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

Procycling - - Contents - Writer: Sam Dan­sie Photography: Chris Auld

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 [2016].

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

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