Every now and then, when he’s got nothing better to do, Chris Froome leaves his Monte Carlo apartment, shouts to his fiancée Michelle that he’ll be back soon, and heads off to the beach. This is a normal enough situation, I suppose. We’re talking about Monaco, where loafing around in sunshine is part of the residency requirements. But the rest of the trip to the beach is less typical. When he gets to the water, he dives in and hunts around the sand and stones on the seabed, feeling for life, looking for octopus. When he finds one, he harpoons the holy crap out of it, retrieves his prey from his spear, and if it’s still alive, ‘flips its head inside out’ and bashes its brains out on a rock.
Dripping water, and carrying the deceased cephalopod back upstairs to his wife-to-be, he returns home. Lunch is sorted. He then thumps his chest, and heads for the shower. (All right, I made that bit up.) This story is relevant, somehow. I feel certain there must be some justification for leading this feature with the octopus story, other than its fleshy shock value. Maybe it’s a metaphor. Perhaps because it serves as a reminder that Chris Froome’s particular kind of British upbringing involved him spending precious little time in Britain.
If he’d been from, let’s say, Kilburn, for example, he might have developed a passion for fly fishing tiddlers in the canals at Maida Vale, instead of circling submarine life forms in warmer waters with murder on his mind.
Or perhaps I like the story because he told me that he’s been trying to teach Philippe Gilbert (a fellow Monégasque) how to harpoon sea bream. The Belgian world champion is, by all accounts, an eager student, but has much to learn. Heaven help the fish when he’s mastered that.
But, thinking about it, I think I do know why this simple story of Côte d’Azur leisure time strikes a chord: it doesn’t seem very likely. I close my eyes and try to imagine it. But the details prove elusive. Has he got a scuba tank? Does he carry a knife? Are there flippers involved? Speedos? Is the octopus trying to escape, or has Team Sky’s Chris Froome caught him unawares, and with devilish stealth? Come to that, how do you flip an octopus’s head inside out? I can’t picture it.
The truth is this: I just can’t see Chris Froome killing a giant, bilaterally symmetrical, waterborne mollusc. But then again, a year or two ago, I couldn’t see him winning the Tour de France. Doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen. Stranger things have happened, as I hope I‘ve just proved.
I’ll be honest, as my deadline now ticks down to the final few hours. This hasn’t been the easiest feature to write. No sooner had I rattled out some sort of first draft, than the whole thing needed an instant reworking, in the light of the ever-changing power struggle within Team Sky.
The story, as I understood it, had aged within an hour. In Monaco, I had been struck by how little Chris Froome had seemed interested in stoking the smouldering embers of La Toussuire, that Alpine climb of the famous 2012 “attack”.
There is, in my mind, little doubt that his publicly semi-functional relationship with Bradley Wiggins, is also privately, well, semi-functional. Yet, sitting in the springtime Riviera sunshine, Froome was painting me a picture of a man who appeared to be widely misunderstood. He was casting Bradley Wiggins in a different light.
“I don’t think he likes the limelight. I don’t think he enjoys fame. I think he’d be a lot happier having a quieter life, away from the buzz, the whole circus.”
The problem was, that a week or so later, as I sat at my desk in London, listening back to my recording of Froome’s carefully chosen words about his team-mate, Wiggins himself was indeed caught temporarily in the limelight (at a pre-Giro press conference), creating a buzz, and whipping up a circus all of his own.
Suddenly, Bradley Wiggins wanted to lead the Tour team again. I stopped typing. I had to. This ran directly counter to the specific account that Chris Froome had only just given me.
“Will you seek Brad out, face to face, and have that discussion?” I had asked him, as we perched on the steps of the Port de Fontvieille.
“We already had that discussion. He told me that he would ride for me at the Tour.” He had looked certain, sounded emphatic.
“We don’t need to have that discussion. I think it’s pretty clean cut.”
Perhaps not as clean cut as he might wish.
Taz, Rouleur’s photographer, and I had checked into the Columbus hotel in Monaco for our appointment with Chris Froome and his girlfriend Michelle Cound. We had both been to that establishment before. I mention this only because in 2009, I sat in its foyer on the eve of the Tour de France listening to the Garmin-clad Brad Wiggins telling me how he was pretty certain he had a top 20 finish in him, “maybe even top ten”.
