Redefining impossible: Chris Froome and a daring dream of double glory
Chris Froome was travelling at 54km per hour when he hit a brick wall, breaking his hip, elbow, femur, ribs, sternum and vertebrae. He was lucky to be alive. Most 34-year-old athletes would react to such horrendous injuries by announcing their retirement from sport. But Froome is not a normal athlete. And his response was to prepare for what could be the biggest summer of his remarkable career...
Chris Froome can hardly walk.
This is his first public appearance since a horrendous crash ahead of the 2019 Dauphine which placed him in intensive care, and it is clear that his wounds have not yet healed. It's October and Froome is attending the Saitama Criterium, a chance to roll out on the bike in a relaxed race and entertain his fans. And also a chance to inform the assembled international journalists that he remains a force in cycling. It’s hard to believe that the man who can barely cross a hotel lobby without looking like a geriatric is one who can win a Tour de France.
But that’s exactly what Chris Froome is planning. In fact, it’s only half of what he is planning.
Chris Froome leads out his Team Ineos colleagues at the Saitama CriteriumGetty Images
Yet it is easy to write off Froome when considering the extent of his injuries and the size of the challenge he has set for himself. Coming back from a crash of that magnitude to win a fifth Tour de France title at the age of 35, and then going on to take the Olympic gold a week later; it would be one of the most remarkable achievements in cycling history. To achieve even one of those objectives would be a comeback of historic proportions - a comeback which begins this Sunday when he returns to competitive racing, live on Eurosport, at the UAE Tour.
But Brailsford is right. Nobody should rule it out. Nobody should write off a rider who has confounded expectations throughout his career, even when facing the biggest challenges of his life.
1. An education in the Simbaz
David Kinjah has a pre-training snack in his quarters at his camp for cyclists known as the 'Safari Simbaz' in Kenya's central highlands village of KiambuGetty Images
" 'We used to laugh at him because he was skinny … and he rode with his elbows out like he wanted to fly.' - David Kinjah, Chris Froome’s first coach"
To understand Chris Froome’s unique mentality amongst the pro peloton you must go back to the very start. And tales of his early life have the feel of a Boys’ Own story. Brought up in Kenya, Froome’s childhood years saw him lead an active and adventurous outdoor lifestyle, in which anecdotes about chasing snakes were not an exaggeration.
His emigrant family weren’t hard up by any means, but they lacked the resources to allow Froome to follow in the footsteps of his two elder brothers and attend boarding school in England, meaning he stayed in Africa – first in Kenya and later in South Africa. There, in his free time, and later during school holidays when he returned from South Africa, Froome would more-often-than-not be found on his bike in the company of his first coach, and future mentor, David Kinjah.
“I started riding with this young kijana (boy) from Karen near my village in Kikuyu… his name was Chris Froome,” Kinjah tells Eurosport. “He had joined my camp (the Simbaz) where I rode with a few local guys and younger guys, teaching them what to do with bikes, modifications, that sort of thing.
"This young fellow from the white community nearby, he was becoming a young villager. He was always very impressed with my stories and every time the school closed he’d just come and hang around there and listen to my stories and ride together. He’d want to do all the long rides, so if I was doing long rides he’d want to do them. So we’d do like half and say ‘okay you’re going to back’, and he’d say ‘no, no, no! I want to go on, I want to finish, I promise I’ll be nice, don’t send me back, I want to carry on’."
The young Froome had talent and boundless enthusiasm, but Kinjah admits that he had no idea he was developing a rider who would go on to win so much.
David Kinjah at the SimbazGetty Images
“When he was younger it was impossible to tell that he’d get to the level that he has,” Kinjah says. “We used to joke a lot, we used to laugh at him actually because he was skinny and weak. But he was super determined. He would keep quiet though, you’d never think that he was that tough in the head because you wouldn’t see it, he wouldn’t tell you what he was thinking about. But he’d keep showing up and showing up. We used to do some tough races then, we used to do the ride from Nairobi through the Ngong Hills all the way to Lake Magadi and come back the next day
“This is a tough ride for a teenager,” Kinjah continues through a slight laugh that conveys his admiration. “Even today it’s a tough ride for me, but he used to do it with us. We used to call him kichwa ngumu, which means hard head, but he was also growing taller than any of the other boys in the village… and he rode with his elbows out like he wanted to fly always, so we used to laugh at him for that.”
