‘ONLY REAL MEN WEAR PINK’

Chris Froome on how con­fi­dence in him­self, his team and his au­da­cious at­tack car­ried him to his most spec­tac­u­lar win yet, at the Giro d’italia

Cycling Weekly - - FROOME - Words: Vern Pitt

“I tried to keep my head down and stay re­moved from it all”

It wasn’t on the slopes of a fa­mous moun­tain, or ly­ing blood­ied on the tar­mac in Jerusalem where Chris Froome’s Giro d’italia cam­paign nearly came un­stuck. It was on the gen­tly rolling roads of Abruzzo sur­rounded by farms, wood­land and pic­turesque vil­lages. Stage 10 of the Giro d’italia had a few warn­ing signs at­tached to it; there was a big climb at the start, but the par­cours wasn’t any­thing that should have un­duly trou­bled the GC favourites. This was a course that looked set for a break­away win. And it was, with Matej Mo­horic (Bahrain-merida) win­ning in a two-up sprint over Nico Denz (Ag2r). But as the lead­ers forged on, in the bunch Froome was fret­ful.

“It was a flat fin­ish but quite a lumpy start and I was bat­tling with quite a lot of pain af­ter the crash in Jerusalem,” he re­calls. “I wasn’t balanced, I felt one leg was work­ing harder than the other, I had a lot of pain on the out­side of my leg, es­pe­cially on my knee. It was one of those sprint stages where I thought, ‘If it goes any faster now, I’ll go out the back.’ I was just lim­it­ing losses and try­ing to hide how much I was hurt­ing.”

But Froome, one of the mod­ern-day pelo­ton’s mas­ters of the poker face, would sur­vive and con­tinue to re­cover. Come the race’s fi­nal days he’d pull off one of the most spec­tac­u­lar moves in re­cent years.

Few would have bet on Froome win­ning that Giro at the start of that third week. But Froome is not most peo­ple and asked how he’d have rated Bri­tish riders’ chances of sweep­ing the year’s Grand Tours, he dis­plays the supreme con­fi­dence com­mon to many great sports­men: “I wouldn’t have said it was too crazy given that I’d won two in a row. But if you’d said it would hap­pen with dif­fer­ent riders I prob­a­bly wouldn’t have be­lieved you. It’s an in­cred­i­ble achieve­ment and is tes­ta­ment to how far Bri­tish cy­cling has come,” he says.

It’s not like that faith in him­self hadn’t been tested. Froome en­tered 2018 at a low point with his rep­u­ta­tion in the bal­ance as a re­sult of the widely pub­li­cised leak of his Ad­verse An­a­lyt­i­cal Find­ing for salbu­ta­mol at the 2017 Vuelta a Es­paña in De­cem­ber 2017. He ad­mits now that the stress of the case made his early sea­son prepa­ra­tion less than ideal. “I think at the time I tried to keep my head down and stay as re­moved from it as pos­si­ble,” he says. “But given the sever­ity of the ac­cu­sa­tions it was a lot to deal with and it’s only nor­mal for me to ad­mit af­ter­wards that it did take a toll on me and it was cer­tainly a dis­trac­tion.”

Ex­pert ad­vice

Was he ob­ses­sively Googling stud­ies on salbu­ta­mol lev­els? “That was more in the off-sea­son,” he says. “That took up pretty much all of my down­time. I was just re­search­ing and con­tact­ing as many ex­perts as pos­si­ble to find out how it could have ac­tu­ally hap­pened.

“But the more spe­cial­ists and ex­perts we spoke to it did give me re­as­sur­ance that we would get to the bot­tom of how it had hap­pened.” Froome adds that by the time he was fly­ing to Jerusalem he had con­fi­dence that the case would go his way and says at no point was

he wor­ried that his Giro win might be taken from him. His con­fi­dence that he would be vin­di­cated and his abil­ity to nav­i­gate WADA’S quasi-ju­di­cial process, is strik­ing. A level of worry or con­cern that even though he knew he’d done noth­ing wrong he might lose any­way (af­ter all, in­no­cent peo­ple do find them­selves con­victed) would only seem nat­u­ral, but Froome ap­pears not to have felt this.

So he took to the Giro’s start­line not just with con­fi­dence in his in­no­cence but a supreme con­fi­dence in his own abil­ity and his team. Froome was em­bark­ing on an am­bi­tious and metic­u­lous strat­egy to lose weight through the race and ar­rive at the third week in his usual peak con­di­tion.