It seemed a bit of an empty claim at the time, and I’m not sure we even bothered running the interview on our TV coverage the next day when the Tour got underway. Of course, three weeks later, he had announced himself as a genuine GC rider with his fourth place (third if you discount Lance Armstrong, which you absolutely must). Back then, we had no idea what he was about to reveal about his potential.
Monaco was crawling with Team Sky operatives that weekend, I recall. Some were covert, others more visibly sporting their three-lettered allegiance to the Master Dish Sellers of Osterley – Sky. Plain old Dave Brailsford, in his pre-knighted days, was also staying at the Columbus, along with Shane Sutton. Fran Millar was looking after the marketing types from BSkyB in the Fairmont hotel on the other side of town, overlooking the famous F1 hairpin. They were busily putting together their plans for the launch in six months time. Brailsford was privately, as well as publicly, repeating his mantra to anyone who would listen: “Our aim is to produce a British Tour winner within five years.”
They were there to see Bradley Wiggins. Chris Froome wasn’t at the race at all.
After a text message saying they were running a little late (his training ride had been a bit longer than planned) Chris and Michelle pitch up. We shake hands, and since it is a beautiful spring afternoon, head for the sea front, to do battle with the noise of the helicopters taking off and landing en route to Nice airport.
There’s a lot going on in Froome World just now. He has to be at the height of all his powers, both mental and physical, to zone in on what matters and to disregard the rest.
“Yesterday the penny dropped.” Froome is talking slowly, as is his way. Sometimes he thinks for a while before he speaks, and occasionally bites his bottom lip. He’s faultlessly polite. He’s always been faultlessly polite.
“It was a recovery ride. I went out for two-and-a-half hours just over the Col de la Madone and I had that feeling that I had completely switched off.” It must be nice, that. To rise 13 kilometres above the chaos and the clamour, and let it all evaporate. From up there Monaco must look very small.
“I was in my own little world. Just came back down with a huge grin on my face, thinking, this is what I ride for.”
There have surely been times when that bit, that fundamental pleasure, has been easily forgotten. Entering the sharp end of the most important season of your life, hitting July face-first as the favourite to win the Tour, with the defending champion shadowboxing you from afar: this is the stuff which might threaten to break you, a pressure that will turn cracks into fissures and blow the whole project apart if you let it.
Yet Chris Froome takes ‘level-headed’ and stamps it onto every waking minute of his life.
“What on earth is Monaco like, Chris?” (Can I admit to him that I loathe the place? Perhaps not.)
“There’s a lot of flash around here, and that’s not necessarily me – cars that drive by looking like mirrors. I take what I need.”
That sometimes involves a trip to Monaco’s tiny zoo. There is, it seems, a small animal park, with hippos and flamingos and things. He can hear the animals calling out across the yachts at night. That’s more his scene.
“If you can stay out of the casinos it’s perfect. You only have to look out the back and there’s a 10k mountain. For training, it’s ideal.”
There’s a “but” coming. “But I can’t say much for the lifestyle. I wouldn’t choose to live here for the rest of my life. It’s a who’s who of people who think they’re people.”
Although we do not mention it, there is a tacit acknowledgment that the move to Monaco, with its supercharged topography and famously relaxed fiscal policy, would probably not have come about had he not ridden the 2011 Vuelta like a man possessed, becoming the first Briton to stand on the podium of a Grand Tour (and one step higher than Bradley Wiggins). That summer everything changed forever.
“I was getting a lot of offers from teams at that point. Everyone knew my contract was up for renewal, and I hadn’t re-signed with Sky. A couple of weeks later I sat down with Dave and we agreed to go forward on a ‘bit of a raise’.” Chris laughs shyly, and blushes ever so slightly. As well you might.
“Would it be fair to say that it was...” I pick my words carefully, “… an enormous increase?”
“It definitely was, yeah.” He nods vigorously and looks at the ground. “It definitely was.”
“Life changing. For sure.”
“And the moment that you saw those figures on a contract…”
“…was pretty daunting.” He completes my sentences for me. Contracts are, de facto, two-sided. You get paid that much. Then you have to win stuff. Daunting.
The point is I guess, the speed. Not the speed with which Chris Froome can ride away from the best of the rest of the world on the long-form climbs of Grand Tours. His wins in Oman, the Critérium International and the Tour de Romandie this season (three titles at the time of going to press) bear witness to his pre-eminence in that field.