Froome's early years on the bike are far removed from the standard cycling origin story, but Kinjah was a fine coach and an excellent cyclist in his own right – the first black African to ever sign for a European team, Alexia Alluminio in 2002 – and under his tutelage Froome developed into a strong rider. When Froome started travelling to senior school in South Africa, he also went through a crucial physical change.
“When he went to South Africa he was already junior champion in Kenya and he started getting some muscles and growing bigger, because he played some games at school, a bit of rugby, the gym,” Kinjah explains. “His school was good, they had facilities; I had nothing at the Simbaz, I had no gym to make him grow muscles. South Africa did.”
Froome began cycling in South Africa, but he would regularly return to the Simbaz, riding and training with Kinjah. It was during this period that the extent of Froome’s mental strength and true potential revealed itself to his mentor. “He went to the Tour of Mauritius and he called me when he was there and said, ‘Kinjah, these friends of yours in Mauritius they’re not good friends at all. They’ve cheated so that I don’t win the young rider’s jersey’. There were two friends of mine from Mauritius, and these guys were the superstars of the Mauritian cycling. So when Chris Froome was the leading young rider they made sure he didn’t win the young jersey.”
Kinjah's students watch the 2013 Tour de France at the SimbazGetty Images
The result came as a huge disappointment to Froome and he left Mauritius still angry about the outcome of the race. But his mentor had some impactful words of advice:
“I said to him ‘don’t complain, always look at yourself. The reason they stole this white jersey from you is because you are racing too close to them. There was no big difference between you and the other guys. So what you need to do is train harder. If you get the yellow jersey you have to keep it at a safe distance. You know what to do, climb, more time trials, you have to kick them hard. You have to use your head, don’t go there and stay close to them – three or four seconds – they’re going to steal the race from you. You need to keep them five minutes away’.”
Froome listened to the advice and a year later, when the Tour of Mauritius came around again, he showed that now-familiar ability to crush his rivals.
“He kicked their arse,” Kinjah says, his speech accelerating as he relives it. “He took the white jersey and the yellow jersey, he won everything. And this time it was my friends from Mauritius who were calling me and saying: ‘Kinjah, ey-ey-ey, your boy! He’s flogged everybody. Today’s stage he has the white jersey and the yellow jersey and the red jersey and the polkadot jersey. He’s got all the jerseys! He attacked from the gun, every time he attacked’.”
That was in 2006, and two years later Froome had risen to the ranks of the Pro-Conti Tour, riding for Barloworld, a team from South Africa. For many cyclists that would be the end of the story. However, for Froome it was merely the first stage in a remarkable journey; one that was not without its speed bumps along the way.
2. Overcoming illness
Barloworld's Chris Froome at the beginning of the 208 km third stage of the 2008 Tour de France cycling race run between Saint-Malo and NantesGetty Images
" 'Paratroopers train with a full pack on their back, and then when they train without that pack everything goes unbelievably. And it was the same with Froome.' - Carlton Kirby"
How exactly does a cyclist transform from a strong but unspectacular member of a second-tier Barloworld team into a seven-time Grand Tour winner? It’s the question that Froome’s critics often throw his way. However, the explanation given by Froome and his management is rooted in plausible science. For at least three years of his career, Froome was unaware that he was suffering from bilharzia – an energy-sapping disease caused by fresh-water parasitic worms.
“When he started off at Barloworld as a youngster he was a tubby boy, in my own image,” jokes Eurosport commentator Carlton Kirby. “But it turned out that he’d been suffering and carrying bilharzia. Paratroopers train with a full pack on their back, and then when they train without that pack everything goes unbelievably. And it was the same with Froome. He’d been training up to a decent professional standard while ill, and then when it was cured… away he went.”
