Chris Froome "100 per cent" sure Bradley Wiggins will back his bid for Tour glory
Team Sky's challenger in this year's race reflects on journey to top of the sport
Chris Froome says he is “100 per cent” certain that Bradley Wiggins will fully support his bid to succeed him as Tour de France champion this summer. In an extensive interview with the Guardian, Froome also speaks about his journey to the top ranks of the sport, plus the episodes in last year’s Tour that led to widespread speculation of a strained relationship between the two Team Sky riders.
"The Tour remains my focus," said Froome. "Brad is still going to focus on the Giro d'Italia and if he can help me in the Tour that would be great for me. I would love that," added the 27-year-old, who was runner-up behind Wiggins in last year’s race.
Ten days after that historic Sunday in Paris, the pair shared a podium again, separated by Germany’s Tony Martin, as Wiggins clinched time-trial gold at London 2012 with Froome taking bronze.
It marked the end of 12 months that had taken him from a virtual unknown outside cycling to runner-up in two Grand Tours and Olympic medallist.
While his maillot jaune and Olympic success last year – plus of course those three golds won earlier in his career – have propelled Wiggins to superstardom, Froome remains largely in the shadows outside the sport, but says he can understand why it is his team mate who has garnered the plaudits.
"He'd just won the Tour and a gold medal. It's normal that he had the spotlight. If you had said to me at the start of the year that, 'You'll be second in the Tour and win a bronze medal', I wouldn't have believed you."
On the podium with Bradley Wiggins and Tony Martin (copyright britishcycling.org.uk)
For those who follow cycling closely, however, there had long been signs that Froome could become something special, including finishing sixth in a stage of the centenary Giro d’Italia in 2009 after getting into the break.
In the Guardian interview, Froome reveals the singular route he has followed o become the main Tour de France hope this year of the team that finished 2012 at the top of the UCI World Ranking.
He discusses his early days in the saddle in his native Kenya, following the Tour from boarding school in South Africa, and hacking the Kenyan national federation’s email account to get himself a ride in the under-23 time trial at the 2006 worlds in Salzburg – where, embarrassingly, he rode out of the starting gate straight into a UCI official.
Froome, who later committed himself to Great Britain – his parents are both from the UK – also spoke about his move to Barloworld and his battle with a parasitic infection that attacked his red blood cells – “basically doing the opposite of what EPO does,” as he puts it.
It’s a meteoric rise that few would have predicted less than 18 months ago, when in the Stage 10 individual time trial in Salamanca during the 2011 Vuelta Froome, second quickest that day behind Tony Martin, took the red leader’s jersey.
Salamanca time trial, 2011 Vuelta (copyright Unipublic/Graham Watson)
With Wiggins, only riding the Vuelta due to that year’s Tour de France campaign being cut short after he crashed out early on, third on GC some 20 seconds behind his team mate, Sky made a call that many still believe denied Froome the chance of becoming Britain’s first winner of a Grand Tour.
The following day, team orders dictated that Froome rode in support of Wiggins, who took the leader’s jersey from him, and the pair began Stage 15, with a summit finish on the Angliru, separated by just seven seconds. By the end of the day, Juan Jose Cobo had taken the race lead from Wiggins, but Froome remained second.
The rider himself believes that Sky putting everything behind Wiggins was the correct decision. "I think so. This team has always been built around Bradley as the sole leader. It certainly wasn't a case of, earlier in the race, 'OK, Chris go for it,'” he explained.
Working for Wiggo, 2011 Vuelta (copyright Unipublic/Graham Watson)
That changed however after that stage on the Angliru. “Right at the last minute, when they saw Brad had come back from a broken collarbone and wasn't quite up to his best, the team said, 'OK, let's go with Plan B'."
"With a margin of only 13 seconds [Cobo’s advantage at the end of the race] there was a very good chance I could have won it. On Stage 10 I was in the leader's jersey but on stage 11 I was pulling for Bradley again so I lost the jersey.
“Maybe it would've been different if I had been in the leader's position,” he reflected.
“I don't feel negative about it. I came from an unknown background – to ask the team to suddenly buy into it and say, 'Yeah, we're riding for Chris now', is almost unheard of in cycling. I can understand why the team didn't immediately support me and that's part of my progression."
He would go on to beat Cobo to win Stage 17 on the summit of Peña Cabarga – inside the final kilometre, he seemed to have dropped the Spaniard and be heading back into the overall lead, but the then Geox-TMC rider somehow recovered to finish just 1 second back, keeping the red jersey by that 13-second margin referred to earlier.
Stage win to Froome... but Cobo keeps race lead (copyright Unipublic/Graham Watson)
Froome would take his second Grand Tour stage win last July in Stage 7 of the Tour de France on the Planche des Belles Filles, a day on which Team Sky rode most of the overall contenders into the ground and Wiggins got into the maillot jaune he would keep until Paris.
It was two episodes later in the race however that made some insist that Sky had again backed the wrong horse and Froome should be given free rein, even though a puncture towards the end of Stage 1 had cost him more than a minute and a parcours that featured more than 100km of time-trialling gave Wiggins an advantage.
Those episodes came on Stages 11 and 17, with Froome apparently attack Wiggins in the first of those, the second seeing him gesture at his team mate as though arguing with him as they headed towards the finish.
The analysis on Twitter was as full of conspiracy theories as it was immediate, including what quickly became dubbed ‘WAG Wars’ as Wiggins’ wife Cath and Froome’s girlfriend, Michelle Cound, angrily exchanged tweets after Stage 11.
