Before 2012, no British cyclist had won the Tour de France, the three-week road race that twists through the Alps and Pyrenees and is arguably sport’s most gruelling event. (Riders burn more than 6,000 calories a day on average, the equivalent of 23 Mars bars.) Bradley Wiggins’s victory that year was widely celebrated and, with his Olympic success, earned him the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award and a knighthood.
But cycling fans noted the crucial role of one of Wiggins’s Team Sky colleagues in his Tour triumph. Chris Froome, the quiet, willowy, Kenya-born rider, protected his team leader from attacks by rivals and helped him up the toughest climbs. Froome finished second overall, but many believed that he was the strongest rider in the race. So he has proved.
Froome, now 32, went on to win the Tour in 2013, 2015, 2016 and again this summer. Only Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Induráin have finished the Tour in the yellow jersey more often.
On 10 September, Froome sealed his status as the “champion of his generation”, in Hinault’s words, and one of cycling’s all-time greats, when he became the first Briton to win the Vuelta a España, Spain’s grand tour. No rider has won the Tour and the Vuelta – 4,265 miles of racing in all – in the same year since Hinault in 1978.
Yet Froome’s picture did not appear on the front page of the Times, Guardian, Mail or Telegraph. Asked if he expected to make the BBC Sports Personality shortlist this year, Froome smiled and said: “I’m not going to hold my breath.” The finest sportsperson in the UK may also be the least loved.
Why? It’s true that Froome lacks the charisma of his former team-mate “Wiggo”, the eccentric mod. But he is polite, speaks well of his rivals and is by all accounts a good family man, with a wife and young son. In a brutal endurance sport with a long and inventive history of the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Froome is untainted. (Team Sky has suffered reputational damage for issuing therapeutic exemption certificates to Wiggins and failing to keep records of medical packages.)
The most obvious explanation for ignoring Froome’s achievements is the idea that he is not sufficiently “British”, having made his home in Monaco, close to where he trains, and grown up in Africa. Froome was born in Nairobi to a mother whose parents had emigrated from Gloucestershire to Kenya decades earlier, and an English father. As a young boy, Froome kept pythons as pets, became fluent in Swahili and learned to ride a mountain bike with the help of his dreadlocked Kenyan cycling mentor, David Kinjah, who lived in a shack.
“Kinjah helped me see you didn’t need the best bike or perfect conditions,” Froome told the Guardian in 2013. “You can just get on a bike and go – no matter where you are.”
Like his two elder brothers who boarded in England, Froome had a British passport, but he was sent to secondary school in South Africa and then studied economics at university there. With his long, scraggly hair, bangles and battered Golf, he did not look like a potential elite rider. However, he showed flashes of brilliance on the road and ambition off it. He blagged his way into representing Kenya at the under-23 World Championships, sending in his entry using the Kenyan cycling association’s Hotmail account.
In 2007, aged 22, Froome quit his studies and turned professional. A year later, he was picked to ride in the Tour de France, the first Kenyan to do so. But he missed the next three Tours, and even after he swapped his Kenyan racing licence for a British one and joined Team Sky in 2010, his performances were inconsistent.
Then, seemingly from nowhere, he finished second in the Vuelta in 2011. He later explained his transformation by revealing that he had been suffering for years from the parasitic disease bilharzia, which was now under control. Froome, who is 6ft 1in, had also cut his weight from 75 kilograms when he turned professional to 66 kilograms, by eating fewer carbohydrates and smaller portions, he said, without sacrificing much muscle. His power-to-weight ratio, crucial in cycling, shot up. Already a strong time trial rider, he was now a superb climber, too. He was also supremely confident in his abilities.
“Chris wants to win the Tour seven times,” said Team Sky’s lead mechanic, Gary Blem, in 2013, a month before Froome’s first Tour win. “He is intensely focused. Honestly, man, this guy’s unbelievable.”
Strict drug testing and slower average speeds in the grand tours suggest the days of rampant doping are gone. Yet some fans, disappointed so often by riders such as Lance Armstrong who were later revealed to be cheats, refuse to believe that the top cyclists, especially a late developer such as Froome, can be clean. While riding the Tour, French spectators have hurled insults and even urine at him. But he always kept his composure and, with the help of his dominant Sky team, stayed in yellow.
Next year, he will attempt to win his fifth Tour de France, equalling the record. He also wants a victory at the Giro d’Italia. He may even try to win all three tours in a year, something that has never been done. “I wouldn’t say it’s impossible… but certainly it would take some doing,” he said.