Froome was diagnosed with the parasite in 2011 and had been carrying it since at least 2009 - during his time with Barloworld, perhaps even longer. In essence, he had reached the level of Team Sky with one arm tied behind his back. With that restriction lifted, a physiologically improved Froome was catapulted into the very elite of the pro peloton.
The physical strain of competing with bilharzia, coupled with Froome’s experience of exercise at altitude early in his life, is also an explanation for his remarkably low heart rate. Froome’s maximum heart rate is just 159 beats per minute, while his resting heart rate drops as low as 32bpm. It’s not uncommon for cycling’s best climbers to have such low heart rates, maximising their ability to pump blood and oxygen to the muscles. And for Froome, that boost provided by his bilharzia-restricted training has been his own biological marginal gain, perhaps the extra little edge he has needed in defining moments.
But to even reach the professional level while carrying such an illness illustrates Froome’s single-minded determination to succeed. Few would have carried on in the face of such physical limitations. But Froome did. It is that mentality which makes him so special, and what means he may, once again, be able to defy the doubters.
3. Flying on the Finestre
Chris Froome launches his historic attack on the FinestreGetty Images
" 'That Stage 19 on Finestre, that’s going to take some beating.' - Chris Froome"
Nothing quite encapsulates Chris Froome’s capability to defy expectations like the events of May 25, 2018, and Stage 19 of that year's Giro d'Italia. Froome started the mountainous stage over three minutes behind race leader Simon Yates and with a gap of almost three minutes to his pre-race rival and defending champion Tom Dumoulin. Four mountains and 185kms later and Froome was in the leader’s jersey, decimating Yates and overhauling Dumoulin to open up a gap of 40 seconds that ultimately won him the race.
“The Chris Froome stage was one of the most amazing stages in recent times”, Bradley Wiggins tells Eurosport. “It’s very rare these days that you see an attack of that length, of that magnitude. From so far behind and putting everything on the line in order to win, it sparks some shades of the greats in the past who rode like that.”
Halfway up the famous Colle della Finestre climb, and after an opening half of the stage that had seen Team Sky set a blistering pace, Froome attacked off the front of the lead group. There were still 80kms to go.
At the finish line in the Eurosport commentary booth, Carlton Kirby was on the microphone as the big attack came: “Pow! Chris Froome decides to stick one on absolutely everybody, and is it going to be a knockout blow? This is outstanding.”
It’s a moment that remains fresh in Kirby’s memory. “When he went for it, to me it was so shocking but obvious what he was up to. That’s what really got me, the fact that he had the sheer audacity to go for it from 80km out. It was just incredible to be there. I stuck my neck out and I called it… and thankfully that went my way. I’d seen people go long in the past – I think it was in 2012 that De Gendt went long up the Stelvio – but this was pre-planned, that was what was so fantastic about it. Apparently even [Dave] Brailsford was out there with gels and wheels just in case. They treated it like Paris-Roubaix or Flanders, with one aim, to win that stage and take back control of the race. It was absolutely mind-blowing.”
Performances like Froome’s on Finestre are the exception rather than the rule in modern cycling. Achieving the stage win in that fashion ensured that his ride would go down in history, but to even perceive it as a legitimate possibility was the clearest display cycling has ever seen of Chris Froome’s mental fortitude and willingness to stick it to the doubters.
“That was as much mental resilience and a mental performance as it was a physical one,” Dave Brailsford told Eurosport moments after the conclusion of that stage. “These guys who are repeat three-week Grand Tour champions, there’s something about them and a lot of it is mentality, and I think we had a glimpse of that today. He’s a real fighter.”
Chris Froome is pursued by a fan wielding a giant inhalerGetty Images
Written off and with little remaining vocal support, Froome must have started Stage 19 feeling like the world was against him. And it was then that he produced his best. It’s something of a pattern for the man from Nairobi.
“That day, it was a real surprise,” muses Kirby. “To be able to put up with all the s**t he was getting from the press and still have the focus to strategise and deliver, it was just amazing. At the time he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. Because if he did then everyone would cite salbutamol, and if he didn’t everyone would say he was finished, so whatever he did there was always going to be a negative. I felt so sorry for him.”