This is impressive enough, although never easy on the eye, he kind of lumbers into acceleration, throwing his bike from side to side and rolling his head. But, really, it’s the speed of his trajectory from Barloworld neo-pro to champion elect that marks his career out as, at best, ‘highly unusual’.
“I rode all the Classics and the Tour in the first year. And it wasn’t an ordinary Tour. One of my team-mates tested positive for EPO. Only four of us finished from Barloworld. It was quite an eye opener, like: ‘Wow, you’re in the deep end here!’ It took me a couple of years to find my feet. Moving to Europe, learning Italian, being part of the set-up. Then, moving to Sky was another huge adjustment.”
I wonder how the GB academy boys on Team Sky took to him at first. For a while, in 2010 at their Quarrata base in Tuscany, Froome borrowed Pete Kennaugh’s flat, and his battered VW Polo. Geraint Thomas and Ben Swift lived around the corner, as did Ian Stannard and Steve Cummings. Mark Cavendish was just up the road. In this Little Tuscan Britain, Froome was the new kid on the block with the strange accent.
“What did they make of you, when you first arrived?”
“Good question.” He smiles. Then it comes to him. “Probably, which bush did this guy crawl out of?” This assessment makes Froome laugh, a laugh which turns into a cough, and then back into a laugh. “I didn’t do things by the book. I was always off on my own mission.”
That’s true. I remember dropping in to see him in Quarrata in the spring of 2010. He was living and training alone in Tuscany. Team Sky had drawn up a schedule of long, brutally hard sessions in the mountains, and then for lunch? An apple. He was pulling himself inside out to become the man he wanted to be: a GC contender. I came away from that meeting with the sense that he was right on the edge of collapse. He has a self-confessed tendency to over train, to push himself into deficit.
“Within Sky, the way I’ve moved through the ranks, currently going into the Tour as leader, it’s been a pretty quick progression. If you’d told me this five years ago, I’d have laughed at you. But to be here now is quite something.”
‘Quite something’. It’s easy to mistake these ultra-cautious mild manners for meekness. Sure, Froome is respectful, inherently polite, all these things. And it’s telling that his closest friend in cycling is the Tasmanian Richie Porte. They share a certain outsider’s attitude, a love of remote, open territory, and a self-sufficiency which can only come from learning to cycle in their particular environments. Porte, when they ride together, is his mouthpiece in the peloton.
“If Richie’s nearby I let him do all the talking. He’ll let people know if they’re riding in the wrong place. I’m generally pretty quiet and I’ll just go around someone if I think they’re in the way.”
Michelle, who listens as we talk, and often chips in when she feels her man isn’t giving a full enough account, describes Richie Porte affectionately as “an angry little man”. Chris doesn’t feel the need to contradict her. Instead, he gives me the impression that his armoury in the Darwinian world of the bike race consists of subtler weapons than a mouthful of Aussie vitriol.
“I’m very aware of the mental side of cycling. Whatever way you look at it, you can always play with your opponents.”
“Have you ever bluffed?” I ask him.
Then I remember something. “You often do that yo-yo thing.”
I tell Chris how I am sure I have seen him dropped off the back of the favourites on a climb, as if he has cracked, only to magically reappear at the head of the race, when the camera cuts back. “Is that you manipulating people?”
“He always looks so uncomfortable on a bike it’s not hard for people to think that he’s cracked,” Michelle teases. She is an attentive presence at his side, alert, amused. Amusing. Chris smiles at her, with a look that tells me that’s not the first time she’s levelled that accusation at him.
“You can only do it if you’ve got the legs to play the game. You can’t pretend to bluff, and then get dropped.”
So what does he think he’s trying to achieve by these minor acts of Alpine resurrection? Why bluff?
“Maybe it urges the competition to force the pace a little bit higher. They try to crack me. Maybe that’s what I want them to do… to go a little bit harder and to put themselves into the red, which opens the door for me to go.”
Can he give me an example of when he’s actually played this trick?
Michelle jumps in again. “I can tell you. It was the day when Chris supposedly attacked.”
La Toussuire. Thump! Its leaden name crashes into the conversation. Stage 11 of the 2012 Tour de France. That old chestnut. Chris lets his head sink ever so slightly at the mention of that cursed mountain, the elephant in the room, the albatross round his neck. Pick your animal metaphor. It probably works. The octopus on the seabed of his career.
