Chris did not expect to be in Spain during the month of September 2011. The Sky Brits were already pondering who would take his place the following season, with his contract about to expire and the results far from being a reason to remake that decision. Suddenly, a last-minute drop in starting nine at the Vuelta opens the door for him to make his debut in it. Those were the Wiggins years, with mod sideburns and smooth chins. The still unpublished tattoos on the visible body of the future winner of the Tour at the time. Benidorm, nothing more than a guiri term to begin with, would be the starting signal for a frantic flight between the sky and the ground that led Froome to be the best cyclist in the world for more than five years. The three grand tours under his belt and a wide range of victories to his credit have made him one of the most sought after cyclists. His friendliness and closeness to all those who have surrounded the professional cycling circus at all times make Froomey one of the most beloved people in the peloton.
The mark he leaves in Spain, in whose Vuelta the great Chris emerged, is long. The Spanish round owes
the Nairobi-born cyclist a large part of his growth in recent years. His love for the race that saw him born in a more than metaphorical way has marked his career. Not that many riders have been able to hold the winner’s cup in the big three. Even fewer have been able to do it twice in the same season as he did in 2017, although somehow overshadowed by the presumed positive for which he could be dismissed. First and only rider who entered his name in the Tour-Vuelta double.
2020 was a difficult year for Froome. The drag of the consequences of his crash the previous June and his serious hip injury added to the disorder and logical alteration that the arrival of the pandemic entailed. This time yes, he played a change of scenery and Israel was the option that Chris was going to bet on:
«I have very good memories of the Giro d’Italia that I won in 2018. Also of the start in Israel, which is where I met Sylvan (Adams). It’s ironic that two years later we were down to pen and paper. I felt very fortunate to return to Israel for our training camp last November and experience even more of what this country has to offer».
Froome refers to his only victory in the Giro, with which he completed the triple crown and in which he suffered tremendously to win the maglia rosa jersey. His form was not ideal in an appointment that aroused some controversy in addition to the distant start in Jerusalem, due to the amount that Sky and Froome received from the organization of the Giro. Supposed to be 2M euros as some media mentioned, directly from the investment that the Hebrew country put on the table to bring a top-level race like the Giro to Israeli soil. The famous attempt of the double Giro – Tour, so feared by the cyclists in dispute of both, had to happen. It was not resolved badly, despite the fact that this lack of freshness in July and the superlative state of form of his teammate Geraint Thomas were going to take away from Froome the dream of the fifth Tour de France.
The partial resignation to become that five-Tours legend made him enter another, that one consisting of Finestre and his impossible ride over 80 solitary kilometers to turn the Giro around and wear on the definitive pink jersey: «I spoke with Nicolas Portal, rest in peace, about that stage. I wanted to attack at Finestre, an idea that any sports director would have thrown away first. Nico didn’t do that, but he helped me build it. He had all the faith in me and motivated the whole team to achieve it. He was in my ear all the time updating me with the information, the differences… When someone asks me about that day and how hard it was to be pedaling alone for so long, I remind them that Nico was with me. Without him and the faith he placed in me, this would have never happened».
Interestingly, three years later he would join the ranks of a team that had solid foundations and progressed little by little, without haste and without pause. Project in which to be a leader not only on the road, but also to be an ambassador, an emblem. Who better than a winner of four editions of the Tour de France to carry the name of Israel across the five continents. «Israel-Premier Tech is a fantastic project. The progression it has made over the last seven years has been phenomenal and it has been evident in this year’s Tour de France. We not only got our first victory in the Tour, but two. We still have a long way to go and Sylvan (Adams) has a lot of ambition, but that’s the part of this team that I found most appealing. It is very rewarding to be a part of the building of this team and to have a role in it. We want to be one of the best teams in the world».
An objective that is made more difficult by the more than possible relegation of the highest category, although with these wicks it will be easy for Israel-Premier Tech to end up being invited to the main races on the calendar. It will be strange to see such prestigious cyclists outside the World Tour as the Canadian Michael Woods, the Danish Jakob Fuglsang or the Belgian Dylan Teuns, a newcomer to the Israeli discipline. The seal and guarantee that Froome gives can be key when the stars want to stay in the
set despite presumably not belonging to the highest category anymore. A Froome who, however, hasn’t raised his arms since the aforementioned victory in the Giro d’Italia. Four complete seasons where the results have returned to a stage prior to 2011, when he broke out as a dominator of grand tours: «In this year’s Tour de France it was the first time since the crash that I felt I could leave behind my injuries and health problems. I think from here I can build a good shape again. There were very good symptoms before I got Covid, so I know that even though some aspects have not developed as I expected, I am able to return to the level I had a few years ago. My hope is to get to that level earlier next season (2023) and start building from there».
Almost fifty victories in a track record that does not include any of the great classics. «The classics have never suited my conditions. I would still like to set myself the Clásica de San Sebastián as a goal one of these years. I think that any professional cyclist would be delighted to have at least some victory in these types of races». Despite this, and if it recovers the shape it once wore, I’m sure the British tries to be competitive throughout the year as he was at the time. A cyclist who considered competitive any race in which a number was hung on his back, something that made him win the respect of many fans used to the great figures of the Tour showing off their talent only around the month of July. Froome, like other stars like Alberto Contador or Vincenzo Nibali changed that trend and brought media attention and prestige to spring cycling in terms of one week races. Dauphiné was a regular preserve, as well as Romandie, Andalucía or the extinct Criterium International, achieved in its magical year 2013.
With such a crucial moment in the renewal of the old glories with the end of the careers of Alejandro Valverde, Philippe Gilbert and Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome is clear: «I’m not going anywhere yet. I consider that I still have a lot to contribute both to the sport (cycling) and to my team. I think that age is not affecting me yet and I am still as motivated to go on as always», says the champion born in 1985 and who at the time of the interview has already exceeded 37 years of age.
Awarded the Vélo d’Or three times, he still has goals to accomplish. It is true that entering the club of the five that make up Anquetil, Induráin, Hinault and Merckx seems complicated. But not everything in cycling should be the grand tours or increase the victories record: «I still have many dreams to fulfill in cycling. If that ever happened, maybe it would be a good time to hang the bike, but it is not the case. Dreams are what make me get up every day and ride a bike». Both the team and Froomey himself are confident of returning to the journey between the silkworm and the butterfly that he suffered in 2011. With age everything is more complicated, although he is not a cyclist excessively punished by an excessive calendar load and the decay produced by the passing of the years will have it somewhat slower than in other cases. In any case, it does not seem that a return to the elite is easy at all with the level that the entire cast of young cyclists who are now dominating the calendar are showing. Froome’s sports history seems that due to the background experienced in cycling itself he will not return to the same point where he was.
However, like when other great champions lost their best level, the class and the category of the rider ends up coming out even if it is sporadically. That which is known as ‘the class’. That difference between these champions and the rest of the mortals who need a peak of stratospheric form to stand out. A champion of four editions of the Tour, two of the Vuelta (being the only champion winning a big one from the hospital, coinciding with his convalescence due to the hard crash in Dauphiné with the dispossession of Juanjo Cobo from the victory in the 2011 Vuelta, which led to his rise to fame) and one from the Giro, he is undoubtedly the best grand tour cyclist of recent times, perhaps since Indurain abandoned cycling back in 1996. Those ‘froomic’ takeoffs from Mont Ventoux, of the Pierre de Saint Martin, that image of the Kenyan in the middle of the Ventoux marathon dressed in yellow… Chris is part of cycling history. A living piece of cycling’s legend.
Written by Jorge Matesanz
Cover photo: ASO / Pauline Ballet