For Froome, the memory of that Giro win, and the nature of it, will no doubt give him great confidence as he looks to come back from injury in 2020. The odds seemed stacked against him, but what most would consider a lost cause was approached as an opportunity by Froome. And he succeeded.
“Those exceptional adventures in sport, they don’t often come off,” Sky’s Dave Brailsford told Brian Smith of Eurosport as the British team celebrated the GC win in Rome. “There are very few people who put it all on the line and try something like that. Rarely does it come off. But when it does it’s epic, and that’s what we saw.”
Froome is putting it all on the line again in 2020. Will it come off? If it does, then ‘epic’ will barely begin to cover it.
4. Doing the double?
Chris Froome and team-mate Egan Bernal attend the route unveiling of the 2020 Tour de FranceGetty Images
" 'It’s going to be a tough challenge, but I believe it is possible.' - Chris Froome"
A fifth Tour de France title is the first major target for Froome in 2020. But is that realistic? His former team-mate and podium rival Bradley Wiggins certainly thinks so.
“Chris Froome is the greatest Grand Tour rider of our generation,” Wiggins says to Eurosport. “I think the crash is going to rejuvenate him, I think he’s going to come back with fresh motivation and be even stronger. I think he’s got another Tour win in him, potentially that historic number five.”
It’s not difficult to comprehend why the allure of a fifth Tour de France title might have been enough to tempt Froome into a comeback. Only four riders in the history of the sport stand on five Tour wins, and reaching that tally would put Froome on a level with the absolute greats. Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Jacques Antquetil, Miguel Indurain; they are names that roll off the tongue, names that have permeated into the wider sporting consciousness.
But can he conceivably join that elite company? If he makes it to the start line then arguably the biggest challenge will come from within his own team. Ineos will in all likelihood name an eight-man team containing each of the last three Tour de France winners. It’s going to take some performance from Chris Froome to force both Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal into supporting roles. This is highly unlikely to be a 2018 Giro scenario, where the whole team can rally behind Froome’s cause to push him towards an unlikely win. If one of his team-mates builds a general classification lead then it could be very difficult for Froome to find a way to challenge that without causing a complete breakdown in team relations.
It’s going to make for a fascinating dynamic. But even if Froome manages to recover enough fitness to mount a challenge, and then gain the backing of his team, he faces a Tour route that doesn’t play to his big strengths. The time trial gains that he has built his previous Tour wins on will not be available, with the sole time trial of the race coming in the penultimate stage and culminating in a summit finish on the Planche des Belles Filles. If the organisers wanted a time trial that took away from the strengths of the usual TT specialists then that is exactly what they’ve got. And the route also doesn’t allow Froome the relatively comfortable opening week that he’d ideally like in order to ease himself into the three-week Tour. There are two hefty climbing days inside the opening four stages of the race, breaking away from the more typical sprint-heavy starts to recent Tours, which again is not to his advantage – particularly given the inevitable question-marks over his fitness.
Yet even despite those complications, the Tour remains an obvious target for Froome, and understandably so. But it could pan out in a multitude of relatively successful ways for him – whether that be a GC challenge for that fifth title, or a team role to help Ineos stand atop the podium on the Champs-Élysées for the sixth straight year. Until he hits that first mountain, nobody – perhaps not even Froome himself – will know if he’s capable of mixing it with the best again.
It is the second part of Froome’s 2020 target that is the really fascinating variant. Can it really be possible to challenge for the Tour de France in Europe and go for Olympic Gold on the other side of the world just a week later?
It’s a refreshingly honest answer to a leading question, and another prominent member of the peloton, Romain Bardet, also admits that there are some serious logistical issues for anybody looking to attempt the double. “We all know there are just six days between the tournaments,” Bardet says. “There is the jet lag to deal with, and also the weather conditions will be a bit different. So for sure you will need to plan how to get the best result possible.”
But despite both riders spelling out their concerns, and despite the logical conclusion being to target one event or the other, both riders say they hope to double up. And they are not alone.
