Chris Froome says that despite some traditionalists in the world of cycling wanting to hold back the advance of technology, its rise is inexorable, as shown by the way Team Sky use it to analyse his performance. He also believes that the way the sport is televised is set to be revolutionised, including encompassing real-time data similar to that used in broadcasts of Formula 1 Grand Prix races.
The two-time Tour de France champion was speaking on Tuesday at the Web Summit in Dublin where he spoke on the Central Stage to Karen Tso, CNBC anchor of European Squawk Box about his experiences winning the race this summer, in front of an audience including some leading lights of the tech scene and others aspiring to join them.
From Tour de France winner to motivational speaker, in short, including addressing whether it would be possible for a strong rider with a weaker team to win the Tour de France nowadays, and how to harness the power of teamwork to achieve an overarching goal.
Here’s a transcript of the interview.
Karen Tso (KT): You’re this year’s Tour de France winner, there’s a lot of pressure for you to return to the podium next year, how are you feeling about your preparation so far?
Chris Froome (CF): Em, yeah, really good, well at the moment I’m in terrible condition, this is our month off, generally a month to six weeks where it can just be normal again, you can have a burger, have a beer, but the rest of the year, from November onwards it pretty much is ten months of living a very much full on lifestyle to get ready for the Tour de France again.
KT: So you’ve been slobbing out, having burgers, eating chocolate, that sort of thing?
CF: Exactly, I think it’s the one month where you can break the rules a little bit and just feel normal. I think it’s only normal to have that reset at the end of every year.
KT: Now the history books are for and against you defending your title, Lance Armstrong, Alberto Contador are the last two riders to stand on the podium in Paris for consecutive years, but they’ve had those victories stripped because of doping which leaves Miguel Indurain in 1995, about a decade back since the last back to back win. What do you make of the odds?
CF: Bookies have me down as a favourite for next year’s Tour but I try not to think too much about the past, I try not to think too much about last year, I mean it’s been a fantastic season for me, winning the Tour de France but the real challenge is going in and backing it up. I mean, I’ve won two Tours now but certainly after winning the Tour de France, it is harder to go back and do it again. You have a lot more pressure on your shoulders, you’re being pulled left and right over the winter doing different appearances and I think a lot of the responsibility there, for me personally, is to try and limit the amount of engagements that I do have and try and focus on what I’m meant to do which is riding my bike.
KT: Let’s get in to some of the lessons that business people can learn from an elite athlete like yourself. We’re here at Web Summit, there are a lot of start-ups who are going to be peddling furiously to ensure they make it to the front of the pack. You’re an endurance specialist, what advice do you have for those who have a long road ahead of them in business?
CF: I mean, for me right now in my current form, looking at something like the Tour de France next year, it’s quite a daunting goal to be in that kind of form, to challenge for a Tour de France title, right now it feels like its miles away and really quite unachievable. But I think to be able to set yourself smaller goals and objectives earlier on, for me personally, once I get to January I know I’ve got to go on to a training camp with the rest of my team mates, I’ve got to be fit enough to ride at least pretty competitively with them and then to start racing in February to have a few smaller goals before the Tour de France. I think it’s always useful to be able to set yourself these smaller, more achievable goals.
KT: What happens if you fall over at the first hurdle, at the first goal you’ve set?
CF: You’ve got to take those opportunities to be able to learn from. If I look back at the 2014 Tour de France, I’d won the Tour in 2013, I felt as if my preparations and everything had been perfect leading up until the 2014 Tour, the route suited me well, but in the first week there was a touch of wheels in front of me and a careless moment, a careless crash, basically ended my Tour de France completely and I think being able to pick yourself up from the disappointments, and to be able to learn from them and just ask yourself the question, what could I have done better to avoid that situation, certainly is useful going forward.
KT: Let’s talk about the kind of circuit, the type of course you faced. What was the toughest part about that course and how did you mentally gear up for that challenge?
CF: I think the toughest part of this year’s Tour de France was the penultimate stage, a mountaintop finish on quite an iconic climb called the Alpe d’Huez. I had gone in to this year’s Tour de France with a tactic of trying to get an early lead, to come in to the race in very good condition, to try and get an early lead on my rivals and to basically fall back on a more defensive role going in to the last week, basically only trying to do as much as them and match their performances, so by the time we had gotten on to that penultimate stage with nineteen days of racing in our legs already, everyone was pretty wrecked at that point. The toughest point really was defending the yellow jersey at that last stage when my rivals could smell blood, they knew I was tired, they really just went for it and attacked me at every opportunity they had and at that point I really did fall back on my team mates and relied on their strength to carry me through the last moments of the race.
KT: A lot of people think you did it pretty easily but the course was not quite the one that you were best suited to. 2016 looks like it might be a better course for you, why is that and is that even more mentally challenging if you think you might have an easier ride?
CF: I think if I look at my strengths as a professional cyclist, I think I’m quite well rounded, I’m able to time trial relatively well compared to the pure climbers who I’m up against in a lot of the Tour de France and this past Tour basically had zero time trial kilometres, we had a prologue right at the beginning but apart from that there was no time trialling. Next year’s course definitely does have a lot more time trialling and in that sense it’s going to be a much more well balanced race and it’s going to be that balance of who can hang on the time trials and still climb at the top level so it’s going to take someone who can do a bit of everything to win next year’s tour.
