A RIDE WITH FROOME
We hit the beautiful and quiet backroads of the Côte d’Azur with the three-time Tour winner for a gentle ride and coffee stop
Team Sky's Côte d'Azur base is perched on a fast road with a view over Monaco. The house is in the town of Beausoleil, on the French side of the border but Beausoleil tumbles down the slope into the principality. There’s a predictably jaw-dropping view from the terrace. The red roofs of villas and the enormous Odeon skyscraper give way to the vast indigo blue of the Med, flecked here and there with white boats. When we turn up the only clue the two-bedroomed, double-garaged villa with a patchy lawn is Sky’s is the slip of paper in the letterbox: Tour Racing Limited, the name of the holding company that owns the squad. Inside, it’s cool clean and comfortable in the way a smart bachelor pad is, but it is unmistakably a functional place. There is an espresso machine but it isn't a flash one; there’s a fridge but it was broken. It’s quite the day for a ride. Although the temperature is in the mid-teens and climbing we’re told it’s cool even by midwinter standards. We’ll take it. We text Chris Froome and 15 minutes later, he’s ridden up from his apartment. While he’s well wrapped up, I wonder whether I really need arm-warmers. Froome suggests a choice of routes: up the Madone (two hours, no café) or up to Saint-Agnès (halfway up the Madone, a couple of hours with a café at the top). Option two, please Chris – these legs won’t last long. It’s not on his usual repertoire of rides but, well, this is the offseason. I mess about with my hired bike while he fills up our bidons and asks if I want any gels or bars. No thanks I say, stuffing Haribo into a jersey pocket.
The idea of a ride with Froome was to talk with no microphones on. With the triple Tour champion there’s invariably a third infallible and potentially
As we round a hairpin and get views back over the sea, he savours it. “Spectacular, isn’t it?” he asks a couple of times
implicating ear in on the conversation: a Dictaphone, or more usually a dozen or so. Consequently, he’s a careful talker. So to get a couple of hours without the little black box is a rare chance to experience Froome without that particular filter in place.
We follow him down the sweeping Moyenne Corniche towards Menton. We can’t talk here. The road is too busy and the gulf between our respective abilities makes trying to keep up a futile endeavour. ‘Amateur crashes with triple Tour winner, scuppers 2017 title defence,’ had been a headline writ large in my mind’s eye since the job had been on the cards. While he scythes through traffic and roadwork chicanes, I hover over the brakes. He looks back over his shoulder occasionally, one hand on the bars, just checking I’m in sight and upright. Whether Froome will ever shake the reputation for looking awkward on the bike is a ponderable but the truth is, up close (when I get there) he looks solid, natural and comfortable. Planted, would be an apt enough description. When I’m anywhere near his back wheel he scrupulously points out hazards.
We turn left off the Avenue de la Madone and start climbing the Corniche des Serres de la Madone. It’s not the true start to the Madone but it hits the D22 later on. Froome lets me set a pace at which I can talk easily. It’s surely excruciating for him, even at the annual nadir of his condition – about 5kg over Tour start weight – but he’s polite enough to demur. He’s ridden this section of the Madone countless times, came up it the day before, even, and knows its every corner and pothole, where barking dogs pace along fences and where parked cars might get in the way. The Madone is the local training climb thanks to its consistent gradient and because its corners and hairpins aren’t tight enough to require the effort to be tapped off, he explains. Full gas, bottom to top takes him just over half an hour. No one’s yet got quicker than Richie Porte in 2015 he says.