“I did attack.” He corrects her. And then, as he has often insisted, he realised he couldn’t gap Wiggins like that, and sat up.
“OK, he did attack. But before that he went off the back, to see how everybody was doing. Wiggins thought that Chris was actually finished, so he mentally prepared for having to time-trial on his own to the finish. And just then Chris came flying past.”
“Not flying past.” Again, Chris corrects her, gently, on this interpretation. “I pulled him back to Nibali and those guys. And then I attacked. After I thought [Wiggins] was safe in that group.”
Anyway, we’re not talking about that, again. Surely to goodness. What’s interesting is the move he played before the attack.
“That day I bluffed.”
“That’s not very…” I search for the right word. “… not very ‘Sky’,” I tell him.
“Even at Sky, if we get the win, they’re happy.”
Before we leave La Toussuire alone altogether, there is the subject of ‘that tweet’. Maybe, dear reader, you’ve forgotten the substance of Michelle Cound’s minor fracas with Cath Wiggins. Maybe you were never aware. Maybe, being a Rouleur reader, and therefore, by definition, pretty classy, you simply rise above the trivialities of Twitter, and its associated tittle-tattle. On the other hand, I bet you know exactly what I am talking about.
It started with Cath Wiggins, pointedly not referencing Chris Froome in her list of Bradley’s loyal domestiques. Michelle then fought back, defending her fella’s honour. For a while it was ever so exciting, if you like that kind of thing.
Michelle Cound, a South African of Welsh stock, is an aspiring photographer, who also looks after Chris’s affairs, maintaining his website and dealing with his correspondence. She is clearly devoted to him, as he is to her. They will marry some time next year, when their schedule permits. In the meantime, she takes a passionate and solicitous interest in everything he does. Sometimes, arguably, too passionate.
“Did you count to ten before tweeting, Michelle?” I ask her.
She chuckles. “No. Probably not. It all stemmed from Cath’s tweet where she kind of disregarded Chris from her list of riders who’d done a professional job. I was just completely blown away by it.
“I still don’t think that what she said was right. And so I still have that kind of biting at me. It hasn’t been resolved at all. Maybe if there’d been an apology afterwards, my opinion might have changed. It’s still kind of up in the air. I’ve seen Cath and Brad around, and I’ve never spoken to either of them. So it’s a bit of a weird situation still.”
“Would you do it again?”
She pauses. Then, with deliberation, “I think I would do it differently.”
“I’m staying out of this one.” Chris grins. Although her outspoken profile might make his job no easier, he is in no mood to clip her Twitter wings.
“To be honest I was finding out about most of it through the press. People were coming up and asking me about what she’d said, and I was like: ‘What has she said?’”
“I think Chris finds it funny?” Michelle concludes, with the merest hint of a question mark.
“If I look at last year, I only really see three guys who were racing for the win.” He quickly corrects himself, before I’d even noticed the slight ambiguity.
“Two guys who were racing for the win. Out of the top three, two guys were on the same team. This year is lining up to be a lot more explosive and a lot more action-packed.”
We talk about the others lining up for 2013. Contador, Nibali, Van Garderen, Valverde, Quintana, Rodriguez. He even throws Andy Schleck into the mix, puzzlingly. These are the opponents whom he wishes to face down. It’s beating these men in the mountains, and then hurting them again in the time-trials which make up the scenarios he has imagined time and time again, training in Tenerife, or on his own patch on the Côte d’Azur.
What he has not factored in is another sapping, discordant battle for primacy in a team which has too many strong cards to play (let’s not exclude the exceptional Richie Porte in our calculations). The experience of last year, its fraught conclusion, and periodical fractiousness, sits deep. Frankly, the perceived disharmonies coloured his race, and I suspect they cast a shadow over this one, too.
“What was it like being on the second step?”
It’s odd, but true: in my mind’s eye, I can picture Wiggins on the podium last summer, but I can’t say I even noticed the other Sky rider standing to his side. Such is the fate of the runner-up.
“There was just so much else going on at the time, it was quite hard to actually enjoy.” This, I suspect, is an unembroidered truth.
