Chris Froome doesn’t carry much emotional cycling baggage around with him. He arrived in Europe as an adult from South Africa, not knowing much about professional cycling, mainly free of icons and preconceived ideas.
But Italy is one place that stirs feelings: it’s where his professional cycling career started. In early 2008, he flew into a freezing Milan winter as an overweight rookie with Barloworld on a prayer, a £19,000 salary and a dream: that of the Tour de France.
The town of Chiari, on the outskirts of Bergamo in northern Italy, was his first base. Froome was moved by the warmth of his apartment neighbours, who invited him round for their Easter Sunday feast, weeks after he had moved in.
He made an effort to learn Italian, in between training alone in the Lombardy hills, iPod blasting in his ears. At races, the young Froome would scoff at the traditionalist routines of his team and secretly wolf down biscotti with team-mates after races. Although delivering anonymous results, it was the beginning of his journey and education.
The Giro d’Italia made an impression on Froome when he debuted in 2009. “I found that it was a very strange and far more unpredictable style of racing,” he recalls in his autobiography, The Climb.
“In the middle of the stage, when everyone would be riding hard and the leading team were controlling on the front, all of a sudden four guys would attack, even though there was a breakaway in front. It was different to every other race I had done.”
Froome appreciated Italy, but found it bureaucratically bonkers. Sometimes he’d come back from a week of racing to discover his house’s electricity had been turned off. “I’d spend a week with no lights and no fridge… I loved the country, but me and Italy were a bad marriage.”
Almost ten years on, everything has changed. Three Tour de France wins have solidified his reputation as cycling’s pre-eminent stage racer. Now, it’s time for Froome and Italy to relight that fire.
2017 is his first realistic opportunity to shake up the routine and target the Giro d’Italia. Beforehand, he has been dead-set on securing Tour de France titles, in between Olympic cycles and crashes.
Both Froome and Team Sky could do with exorcising some personal demons at the Giro. The Briton last competed in 2010 as a Sky newbie, limping through inclement weather in the gruppetto with knee pain. He quit the race on the Mortirolo, days from the finish in Milan.
As for Sky, having secured a Monument win with Wout Poels’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège triumph in April, the Giro d’Italia is the most prestigious race missing from their palmares.
Cycling’s second Grand Tour is traditionally anarchic, as slippery as a plateful of olive-oil covered spaghetti, and has thrown up a mix of happiness and heartbreak.
For Bradley Wiggins’s 2010 prologue victory (above), Mark Cavendish’s three stage wins and Rigoberto Uran’s runner-up placing three years ago, there are several GC nightmares: Wiggins’s capitulation in 2013, as well as recent consecutive GC disasters for Richie Porte and Mikel Landa.
The obvious question for Brailsford, Froome and company is: why jeopardise Tour triumph by going for the Giro? If the routine ainâ’t broke, don’t fix it, and Froome’s rivals seemed especially powerless to challenge him for the maillot jaune this summer. The Tour is where the greatest visibility, money and importance lies.
On the other hand, there are commercial incentives to go all out at the Giro too. Sky Italia is one of the three sources of team title sponsorship and the squad has several Italian tech partners in Pinarello, Fizik, Kask and, if rumours are to be believed, future kit backers Castelli.
Moreover, it is a shot at cycling history. The last man to complete the Giro-Tour double was Marco Pantani in 1998. Attempting it is bold and noble; achieving it would turn Chris Froome from ‘merely’ a Tour de France legend into a cycling legend.
Time is of the essence. Froome turns 32 halfway through next year’s Giro, and one feels he must compete in 2017 or 2018 to give himself the best chance of being in peak physical condition.
The centennial edition, starting in Sardinia next May, could be too soon. Challenging for four Grand Tours back-to-back – 2016 Tour, 2016 Vuelta, 2017 Giro, 2017 Tour – is likely physical and mental overkill.
A 2018 bid is more likely. Don’t underestimate the pull of emotion and memories, even for the supposedly-reserved Froome. Winning the Giro d’Italia would take his cycling career full circle.