International Cyclist of the Year: Chris Froome
Despite being born in Kenya, raised in South Africa, and residing in Monaco, Chris Froome (Sky) is every bit an English gentleman. While he doesn’t engender the same enthusiasm and awe as his knighted teammate and Tour de France champion predecessor, Bradley Wiggins, Froome is British to the bone. He’s always polite. Always polished. Nothing rattles him. He’s seemingly immune to nerves and pressure.
Yet behind that facade is an ambitious killer who took on the entire peloton in 2013. He proved that he could handle the onslaughts all season long, beating back would-be assailants from February to July.
Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), who won every grand tour he started in a remarkable run from the 2007 Tour de France through the 2011 Giro d’Italia, was handed a humiliating defeat as Team Sky won its second consecutive yellow jersey in precise, dominating fashion.
The 29-year-old Froome was as flawless as compatriot Wiggins was in 2012, and arguably a touch better. Wiggins won races thanks to his near-perfect time trialing; that made him untouchable against the clock last year, and gave him a defensible cushion in the mountains.
Froome’s 13-win season was exceptional in that he won in both time trials and up mountains, racking up five stage-race victories from February through July, culminating with his coronation as the Tour’s new king.
“Chris is the nicest guy I have ever known, but he will rip your legs off on the bike,” said Sky sidekick and training buddy Richie Porte. “He changes when he’s on the bike. He wants to kill everyone.”
Froome doesn’t know where that killer instinct comes from, but he certainly has it. He’s not a bully, in the mold of Lance Armstrong or Bernard Hinault, but he is certainly ambitious and strong enough to turn the screws when he needs to.
His unique, international background doesn’t have many of the bumps and bruises that have driven some of the sport’s more tortured souls. There are no drunken fathers or impoverished backgrounds. His family was well off; he went to private schools in Africa, and had a comfortable, upper-middle class background. The death of his mother from breast cancer when he was a teen certainly scarred him, but that’s not what seems to drive his laser focus on winning.
Rather, it’s Froome’s natural intelligence that seems to make him an ideal match for Team Sky’s methodology. In fact, Wiggins once said Froome was the perfect rider for Sky’s science-based, number-crunching training programs. There’s no room for raw emotion or instability. It requires cold, metronome-like discipline to whittle down the body to little more than “lungs on legs,” as Greg Henderson described Froome’s physique.
“It takes tremendous focus and dedication to reach the numbers that Chris did during the Tour,” said Sky manager Dave Brailsford. “Not many cyclists can handle the workload. They break down physically or mentally. Chris is strong in both.”
Many wonder how Froome got so good so fast, with more than a few scratching their heads during this year’s Tour in exasperation at what they were seeing. Froome was riding like Armstrong, but everyone around him was insisting he was clean.
“Chris is racing the Tour clean,” Brailsford said. “At some point, people have to accept that clean performances will surpass the performances of doped cyclists. That’s human nature.”
Insiders at Sky say Froome’s power numbers have always been off the charts; it’s just that he didn’t have the team support or the experience to translate that natural, raw power into performances in the ruthless elite ranks of the professional peloton. A bout with the parasite bilharzia, something he picked up in Africa and didn’t discover until 2011, didn’t help, either.
When asked in a recent interview what it took to win the Tour, Froome replied, “10 years, 30 hours a week, about 15,000 hours in the saddle, more or less a half-million kilometers.”
Sky gave him the platform, direction, and support he needed, both on and off the bike, and Froome paid it back in spades. From his arrival in 2011, with second place at the Vuelta a España, to his sometimes-unhappy apprenticeship behind Wiggins in the 2012 Tour, Froome made sure he was going to be the top dog in 2013.
Sky sent Wiggins packing to the Giro, giving Froome the space and freedom to develop as a leader. He used the first half of 2013 as a proving ground, learning how to lead a team and deliver the results. He then mastered the on- and off-bike responsibilities that come with the yellow jersey — everything from podium protocol, to media appearances, to extra doping controls.
Froome handled it with aplomb, winning four of five stage races he started from February through June. The lone blip was Tirreno-Adriatico, held in horrendous weather, where rival Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) knocked him into second place.
This year’s Tour victory proved that Froome has the panache and inner strength to win cycling’s hardest race. It’s one thing to produce huge power numbers in training; it’s quite something else to put it out on the road when everyone is gunning for you.
But Froome was flawless during the Tour, winning three stages, including knockout punches in the Pyrenees and on Mont Ventoux. When he was finally rattled late in the race, in a slight sugar bonk high on l’Alpe d’Huez, he was so far ahead it didn’t matter.
The only time Froome lost his cool was when an ever-desperate Contador attacked dangerously off the descent of the harrowing Cat. 2 Col de Manse, on the same road where Joseba Beloki crashed in the 2003 Tour. Contador slipped out after coming into a corner too hot, briefly pushing Froome off course.
“I personally feel that some teams are starting to get desperate now and are taking uncalculated risks,” Froome said.
“Uncalculated risks” are the antithesis of everything that Froome, Brailsford, and trainer Tim Kerrison have been working on for the past few years. They wanted to eliminate as much risk as possible, but here was Contador attacking on descents, attacking in crosswinds, and basically trying to do everything he could to knock Froome off balance.
Froome was enraged. And he later struck back, attacking Contador when he truly didn’t need to, on the final summit finish. The Tour win was in the bag. Yet Froome attacked again, drawing out Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar); a hapless Contador, who had swallowed his pride and asked Froome to ride easy up the Semnoz, dropped off the podium, finishing a humiliating fourth.
Froome might be polite and gentlemanly off the bike, but that single gesture reveals the very ruthelessness of his race persona. When it comes to battle, Froome takes no prisoners. It’s that blend of natural talent and curious intelligence, coupled with schoolboy diligence and killer instinct, that made Froome the International Cyclist of the Year for 2013. This season, Froome was simply in a league of his own.
Ride of the Year: Stage 15, Tour de France
Chris Froome on Mont Ventoux. Think it over. What comes to mind?
A leg blender. A savage, surreal buzz saw of legs whirring at a blurry pace, sending Contador backward, as if an anvil were tethered to his back wheel. Contador was falling while Froome drove the point home: this was his race, and there would be no doubt about that. Zero.
Froome’s attack high on the slopes of the Tour’s most infamous mountain was simply demonstrative, both of his abilities as a rider, and his team’s massive strength. It was also a crystal-clear indicator of his rising status as king of the pride among a peloton of hunters. He was immense.
All Froome really needed to do was drop Contador. But the soft-spoken Brit pressed on and ate up an attacking Quintana, too.
“I could tell Froome was stronger than me,” said Quintana, whose desperate efforts to stay with the race leader earned him the best young rider’s jersey. “That’s why he was talking to me, telling me that we should keep pushing to leave Contador behind, that he’d let me win the stage.”
And he may have, but the tiny Colombian simply couldn’t stay with Froome in the closing kilometers.
“We talked a little bit, I was just trying to motivate him, to keep pushing on, we’re getting more of an advantage,” Froome said. “Hats off to him, he started working with me. The last 2km, I didn’t even really attack, he just couldn’t hold the wheel anymore.”
Contador lost 1:40 on the day, but it was the way in which Froome rode Ventoux — ruthlessly — that helped him take much more than time. He may very well have taken Contador’s head that day at the Tour.