Talking about that stage, which finished at La Toussuire-Les Sybelles, Froome said: "I know there was a lot of talk around it – that I was attacking my leader – and I know Brad at the time felt threatened.
“But I was sitting fourth in the general classification and I'd already lost a minute-and-a-half earlier on, on Stage 1, so I was behind both Cadel [Evans] and [Vincenzo] Nibali and being told that 'You're Plan B. You have to be as close to Brad as possible. If something goes wrong then you can take over.'
“I needed to find a way to leapfrog Cadel and Nibali. On that Stage 11, at La Toussuire, we were about six ks from the finish and it was steep. Nibali had already attacked and I'd pulled him back to Brad and I thought now's the perfect time to get time back on Cadel – because he's already gone. I said to Brad: 'Just stay on Nibali's wheel' and I went for it."
In-car video footage included in a Sky TV documentary on Wiggins’ Tour de France win revealed the team’s former sports director, Sean Yates, telling Froome that he hoped he’d secured permission from Wiggins to go on the attack. Race cameras showed Froome, hand to his radio button, slow down and wait for his team leader.
"As soon as I heard on the radio that Brad was in difficulty and that I should sit up for him I did that immediately,” he explained. “It wasn't my intention to put him in difficulty and try and take the yellow myself. Bradley was in trouble so stay with him – that's my job. No question.
"Potentially I could have taken a minute – but I don't think that's here or there. Brad got a lot of time back in the time trial. He won by over three minutes and last year's course was made for Brad. It was his race and he rode it to perfection."
Job done (picture courtesy Pinarello)
Rumours of a falling out between Sky’s two GC contenders made headlines, and resurfaced again after Stage 17 to Peyragudes. This time, Froome didn’t ride away from Wiggins, but his gesticulation, as if to tell him to get a move on, had observers such as Laurent Jalabert claiming he was disrespecting the maillot jaune. Froome claims the TV pictures didn’t reveal the full story.
"That's another day where people took things out of context,” he said. “The gesturing to Brad was certainly not 'Hurry up, you oaf'. It was: 'Come on, let's go, we've dropped everyone'.
“[Alejandro] Valverde [who won the stage] was less than 30 seconds in front of us and I felt super. I thought, 'We've done the biggest job, which is protecting the yellow jersey and dropping all the other GC riders. Why not go for the stage win too?'
“So I was trying to urge Brad to stay on my wheel. I did that a few times. But I think Brad still had it physically in him that day. He'd just switched off because he'd [reached] his goal."
Some Twitter users even seized on a picture of Wiggins smiling as he crossed the line behind Froome as evidence of his pleasure on getting one up on his team mate; but, safely through the mountains and with just two flat stages and his specialist discipline of the time trial to come, it was if anything the smile of a man poised to win the Tour de France.
Froome maintains that what was being said about him and Wiggins outside the bubble of the Tour didn’t affect the riders cocooned inside it. "It's obviously chaos at the finish but, yeah, on the bus or at the hotel we do try and touch base and say: 'Listen, that wasn't a dig at you …'
“There were things that needed to be talked about, for sure, but I wouldn't say there was chaos within our camp. Some of the press articles made me think: 'Is this how they're talking about us? It's crazy'."
And that infamous WAG War on Twitter? "Obviously they had rubbed each other up the wrong way. That's life. Not everyone is going to get on and see things in the same light," he admitted.
Both Froome and Wiggins were in Paris in October for the presentation of the route of the 2013 race, the 100th edition of the Tour. Immediately, Sky said that Froome would be designated rider, with Wiggins targeting the Giro d’Italia and supporting his colleague in France.
Then, over the winter, Wiggins hinted that he fancied the Tour and Giro double. Sky raised the possibility of a two-pronged attack on the maillot jaune. Now, as the season starts, it seems clear that Froome alone will spearhead the attack during those three weeks in July.
"The Tour remains my focus," he maintains. "Brad is still going to focus on the Giro d'Italia and if he can help me in the Tour that would be great for me. I would love that.
Alberto Contador, stripped of the 2010 Tour de France title, below par in 2011 and banned last year, will be likely to start July’s race as favourite.
The Guardian told Froome that according to David Millar, he is the rider the Spaniard is most afraid of. The pair went head to head in last year’s Vuelta, won by Contador, with Froome, at the end of a tough season, coming fourth overall.
"I definitely did feel he was racing against me in that first week of [the 2012] Vuelta,” acknowledged Froome. “He didn't seem bothered having Valverde and [Joaquim] Rodríguez on his wheel on the climbs. But he was always trying to check where I was. But it became apparent that I wasn't up to that level in the Vuelta."
Tracked by Valverde and Contador, 2012 Vuelta (copyright Unipublic Graham Watson)
As for this year’s Tour, which begins on Corsica, never before visited by the race, and ends with another first, an evening stage under floodlights on the Champs-Elysées, Froome says: "It's a hell of a lot harder than 2012 and we're going to have lots more competition in the mountains.
“Whoever wins it is going to have to climb extremely well and time trial reasonably. Once up Alpe d'Huez is hard enough but twice [on the last but one stage] is definitely going to sort the field out. It's fitting for the 100th Tour."
Froome’s supporters will likewise see it as fitting if it proves to be the race where he finally steps out of Wiggins’ shadow and gets onto the top of the podium.
Sky’s ambition at their launch of winning the Tour de France with a British rider within five years attracted widespread derision. This summer, Froome could make it two riders in four years – an outlandish prospect less than two years ago, but a realistic one now that the Kenyan-born rider can help it fulfil.