Flying under the radar
The 2008 Tour de France did not presage the greatness to come
From a British point of view, the focus of the 2008 Tour de France was on the emergence of a young Manxman that went by the name of Mark Cavendish. Four stage victories before departing the race early for the Beijing Olympics, had given cycling fans a glimpse of what was to come over the next decade.
However, what was unbeknown to many fans was the debut of a rider that had yet to fully confirm his nationality, as Chris Froome started the first Grand Tour of his career under a Kenyan licence for the Barloworld squad. Australian rider Baden Cooke was Froome’s team-mate as he lined up in Brest on stage one.
“He was pretty green, and probably carrying eight kilograms or more than his race weight that he rides at now,” says Cooke. “Obviously he hadn’t learnt how to train properly and manage himself.”
With stages around north-western France to start off the 95th Tour, Froome’s inexperience showed as he rolled in each day at the back of the pack. “I think it was a bit of an eye-opener for him,” Cooke recalls. “He was pretty much just making up the numbers. His bike-handling skills weren’t very good and we used to joke and call him ‘Crash’ at the time. Fighting for position when you are a rider without much experience, negotiating those small roads with such a vicious bunch, is very hard for a guy like Froomey.”
With the opening stages negotiated, Froome found a solid performance in the stage four time trial around Cholet, securing a 31st place, the fastest in his South African licensed team. Even though Froome may have lacked racing nous, Cooke could tell his 23-year-old
team-mate had the self-belief required to be a contender one day.
“He had a fair bit of confidence and a little bit of swagger even before he had done anything but as if he just knew he would,” Cooke says. “Even back then he would say, ‘I’m a Grand Tour rider, I’m not a one-day rider or a one-week rider.’ He had nothing really to back it up other than he believed it. He was right!”
However, any feel-good sensation Froome might have had about his first appearance in the Tour de France was dealt a heavy blow by the realities of cycling at the time, as team-mate Moisés Dueñas tested positive for EPO in the second week. As Cooke recalls, “I went to breakfast one day and there were police at the elevator of my floor and everywhere. I said as a joke, ‘Oh, someone must have tested positive,’ and then I walked past and they were ripping my team-mates’ room apart.
“It was pretty upsetting for us, we were one of the smallest teams in the race and coming off the back of a big year where we won a couple of stages and the polka-dot jersey. So for that to happen knocked the wind out of my sails a little bit. Obviously if you are in the same team as blokes like that you get associated with them and I certainly struggled with motivation after that. I’ll never forget the next day and our bus being swarmed by journalists 10 deep from every side.”
Even with the team falling apart around him — only four Barloworld riders made it to Paris — Froome’s performance was one of the few plus points to come out of the race. He showed glimmers of potential on the Alpe d’huez summit finish, coming home in 30th place, and took 16th place in the penultimate stage time trial into Saint-amand-montrond as he finished 84th overall.
Cooke was one of the Barloworld riders that didn’t make it to Paris, after a stage 11 crash concluded his race. But the Australian former pro is pleasantly surprised by Froome’s rise to the top of the sport.
“He was a very polite, nice guy,” he says. “I didn’t see that side of him that could be such a monster and an animal on the bike and so vicious as a competitor that he turned out to be in winning four Tours de France, that’s for sure.”
The 2008 Tour proved to be a baptism of fire for Froome and his team
eight kilos heavier than Tour-winning weight
A familiar look of determination in the stage four time trial