“Ordinarily being on the second step of the podium on the Tour is something to be really proud of. But, at the end of that Tour there was just so much else going on, it was actually quite hard to enjoy it.”
It had been an unhappy Tour?
“I’d say it was a stressful Tour. A stressful Tour.”
There is a steeliness about Chris Froome which shows through at unexpected moments. You do not become a top GC rider without having first hardwired your central nervous system to an unshakeable self-belief.
I have noticed this about him, at first hand. He’s growing into the role. Leading the team, growing the necessary sense of self-worth to demand the efforts of others and receive them as a matter of course, doesn’t come naturally to some. And Chris Froome, you sense, has only just recently moved into the solar centre of Sky’s system. For the first time in his life, he will undergo some sessions in a wind tunnel at the end of May, working on that ‘esoteric’ positioning on a time-trial bike (“I’m ragged. I’m all over the bike” in his own words).
The benefits of this kind of work have been self-evident and second nature to the guys growing up within the GB system. But Froome has, until now, never been inducted. And likewise, only recently, since Christmas, has he had “much more access” to Tim Kerrison, Sky’s number-cruncher supremo, who did the ‘science bit’ to Shane Sutton’s sergeant major in the Wiggins model.
Kerrison steps in, to some extent (although their characteristics and backgrounds are very different) to fill the void left by the departure of Bobby Julich, with whom Froome had worked extremely closely. The doping confession, which prompted Julich’s departure, came as a major shock.
“I was blown away. When someone says to you, ‘I have not done it’… I’m quite naïve like that. I tend to believe people when they say something to your face.”
So, things change. They move on. His position within the hierarchy of world cycling has changed beyond recognition, perhaps faster than his status within his own team. And Froome is not unaware of where he stands. He knows his worth. And he wants his employers to know it, too.
“I’m coming into my prime now. I’m going to be 28 this year. For the next seven, possibly eight years, I will have a realistic chance of going to the Tour to fight for yellow. If I end up winning one, who knows?”
And, if he does so, who with?
“[I signed] a contract two years ago, and compared to where I think my value is at the moment, I think I’m actually quite undervalued at the moment.”
And then he adds: “Which will be interesting… I could see myself staying, but I couldn’t rule out moving on if… Yeah.”
He stops, mid-thought. “I could see myself staying long-term. I’d be happy leading Sky.”
Wiggins and Froome act as extraordinary counterpoints to one another. The one, metronomic and smooth on a bike, but sometimes uncontainable and unpredictable off it. The other, as schooled as a diplomat, but with an impulsive streak on a bike that will either make or break his summer. If both men end up satisfied come Christmas, Sky will have pulled off a masterful feat of man management.
“Leadership is absolutely the issue. Completely. I have maybe more chances to win the Tour, and each one of those that slips through my fingers is an opportunity lost. If I go there [the Tour], and I don’t have the opportunity to win for other reasons, then that might weigh on me a little bit more.”
I should imagine it might. We stroll back towards the hotel, where we will go our separate ways. The helicopters have finally relented, and Monte Carlo is beginning to quieten down for the evening.
The servants have finished swabbing down the gleaming varnished boats, in time for all the Tommy Hilfigers and their friends to pour the Martinis and take to the decks. And Monaco, being Monaco, there may be parties to attend, even though Froome’s not really the type. At Alexander Vinokourov’s retirement party (if you can imagine such a thing, because I can’t) he was cornered by Richard Virenque for an uncomfortable 20 minutes or so.
When Virenque finally let him go, Michelle wanted to know what had been said.
“Was that Virenque?” Froome had no idea. “I thought he knew a thing or two about cycling.”
A ludicrous dog approaches us. It’s one of those handbag sized GM ones, which proliferate in Monaco. “Call that a dog?” Froome laughs. But only after the owner is out of earshot. He wouldn’t want to cause any genuine offence, I suspect. It’s those mild manners again.
“You’ve really got to go off out of your way to piss me off, if that’s your objective. That’s a characteristic of a good GC rider. You have to roll with the punches.” And tomorrow, for him, and for Michelle, is another day. She’ll try to sort his life out, while he heads out again into the cols.
Geraint Thomas is the latest Monaco resident on the team. They will ride out together. Then, over the coming weeks, there is Mont Ventoux to recce, a mountain he has never ridden before, and one on which the 2013 Tour de France might plausibly be won.