Why Froome will never earn the respect he deserves
Chris Froome looks set to be upgraded in the 2011 Vuelta, taking him to seven Grand Tour titles. So where is the acclaim for one of Britain’s greatest ever sportsmen, asks Ben Snowball.
As Chris Froome lay outstretched in intensive care, surgeons frantically working on his unconscious frame, more upsetting news was filtering in from the world of cycling.
Abnormalities had been detected in the biological passport of rarely-discussed ex-cyclist Juan Jose Cobo, surprise winner of the 2011 Vuelta. The period of suspicion? 2009 to 2011. After a tragically long wait, the UCI had finally determined his guilt. The man who finished second at the Vuelta seemed set to be promoted into the red jersey after an eight-year delay.
That man is Chris Froome.
The 34-year-old, probably the first cyclist to win a stage race with a fractured right femur, broken hip, busted elbow and cracked ribs, would become Britain’s first ever Grand Tour winner – replacing Bradley Wiggins’ historic Tour de France triumph from 2012.
But what will inevitably become an asterisk in a storied career should have been the breakthrough moment. Not simply for his success in Spain, although much acclaim would have followed had Cobo been immediately wiped from the records, but for the potential success path it would have mapped out.
Juan José Cobo, Christopher Froome, Vuelta 2011.Getty Images
In an alternate universe, Cobo was banned in 2011, Froome was promoted to winner, leaving Team Sky with little choice but to name their new champion as team leader for the Tour de France. He likely would have won in France, with Wiggins an unlikely domestique, and arrived at the London 2012 Olympics as a reluctant poster boy. Perhaps Froome and Wiggins would have even chimed the bell together at the Opening ceremony.
Even if Wiggins was named leader in France, it’s hard to imagine Team Sky being able to call Froome back on La Toussuire – an infamous and brief attack that caused much consternation – as a Grand Tour winner. It would have been received completely differently.
Would articles have been as quick to quip ‘Kenyan-born’ despite him having British parents? Would his lack of charisma have been used to attack him? Would people have shrugged after he was splashed by urine at the Tour?
Froome has always struggled with his public image, but it largely stems from the 2012 Tour and his decision to stick with Kenya before eventually joining the British cycling programme in 2010. Are either of those "offences" really bad enough to be disliked? And yet his mild-mannered interviews are often pounced upon, his salbutamol case in 2017 used to discredit him despite him being cleared.
Maybe it took a sensational personality – à la Wiggins – to bring the sport to a wider British audience. Maybe a Froome win in 2011 would have still resulted in collective apathy at his feats. Maybe without the track success of Wiggins and Geraint Thomas, he was always destined for a role as an extra in national sporting history.
We will never know. Froome will likely drift into the history books following his horrific crash on a time trial recon at the Criterium du Dauphine. He faces six months without sitting on a saddle. Even if he somehow recovers for next year’s Tour, he will be bruised and 35.
Only one man has won it aged beyond those years: Belgium’s two-time champion Firmin Lambot. It was 1922. No rider older than 34 has won the Giro d’Italia. Chris Horner’s triumph at La Vuelta aged 41 in 2013 was a freak episode, with Switzerland’s Tony Rominger the next eldest statement in the roll of honour at 33 years and 49 days.
No, Froome’s career at the top is almost certainly finished. Not even the peloton-dominant Team Ineos would risk protecting a creaking 35-year-old in a Grand Tour when they have an obvious, younger replacement in Egan Bernal. In truth, he’s been on the wane since 2018, a season saved by one great day – an era-defining break on Stage 19 at the Giro catapulting him into all three Grand Tour jerseys at the same time. Two months later at the Tour, he cut a jaded figure as he helped teammate Thomas into his yellow jersey.
Barring a miracle, Froome will forever sit below the exclusive club of five-time Tour winners Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain. It could have been so different. If events had transpired differently, Froome would have launched his career in 2011.
"In 2012 I was flying to tour of Beijing, I was sitting next to this fat mechanic from Movistar. About half way through the flight I realized it wasn’t a mechanic but the winner of the previous year's Vuelta. Everyone knew he was taking the p*ss - shame it took this long."
Cobo may appeal to CAS. Froome may never be awarded the title. Frankly, it’s irrelevant. Froome will move no closer to the status he deserves if he’s belatedly upgraded at the Vuelta. But it’s a huge shame that one of Britain’s greatest ever athletes – Kenyan-born or otherwise – was denied the career boost that could have shifted his public perception from the start.
A man who may soon boast seven Grand Tours including four yellow jerseys, a man who ran up Mont Ventoux and secured one of the most stunning Giro wins in recent memory, should retire a legend. In all likelihood, he will be quickly forgotten.
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