It’s clear pretty early on that Froome’s life in this playground of rich and famous people is fairly self-contained – when he’s there. Even in the aftermath of a 12-day holiday in Portugal, in the depths of the off-season, he’s been to the Far East twice and to Paris for the Tour route presentation. The day after this, he headed to Sicily for a Pinarello shoot. When he is in the principality there’s a lot going on within home walls. His son, Kellan is now 11 months old and “a ball of energy,” he says. Kellan started at nursery and Froome says it broadened the contact he has with local residents. Becoming a dad also recalibrated his view on life. “Before, when something happened and I was in the headlines I used to think it was the end of the world but now I realise that it’s pretty insignificant really,” he says. If there is much fraternising among the nearly 40 or so registered professionals who have Monaco as their base, the Froomes aren’t party to it. Synchronising calendars with other riders is hard enough, he explains, and most of the time he’s training. I get the feeling going for a meal compromises the rest of the effort. Life seems to exist in a threepoint triangle between home, the airport and more open-endedly the training roads in the hills of the Alpes-Maritimes.
It’s inescapable but Froome has the air of an outsider in both senses of the word – a lover of the wild world and slightly set apart from other riders. If he weren’t racing bikes, he’d probably be doing something in conservation he says. As we round a hairpin and get views back over the sea, he savours it. “Spectacular, isn’t it?” he asks a couple of times from different points up the climb. It’s impossible to disagree. What seemed like a tight patchwork of roads and roofs down below is, from above, a greener and more rugged natural landscape. For a couple of years running he has invited new boys to the team out to train with him in South Africa, to the arid mountains a few hours east of Johannesburg: Wout Poels two years ago and last year, the American, Ian Boswell. One of the highlights he recalls was taking them on a safari in the vast Kruger National Park and pointing out and naming the game animals he saw. With Boswell they also went walking through the park and Froome started lifting rocks to catch scorpions – the sort of thing he did as a boy.
His roots in west European cycling are shallow but more fundamentally than that his cultural frames of reference are also very different. I ask if he thinks his exotic background had been an impediment to acceptance in the past, when he was making a name for himself. He thinks about it
Dogs further up the Madone have been harassing riders recently. A week before, one had bitten his friend Richie Porte on the heel
for a moment and then says “Yes, I’d say that’s a fair comment.” Those trips with team-mates in tow therefore were not only a chance for them to view his approach up close – to live like Froome for a couple of weeks – but a chance for him also to show that, though his upbringing and origins are different, he’s not all that different.
Somewhere just up ahead of us, a black Alsatian-like dog stirs as we approach. Froome knows this dog and it’s all bark. Even if the gate were open it never runs onto the road, he says. But it reminds him of dogs further up the Madone that have been harassing riders recently. A week before, one of these dogs, which are used to herd livestock, had bitten his friend Richie Porte on the heel. The Australian also reported that on the same day, he’d seen a man up there who had blood pouring out of his leg from a dog bite. Froome has nothing to fear with me about – there’d be someone slower – but I ask if he feels safe more generally while training. After all, Philippe Gilbert got in a fracas in the spring and found himself in hot water for pepperspraying an aggressive driver near Liège.
Yes, he says but with equivocation. He recalls a startling incident from January last year .
He was riding with some team-mates in the hills above Nice when they held up a car for a few seconds, he remembers now. The driver turned angry, revved his engine and accelerated just past the riders and then slammed on the brakes. The two riders who were leading swerved either side and Froome swore at the driver as he passed. The driver returned fire in what sounded like Russian and accelerated again, this time slowing alongside Froome and nudging him towards the precipice. Froome, still clipped in, started to remonstrate with the driver. Froome had support – there was a lady in the passenger seat screaming at the driver and punching his arm. Then the driver reached for something. One of Froome’s team-mates who had pulled up just ahead, saw it was a Taser and shouted, “Run Froomey, Run!” And so, for the first but not the last time in 2016, Froome abandoned his bike and started running on a French mountainside. The little spine and the voltage shock never came but as he turned around - now at a safe distance - he saw the man hurl his bike over the precipice.
There were no repercussions – an amateur riding coming the other way
started taking photos halfway through the altercation and judging by the wry smile, Froome sees the funny side now. It wasn’t funny at the time, though, and still serves as a reminder that cyclists in general – Froome is positive the driver didn’t recognise him – are sometimes vulnerable.
