go out every Friday on a road ride. I would be there with my mountain bike tagging along. After awhile, they persuaded me to get onto the road. It’s the same guys, when I go back in November and December, I’m training with them and hanging out with them.
VN: How often do you go back to Africa?
CF: During the European winter, to stay in the warm weather. Also, we’re at altitude. It’s nearly 2,000 meters at Jo-burg. It’s fantastic training for a pro.
VN: It sounds like the Tour of South Africa is revived, how big is that for racing down there?
CF: It sounds like it’s going. Hopefully, their long-term goal is to turn it into something like the Tour Down Under, which would be fantastic for South African cycling. There’s a lot of talent down in Africa, not just South Africa, but in Kenya as well. That would be great if would exploited down there.
VN: What are the biggest hurdles for African riders?
CF: It’s really hard for Africa riders to get to Europe. The visa is a very huge issue. Also, the racing style is very different. The races down in Africa are much shorter. It’s harder for riders to make that transition.
VN: Who were your early mentors when you picked up road racing?
CF: I had a coach, Robbie Nelson, who took me under his wing and told me I could make it in Europe, to keep training, and training with the goal of going to Europe as opposed to being a good rider in Africa. He was my mentor and coach during that time. I have received a lot of help from people. Robbie Hunter played a big part in getting me onto the Barloworld team. I still look up to him and respect him. I talk to him a lot about my career and the way forward.
VN: How did you first get interesting in road racing anyway?
CF: From friends. No one from my family was into cycling. I kind of got into it myself. Back in Kenya, while I was young teen-ager, I met David Kinjah, who was the captain of the Kenyan cycling team, with dreadlocks, a very flamboyant character. He’s the one who got the spark in my about cycling. Interestingly enough, he’s started his own little team in Kenya with orphans. Things are picking up for him. They’re called the Safari Simbas.
VN: When did you first hear about the Tour de France?
CF: I only really started seeing the Tour on TV when I got to South Africa. That was the time of Basso, Armstrong, Ullrich, those times. That was the first real competitive cycling that I had ever seen.
VN: When did you seriously begin to think you might have a future racing in Europe?
CF: It was always a bit of dream in the back of my mind, even though I knew I needed to be serious about life and finish my studies. But after about two years of studying, I was always fitting my training around my studies, I got a point that it was going well enough that I got the opportunity to go to Europe. That’s when I made the decision to say, ‘OK, let’s give it a go and see how far I can take it.’ I would have never believed that I would end up second in a grand tour!
VN: Right in your first year with Barloworld, you were thrown into the Tour?
CF: Yes, I did all the big races, the spring classics, Romandie, Dauphiné, the Tour. That was some first year as a neo-pro. That was the year my mother passed away, so it was quite a dramatic year. She had a type of cancer. Also, trying to set up in a new country, learn a new language, it was quite a shock in 2008. I lived in Italy for three years. I feel like I found my feet a little bit more in Europe now, that’s also showing in my riding, with more consistency and more structure.
VN: What has been key to your sudden success at the Vuelta?
CF: A lot of things have factored into the equation, but I would say a combination of things have helped. No. 1, I am in good health. I have been battling with my health the past couple of season.
VN: What kind of health problems did you have?
CF: Bilharzia – it’s a water-borne disease, which I found that I had it in December last year. It feeds on your red blood cells, for a cyclist, it was a nightmare. I must have touched some contaminated water somewhere in Africa. I probably had it for year before I found it. That just drained my immune system. I was always getting little colds and coughs, nothing serious, but it always kept me from being at 100-percent fitness.
VN: Have you been successfully treated for it?
CF: I had to re-do the treatment after the Tour de Suisse this year. Since then, I have been a lot more consistent and good in my training.
VN: What else have been factors in your success?
CF: The health is one thing, but learning how to ride conservatively in a stage race. A lot of it is self-confidence and believing you have the ability to do it. Always as an athlete, you are doubting yourself and your abilities. It’s quite nice to have this under my belt and knowing what I can do. There shouldn’t be anything holding me back anymore.
VN: Your success is a big surprise to many watching the Vuelta, how much of a surprise was it for you?
CF: If you said to either of us that a week or two weeks ago, that this was going to happen, I certainly wouldn’t have believed it. It’s been overwhelming. The biggest thing is riding with Bradley and learning how to ride the GC. Being very conservative with the energy, as opposed to going off on crazy attacks, which I may have been more prone to do in the past. This has been an incredible learning experience and how to ride up there on the GC. Being able to learn from the best. Now I do realize it wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan, one-off type of result. Now I realize I have the ability to be up there to be with the best to fight for the GC.
VN: Are you staying with Sky?
CF: I would like to stay. Sky has said they would like to keep me, but we haven’t come to an agreement just of yet.