“I believe I will do both,” 2019 Vuelta winner Primoz Roglic says. “We all know that the Tour is a different story than winning an Olympic medal in cycling. Of course you want to win the Tour. But the opportunity of the road race at the Olympics is quite attractive for me. If I do it I’ll try to be as good as possible.”
Froome is hoping to join them in attempting both. And he’s been in this situation before. In 2012 Froome stood on the second step of the Tour de France podium as Bradley Wiggins took the title, but less than a week later they were both back in action in the Olympic road race, attempting to help Mark Cavendish to gold. That bid may have been unsuccessful, but it was down to overall race tactics rather than fatigue – as the pair clearly displayed just four days later when they both claimed Olympic medals in the men’s time trial.
Gold medalist Britain's Bradley Wiggins (C), silver medalist, Germany's Tony Martin (L) and Bronze medalist, Britain's Christopher Froome (R)Getty Images
So Wiggins and Froome have shown that it can be done. But going from the Tour in France to the Olympics in London is a very different proposition to the 2020 scenario. Froome, however, thinks that it is still possible. And if his career has taught us anything, when Froome thinks something is possible then it really is possible.
“I think it is realistic,” Froome says. “In 2012 we did exactly that and certainly the time trial went quite well for us with a gold and bronze medal just a few days after the Tour, so that went well. I believe the difficult part will be the travel over to Japan and the jet lag and adapting to that as well as the conditions over here. It’s going to be a tough challenge, but I believe it’s possible. Coming five days after the end of the Tour de France, there’s not much of a turnaround time there, so whoever does the Tour will have to get straight back on it and make sure they are ready to race again just a few days later.”
With the right planning, strong recovery strategy and chartered flights then it’s possible to see how logistically a rider could attempt both. But does the Olympic race itself really suit Froome?
5. Is Tokyo a go?
The 2020 Olympic road race has Mount Fuji as its backdropGetty Images
" 'It’s going to be a real climbers’ race.' - Chris Froome"
While most of Tokyo and the surrounding suburbs shelter from the sideways rain and whistling winds of the final typhoon of the season, four familiar shapes slog their way up a steep and winding Japanese climb. There are no team support vehicles in sight, just four professional riders, out for an unscheduled and unannounced recon of some of the crucial parts of the Olympic road race route.
“I had the chance to go and see the Olympic road race route which was a great experience,” Froome tells Eurosport. “Despite the weather being pretty lousy we still got a good look at the main climbs of the race and certainly the final of the race as well. It’s going to be a real climbers’ race.”
The “we” in this case consists of Froome, his Ineos colleague Michal Kwiatkowski, Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang, and AG2R’s French wisp Romain Bardet.
“I think we are all guys that could be contenders, together with of course other guys like [Julian] Alaphilippe,” Fuglsang says, his eyes lighting up at the prospect of taking on the Japanese parcours. “I think you have to look at guys who are good in one-day races of course, and then apart from that guys who can climb. Valverde would also be one of the favourites in my eyes. There are many guys who can be up there. So it’s all about timing it right and to come here in the right condition I think.”
A 14.3km climb in the foothills of Mount Fuji will be the headline-making feature of the route, but a total of 4865m of climbing over 234 kilometres means there will be plenty of opportunities for the climbers to make their mark. And while Fuji brings the famous imagery, it is a far less well-known climb that could see riders such as the recon quartet come to the fore.
“The last climb with 30km to go is very demanding,” says Bardet of the Mikuni Pass. “It’s the kind of climb you can’t find anywhere in Europe. The Fuji climb is the iconic one, but it reminds me of some of the climbs you can find in the Alps for example.”
With gradients of 20%, the Mikuni Pass is as steep as many of Europe’s most challenging ascents. But that isn’t what Bardet means when he says it’s different and demanding. It is the road surface itself that will take the European riders out of their comfort zone. Huge storm drains on either side narrow the racing area, while the grippy surface is covered in grooves designed to drain away the typhoon rainfall. It makes for leg-sapping climbing conditions, that will likely suit only the strongest climbing legs.
“It’s really up to the climbers,” Bardet says. “It comes far away from the finish, but with small teams like we have in the Olympics we can really open up the race.”
