Chris Froome: An unloved double champion
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For the second time in his career, Chris Froome found himself atop the Tour de France podium Sunday. But while he has conquered the world of cycling, the Brit remains remarkably unloved by fans and media.
André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal) took the stage win on the Champs Elysée in the finale of this year's Tour, pipping Katusha's Alexander Kristoff and Europcar's Bryan Coquard on the line.
But in the contest for the yellow jersey, already decided at the end of Saturday's penultimate stage, what had promised to be a grand battle between the “fab four” – Froome, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana – turned out to be a one-man show.
Froome finished the Tour 1' 12" ahead of Quintana – the closest any of those pre-race favourites could get to the Kenya-born British rider.
The Team Sky man carried the yellow jersey from the 7th stage to the finish, but it was on the 10th stage between Tarbes and the summit of the Col Du Soudet where the Tour was really won. In the final climb, Froome powered his meagre frame up the mountain as if he was powered by rocket fuel rather than two spindly human legs, putting more than a minute between himself and Quintana, and far more over the rest.
But if it was the performance that secured overall victory, it was also the one that rankled most with the fans and media.
Suspicions about Froome’s performance had already surfaced after his victory on the Mont-Ventoux that set up his 2013 Tour win. But in the post-Armstrong era where dominance on the road has become inextricably linked to foreign chemicals in the blood, a second such display of superiority saw the floodgates of allegations burst open.
The word “doping” was scattered throughout the sports media like discarded water bottles and energy wrappers along a Tour stage. Experts made dubious calculations about Froome’s power outputs, others suggested Sky might be using motors to power their bikes.
The antagonism was not just confined to the newspapers. One spectator expressed his dislike of Froome by flinging a cup of urine at the 30-year-old as he made his way along the 14th stage. Another spat at him on his way up La Toussuire on Friday.
But the doping allegations are not enough to explain why Froome is perhaps one of the most disliked champions in sporting history. Even Armstrong did not have to contend with spectators’ bodily fluids being flung at him when the doping allegations against him were at their peak.
Even in Britain, he has received very little of the adoration afforded to Bradley Wiggins after his 2012 win. The fact that Wiggins was the country’s first ever Tour winner undoubtedly has something to do with that and so too his apparent attack on Wiggins, his then team leader, on La Toussuire three years ago.
Other reasons are less tangible – maybe it is his much-criticised riding style, the well-oiled machine that is his Sky team or the general consistency of his dominance when on form. Froome never seems to go through the highs and lows of form and fighting spirit of say a Contador or a Nibali.
Instead he simply eats up the tarmac with ruthless efficiency and with all too predictable results. He is astoundingly effective, but not necessarily spectacular.
L’Equipe, the Tour’s journal or record, described what it dubbed the “malaise Froome” as “centering around his skill for taking his rivals apart -- which he does despite his frightful skinniness and one of the least orthodox, not to mention the most ugly, riding styles”.
Always affable and mild mannered when speaking to the press, Froome has handled the allegations and the animosity with typically good grace and just a hint of frustration.
“I do understand where the questions are coming from, the history of the sport and the people before me who have won the Tour," he said after his stage 10 victory.
"I am sympathetic, but at the same time there needs to be a certain level of respect also."
“Those people should come and see us train, see how hard we work and see how I live my life. Then tell me I'm not clean!"
Riding with elephants, lions and hippos
Perhaps Froome’s unorthodox route to professional road cycling is the reason for his unflappable nature, either while racing or facing the scrutiny of the press.
Born in Nairobi to British émigré parents, Froome’s early days on a bike were spent on the slopes of the Great Rift Valley – not the ultra-professional, carefully managed environment that the UK’s training programme for young cyclists has become.
“For us, riding with elephants, lions, hippos, that was just part of things,” the 30-year-old has said.
But having started out in mountain biking and growing up in a part of the world not well known for road racing, Froome did not turn professional until the age of 22 – with the South African team Konica Minolta.
After getting his big break with Sky in 2010, he struggled to make an immediate impact because he was suffering from the tropical parasitic disease bilharzias. It was only when his disease was spotted and treated that his career really began to take off.
And given the way things have gone since then, Froome’s popularity or lack thereof is unlikely to bother him too much.
"Popularity is not the reason we race,” he said last year.
He can also take comfort in the fact that he is in good company when it comes to riders who have struggled to win over the public. As Tour director Christian Prudhomme pointed out last week, champion cyclists Jacques Anquetil and Eddy Merckx were also pretty unpopular in their day.
If Froome can match the achievements of those two greats, he’ll care even less about what the press or anyone else says about him.
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