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VeloNews awards 2017: Froome is rider of the year

At face value, Froome's Tour-Vuelta double earns him cyclist of the year award, but time will tell with his pending Salbutamol scandal.

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Editor’s note: To close out 2017, we named our 30th annual VeloNews awards in the November/December issue of VeloNews magazine. After some deliberation, we named Chris Froome our Rider of the Year, due to his dominating wins at both the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España, a feat no rider had achieved since 1978. Several weeks after our issue hit newsstands, Froome’s adverse analytical finding from an anti-doping test at the Vuelta came to light. Since then journalists, fans, and pundits have wrestled with how to properly view Froome’s historic 2017 campaign. Does the adverse analytical negate his achievement? Should the sport wait for the UCI’s decision before passing judgment? In lieu of any official ruling by the sport’s governing body, we decided to proceed with publishing our award. Time will tell whether the history books (and our Rider of the Year) will need to be rewritten. 

Rider of the year: Chris Froome

For many cycling fans, it’s hard to like Chris Froome. Any online cycling forum will showcase this anti-Froome vitriol. For whatever reason, the four-time Tour de France champion doesn’t engender the same fervent adulation as Alberto Contador and his crowd-pleasing attacks, or Bradley Wiggins and his old-world eccentricities.

Froome is a superstar without a following.

Many fans complain that the Team Sky captain’s dominance is boring, predictable, and even unfair. His gangly, spastic pedaling style is hard on the eyes in a sport where aesthetic and style are just as important as results. His programmatic racing style and schoolboy personality don’t evoke much sympathy. He’s no Badger or Pistolero. Discreet and efficient, Froome simply smothers the competition, and leaves it at that.

And during two grand tours this season, coming at the sharp end of Team Sky’s ruthlessly metronomic proficiency, he patiently nipped away at the competition. In 2017 Froome was at the peak of his powers, and he delivered cycling’s first back-to-back grand tour victory run since 1998. That’s why, despite the ambivalence among some cycling fans, we unequivocally named Froome our 2017 VeloNews rider of the year.

“Froome deserves a lot of credit for racing and winning the Vuelta after the Tour,” says Vuelta race director Javier Guillén. “How easy would it have been for him to stay home? For me, he is one of the great champions.”

Guillén’s ebullience is understandable. The Vuelta has been riding a wave of popularity, thanks in large part to the fact that Froome and many other top GC riders have put it firmly on their respective radars.

The relatively ambivalent, and even negative reaction, among some fans comes in sharp contrast to the opinion of riders within his team and many others in the peloton.

Rivals shake their head in admiration at his consistency and determination, while teammates laud his work ethic and drive to win. You never hear about Froome chewing out a teammate or taking Armstrong-like revenge on rivals. Froome is the politically correct, measured champion of the post-modern era.

“No one sees Froomey inside the team bus,” says Sky sport director Nicolas Portal. “He is always laughing and making the other guys feel relaxed. He is very thankful for their work. Chris is the ultimate professional.”

All that seems lost on Froome’s detractors. The respect he garners inside the bunch is often at odds with the sometimes-visceral reaction (or utter indifference) of fans to an athlete who is one of the most successful grand tour riders in cycling history.

And if Froome’s enigmatic personality isn’t enough, Team Sky’s assembly-line style of racing leaves many feeling empty. Where’s the panache? The raw emotion? Everything seems too planned and too robotic for a sport built on drama, emotion, and passion.

And, finally, some simply do not believe his performances. The idea that a clean rider could dominate the hardest and most important race of the year, then win another grand tour less than two months later, is as alien as, well, extraterrestrials landing on the Champs-Élysées.

While there is evidence that the peloton is more credible than ever, old habits die hard. Just this season, the 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez tested positive for human growth hormone, just one case among nearly a dozen doping positives and violations in 2017. The biological passport, enhanced controls, and cultural and generational shifts all seem to suggest cycling has turned the page. But there’s a lingering suspicion, coupled with whispers of the use of concealed motors, that still tarnish cycling, and have some people believing the sport still operates by the same old, dirty playbook.

Chris Froome
Chris Froome and Team Sky were flawless in Tour de France stage 18. Photo: Tim De Waele |

Unfortunately for Froome, his successes come at a time when professional cycling is struggling for credibility in the post-Armstrong era. Fans simply have a hard time believing what they’re watching on television. Team Sky’s own foibles, including the issue of Wiggins’ TUEs and the mysterious “Jiffy” bag, certainly haven’t helped. Many openly scoff at the idea of marginal gains. Though Froome remains untouched by the festering scandal, his accomplishments often get short shrift when seen through that suspicious lens.

Oddly, even Froome’s politeness and discretion seem to rub some fans the wrong way. It’s rare to see Froome ruffled, and he steers clear of polemics as if he’s avoiding a pothole in the road. With his private-school manners and Boy Scout work ethic, Froome gets the job done without much fanfare. And it seems to drive many fans crazy.

Everyone likes to cheer for the underdog, and after six years of Team Sky’s domination, just about everyone else in the peloton falls into that category.

It’s only when the bike race begins that Froome’s drive and ambition shine through. And it’s those qualities that let him win races.

“When Chris gets on the bike, he’s a real animal,” says Sky teammate Geraint Thomas. “I’ve never raced with anyone who wants to win more than Froomey. No one can suffer like he can.”

No moment better reveals his spirit than the closing stage of the 2017 Vuelta. Rather than sit up in the final sprint, he dashed to 11th place in Madrid. Why? A top-15 helped him secure a rare, once-in-a-lifetime points jersey. How did social media react? Most people on Twitter complained about how greedy he had been. Froome just can’t seem to win.

As a rider whose national affiliation is so convoluted — he was born in Kenya, schooled in South Africa, races with a British license, and lives in Monaco — Froome doesn’t have a national fan base from which to draw upon. While the Spanish will loyally defend Contador, and the Brits will always love Wiggins, Froome is a man without a base. Like a modern mercenary, his loyalties lie solely with his team.

Like him or not, Froome had an incredible 2017 racing season. On a Tour de France course that was designed to limit his advantages, he meticulously secured yet another yellow jersey, making it four wins in five years. What he did next — win the Vuelta a España after finishing second three times — pushed Froome into another league.

As always, the victorious Froome was modest, saying, “It’s not for me to say where my place is in history. Obviously, this victory and achieving the double is something overwhelming.”

A bronze medal in the world time trial championship in Bergen capped off his season.

With Contador’s retirement, Froome is now first among active riders, with five grand tour victories. He joins Italians Gino Bartali, Alfredo Binda, and Felice Gimondi, each who won five grand tours during their respective careers. He became only the 10th rider to win two grand tours in one season.

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Froome deserves credit for his perseverance to chase, and ultimately secure, the double. His persistence in racing the Vuelta four out of five years after racing the Tour de France reveals more about his character than perhaps anything else.

Some fans think (or even hope) that Froome has peaked, and will soon be knocked off the top step of the podium. Could it be Nairo Quintana, Tom Dumoulin, or Mikel Landa next? No one knows. Some want to believe that next year’s rule change, which sees grand tour team sizes reduced by one rider, might make a difference. That’s unlikely. (Unless Team Sky were the only one to lose a rider.)

Froome turns 33 in May, and he still has a few good years left in his career. His top aim is to join the Tour’s “five-win” club, and perhaps take on the Giro d’Italia to complete the grand tour sweep. He said at the beginning of 2017 he plans to race at the top level for “another five years.”

If that’s the case, Froome could be around well into the next decade. Maybe it’s time to accept Froome for what he is: a damned good bike racer.