He was fol­low­ing an in­cred­i­bly de­tailed and strict plan. Doc­u­ments re­leased to the BBC af­ter the race showed he weighted 69.3kg at the start of stage 11 and was ex­pend­ing more en­ergy than the 2,466 calo­ries he was con­sum­ing.

There were signs that it was work­ing, with his win on the Zon­colan on the race’s penul­ti­mate Satur­day, but then los­ing 51 sec­onds to Tom Du­moulin and a minute and a half to Si­mon Yates the next day showed he was not yet at his all-con­quer­ing best.

“Ev­ery­thing just came to­gether af­ter that sec­ond rest day and I felt like I was on the up. I did a de­cent time trial and that last moun­tain block was key,” he says. That is putting it mildly: but by then he had dropped to 68.9kg (ac­tu­ally slightly above his 68.5kg tar­get). The last moun­tain block would con­tain, in his at­tack on the Finestre with 80km to race, a rare sport­ing mo­ment, one you knew was his­toric as you watched it. “That will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he says.

Per­fect com­bi­na­tion

Froome doesn’t, how­ever, feel it was all his own strength or the team’s metic­u­lous plan­ning — ev­ery mem­ber of the staff was sta­tioned along the route to hand out food and drink — that made it work. He points to a “per­fect com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors” in­clud­ing a 3.22 deficit to the pink jersey (and only 28 sec­onds less to Du­moulin); Se­bas­tian Re­ichenach, work­ing for FDJ leader Thibaut Pinot, slow­ing down the des­cents; and R ichard Cara­paz (Mo­vis­tar) and Miguel An­gel Lopez (As­tana) bat­tling for the white jersey and sit­ting on in the chas­ing group that made the at­tack work.

“I feel if Du­moulin had gone into TT mode at that point and it was a manoa-mano 80km time trial to the fin­ish he would prob­a­bly have beaten me and I cer­tainly wouldn’t have beaten him by over three min­utes. I gen­uinely think that be­cause there were all kinds of dy­nam­ics and he was try­ing to get other peo­ple to ride rather than putting ev­ery­thing on the line, that’s where he lost the race.”

But Du­moulin finds him­self in a place where Froome was around 2014: he’s won one Grand Tour but he hasn’t

quite yet earned the abil­ity to say, as Froome does, that a podium fin­ish is of no con­se­quence to him. And there’s that C word again: “I think ex­pe­ri­ence and con­fi­dence def­i­nitely comes into it. There’s no way I would have made a move like that ear­lier in my ca­reer. I was will­ing to gam­ble ev­ery­thing on that one stage.”

So spec­tac­u­lar was the vic­tory that it brought crit­i­cism from those who, per­haps un­der­stand­ably given the on­go­ing le­gal case, had doubts about its ve­rac­ity. But Froome says he paid it lit­tle mind:

“If ev­ery amaz­ing per­for­mance is over­shad­owed with doubts then we’re all wast­ing our time train­ing on the bike be­cause that’s what top-level sport is meant to be.”

The cel­e­bra­tion two days later af­ter the race rolled into Rome was muted. “We didn’t have a mas­sive night, we had a more con­trolled evening where we just had a nice din­ner and nice com­pany. A few of us had part­ners that came out. It was very last minute given I only got the jersey a few days be­fore the end. Also, with the Tour de France com­ing, it wasn’t re­ally the time to be com­pletely let­ting loose.”

A bridge too far

The Tour would prove to be where Froome’s con­fi­dence be­trayed him. He’d backed up the Tour and Vuelta in 2017 but the Giro and then the Tour proved too much. As he rode the Tour’s short­est stage through the Pyre­nees he knew his chances were over. “I fol­lowed a move from Pri­moz Roglic on the early kilo­me­tres of the climb. Once I got into that group of guys I hung on but was dropped two to three kilo­me­tres from the top — that’s when I re­alised this isn’t go­ing to hap­pen,” he re­calls.

Froome adds he felt sad­ness for his own loss and hap­pi­ness for his team-mate and friend Geraint Thomas’s vic­tory. “Given the run I’d had win­ning the Tour, Vuelta and Giro, set­tling for third on the fourth one wasn’t ex­actly a train smash,” he says.

We won­der idly which one of the win­ners’ jersey colours he prefers; for in­stance, would he wear a red, yel­low or pink shirt for a night out? Froome laughs, then with that trade­mark au­thor­ity and con­fi­dence re­turn­ing to his voice, along­side a wry sense of hu­mour, says, “Only real men wear pink.”

“I was will­ing to gam­ble ev­ery­thing on that one stage”

Fans urge Froome on dur­ing his spec­tac­u­lar Giro-win­ning at­tack

Bliss for Froome as he com­pletes the Grand Tour set

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