And it is that feature that will have given Froome reason for hope. Were the Olympic Road Race a traditional one-day race then it’s unlikely that he’d even be attempting it. His record in the one-day classics is average to poor, with a 36th-place finish in the 2013 edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege being a career-best in the five ‘Monuments’ of the cycling season. It must be acknowledged that Froome hasn’t exactly targeted those races, favouring Grand Tour bids instead, but he isn’t a rider like a Peter Sagan or an Alejandro Valverde, who can combine punchy climbing skills, tactical one-day riding and a burst of a sprint-finish.
Froome’s likeliest route to victory in a one-day race would be an attack on a climb, followed by a solo time-trial-style effort to the finish. It’s not often that a route lends itself to such a strategy, but Tokyo 2020 could be just that sort of opportunity. And as he showed on Finnestre, when he gets the tactics right and the form is there, Froome is more than capable of staying away.
However, there is one small issue that might get in the way of a potential Olympic challenge. “I just wonder…,” muses Eurosport’s Carlton Kirby. “When you get to the Olympics and you think of the team that Britain are going to send; they’re really going to have to work out how to cope with the desires of everybody.”
Team GB will receive four starting spots in the men’s road race in Tokyo, which could mean a team consisting of Froome, Thomas and the Yates twins of Simon and Adam – four riders for whom you could make a good case for each being a potential winner. How likely is it that they would all work together for one cause, or even allow Froome to stay away if he were to attempt a solo attack?
“I think if he wins the Tour then the double is on,” Kirby adds. “But if he shows any weakness at the Tour I think maybe he’s going to have to maybe play support and I can’t see Chris Froome enjoying that at all. You’re going to need somebody with a Classics head on to have a go at it and stuff the consequences. When I put it like that… he might do it!”
6. The comeback king?
Chris Froome of Team IneosGetty Images
" 'It almost felt like a scene from Grey’s Anatomy.' - Chris Froome"
The exact physical condition of Chris Froome in the moments after his crash at the Dauphine remains unclear. That is probably for the best, particularly for the squeamish.
“My lungs had been damaged by my broken ribs and my broken sternum,” Froome said in a video released by Ineos weeks after the incident. “I was coughing up blood and was having help to breathe. It was scary when I came around the morning after the operation and just felt how hopeless I was, lying in that bed.”
It took him weeks to even get out of his hospital bed and into a wheelchair. But when a doctor told him that a full recovery was possible, Froome’s focus flipped right back to cycling. And cycling, as it turned out, was a way back to full movement. He was still on crutches, barely able to walk, but could jump on a bike and ride away looking completely natural - or at least as natural as Chris Froome ever looks on a bike. Yet in terms of top-level training he had lost six months. And one leg, however good it looked on the bike, had lost power and performance. All the training in the world might not be enough to restore him to the level he was at previously.
Froome believes he can come back, but then he wouldn’t be the first rider to hold that mistaken belief. Taylor Phinney was one of the best time trial cyclists in the world when he crashed into a guard-rail during the 2014 USA National Road Race. It took him a year to return to the professional peloton, but return he did, with his sights set on regaining his previous form and potentially even claiming an Olympic medal in Rio. Yet despite his best intentions, Phinney’s injuries had left his body unable to replicate the feats of its past, and two years later, as his career wound down, the American admitted that he’d lost as much as 25 percent of his power through his right leg. No amount of training and therapy could get him back to where he wanted to be. In 2019, Phinney accepted the reality of his lot and announced his retirement.
But Taylor Phinney is not Chris Froome.
If any rider can bounce back and prove people wrong then it’s Froome. He is being written off and underestimated, just as he so often has been during his career. We know how this story has tended to end. Returning from those injuries to compete for the Tour and Olympics in the same month would be the biggest surprise yet of a career that has defied expectation. But if anybody can, then it’s Froome.
As a proudly-smiling David Kinjah says: “Froome is a guy who will prove you wrong, any time, 100 percent. You just give him a chance, he’ll prove you wrong.”
And maybe, just maybe, Froome will prove his doubters wrong for a final time in 2020. He is, after all, the greatest cyclist of his generation.
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