We knew already that Froome doesn’t shy from confrontation: whether it’s securing pledges while negotiating his contract with David Brailsford in 2011, the set-to with Vincenzo Nibali in the 2015 Tour following a crash on Le Havre, or lashing out at fans getting to close to his wheel, but the episode is the starkest yet that beneath the manners and politesse is some real belligerence.
The climb up to the village of Sainte-Agnès turns right and we leave the Madone road, the pace still a degree or two slower than stately. It’s steep up here: a single lane with a low concrete barrier separates the road from a precipitous drop. As we round the corner at the top, the squat circular concrete walls of a World War 2 fort come into view. Now it’s a restaurant with a balcony that sits proud of the rock. Once the river of sweat off my forehead abates and I’ve finished stuffing sweets in my mouth, the views over the French Riviera are gorgeous. Froome orders the drinks – coffees for us, tea for him – and insists on picking up the tab. We concede but he meets stronger opposition to paying from the patron who says he must bring his family up for lunch.
At the table the old formalities return. To keep things light, the photographer and the motor-pilot, Leigh Bryan, better known to Monaco’s cyclists as Rok and who does Froome’s motorpacing, join the conversation. It revolves around the pluses and minuses of living in the principality and some of its residents. We throw in some idle gossip involving an certain ex-rider’s fish and chip shop chain which draws hoots of laughter from Rok and Froome. It turns out to be totally erroneous. I think that might be the first time I’ve heard the Tour winner really, really laugh.
Soon we’re off again, down the way we came. Despite the shambles on the busier road earlier, Froome drops his speed and is happy enough riding on the verge-side two abreast. At least there’s little traffic here but if he’s concerned about crashing if I cock up a corner, he doesn’t show it.
Halfway down we meet a trio of riders coming the other way, led by Richie Porte and Ireland’s Sam Bennett. Porte is dynamic, sweary and pugnacious – it’s a different side to the Tasmanian when there’s a mic about. “That’s Richie,” says Froome when we are on the way again.
For the rest of the way home along the Moyenne Corniche we talk mostly about the year’s racing. Some of the good but mostly the bad. The Vuelta’s short stage to Formigal, for instance, where Sky was ambushed by Tinkoff and Movistar and he lost any chance of taking the red jersey. It happens, he says, but also that it’ll never happen again. He says he has already been “thinking hard” about the Tour’s 100km stage from Saint Girons to Foix next year. There will be a phalanx of Sky riders glued to the bumper of the Tour director’s car at kilometre zero, he says.
As we near Sky’s mini service course it’s a useful time to get the unfiltered view of his rivals which, when reported, is usually courteous and respectful. His relationship with Contador is cordial enough and while the Spaniard is ageing, Froome wonders whether he might pull out an “incredible” final season with Trek. “I wouldn’t be at all surprised,” he says. He gives a glimpse into the peloton’s favour trading when he reports he was taken aback at Tinkoff’s approach for help in chasing Chaves when his Orica team ambushed Contador on the penultimate Vuelta stage to Alto Aitana. “After what they’d done at Formigal I just laughed,” he says. There’s no relationship to speak of with Nairo Quintana and interaction with the Movistar squad goes through Alejandro Valverde. Froome gives short shrift to Quintana’s very conservative tactics, pointing out that the Colombian was a beneficiary, not the instigator of the action at Formigal. He also believes he really got under the Colombian’s skin when he attacked on the descent to Luchon in the Tour. Despite Quintana’s Vuelta, he feels he still has the psychological upper hand. And what about Nibali, I ask. He tilts his head at me. “Off the record…?”
Back to the base. It’s lunchtime and he’ll roll down the hill back to his apartment. But before he leaves, he takes a personal interest in making sure we’re fed, watered and have what we need. Those old fashioned manners set him apart. The usual end to such appointments is a quick handshake and a swift disappearance. That’s Froome all over: by most measures he is subtly a man apart, whether it’s his origins, physical ability or temperament. It’s just the way he rolls.
At the café stop high in the hills Procycling has espresso, Froome has tea… tea!
The Côte d'Azur is a big improvement on the typical hotel lobby interview location