KT: So it’s a big mental challenge you face, business leaders also face that day in, day out, particularly for a lot of start-ups here might believe in their vision but at that stage few other do. You’ve had injuries along the way, a fractured foot I believe, what tips do you have to stay motivated?
CF: I think motivation is an interesting topic, certainly for me I feel as if there are two ways of approaching it - 1 on the back of disappointment, sure, in the moment it is hugely frustrating and you feel as if you’ve lost months and months of training and preparation, just gone straight out the window but actually those disappointments are fantastic, that’s what picks me up, that’s what motivates me really, I go home and I analyse why things went wrong and I really feel as if that gives me a lot of motivation to come back even stronger the next opportunity I get.
I think what’s more tricky is coming in and trying to stay motivated and even trying to improve when things have gone well for you, I think it’s quite easy to fall in to that trap, becoming complacent, and okay, I’ve won the Tour de France, well I’ll just go in next year and try and do the same thing again, it doesn’t work like that. I’m going to have to try and be better next year – I’ve got to look at everything I’m doing, every factor of my nutrition, my training, everything to be ready for the Tour de France and try and do it even better than I’ve done in the past.
KT: That must resonate with some of the big names in the room. There’s been a lot of disrupters and it can very quickly change a business model. What do you do when you have success and how do you not deal with success? What tips do you have to those businesses about staying on top?
CF: I think it’s just that constant evaluation. You’ve got to look at… I don’t think you’re ever at the point where you’ve got the winning formula. I think, especially in cycling, everyone’s evolving sport is evolving. You’re coming up against stronger rivals every year. I certainly feel as if it’s something… I mean we’ve won the Tour De France now three times in the last six years [actually three in the past four – ed] at Team Sky. So we’ve got a good basic formula for going into, getting ready for the Tour de France but I do feel as if it’s something that we constantly need to challenge and constantly need to become better at everything we do.
KT: How much of your success is physical preparation versus mental determination? Is it a 50/50 split or is it skewed more one way than the other?
CF: You certainly feel that in cycling the physical demands are of course really important but it becomes a stage where it turns mental and when you’re up on a final mountain path, going head-to-head with one of your rivals there does become that moment where you’re going to push each other until one of you flicks a switch and says right, that’s enough for me, I can’t keep this speed up any longer and mentally makes that decision to back off. And that’s where cycling really is up here and you’ve got to be able to deal with someone pushing you above your capability and to be able to hang on for as long as you can at that point.
KT: Let me just probe you a little bit further about that because teamwork is something that a lot of people in the room have to engage in to create successful businesses. You’re part of British Team Sky, we know there a lot of support riders – a big team effort behind the scenes. Can a rider with significant talent still win if the team is mediocre?
CF: I’d say it would be a lot more difficult to win an event like the Tour De France if your team isn’t completely up for it. Sure, it might be possible if you’ve got an exceptional leader. It might be possible for him to ride off other teams and still try to get to winning the race. But it certainly makes it whole different game altogether. When you’ve got the backing of a really dependable strong team it’s – I mean as I said earlier on this years’ penultimate stage I really did fall back on my teammates and arguably that’s what won me the race.
KT: It’s very hard to put together a good team so what do you think that characteristics are of that winning team formula?
CF: I think certainly one of the biggest aspects of a winning team is to align everyone’s individual goals on the team with that of the tea, goal. And as soon as you get that coherence within the team and you really get the buy-in 100% from everyone on that team to a common objective – you’re going to have an unstoppable team at that point. You certainly see that things do go a lot more difficult – it’s very tricky for team when you can see people are off doing their own thing and you don’t have that same cohesion.
KT: It seems that if you have a bit of momentum, in terms of wins, that this is something that might carry you a little bit further than if you have a series of disappointments. How important is momentum?
CF: Certainly it’s a big part of – I mean winning a race like the Tour de France – it’s not possible for me to just show up in July in fantastic conduction and take on the Tour de France. I think it is critical for me to win at least one or two, even if they’re smaller events, before the Tour de France just to build that momentum. To build the trust among my colleagues, my teammates so that I really do have the buy-in 100 per cent from everyone going in to the Tour de France so that they know that if they give it their all, that I’m going to be just as up for it and I’m going to give it absolutely everything to try and finish off the job for them.
KT: Let’s talk a little bit about technology in sport because a lot of people in this room might be looking at what they do in their own business, but in sport it seems to be an industry where there’s been sustained growth; sustained profitability for so long but maybe not a huge amount of innovation. Howe much have you seen technology evolve in the time that you’ve been riding?
CF: I think cycling is quite complicated sport in that sense. It really does have a very traditional background, a very traditional history and I think that there are quite a lot of people out there in the sport who actually don’t want to see the sport evolving too much. They quite like the old traditions. So that certainly has been quite a big hurdle in cycling specifically.
But we are seeing a lot more use of data in training especially. The gearing now on our bikes is now electronic as opposed to the old manual cabling shifting systems.
I think where the biggest innovations in the sport going forward will probably be much more in terms of broadcasting and turning a little bit more towards Formula 1 in terms of sharing data with our audiences and maybe being able to pick up on our race radio communications between the director sportif vehicle behind us and the riders and between the riders. I mean, that would be fascinating for people to be able to pick up on and to share in that experience.
KT: Indeed we’ve sees something similar even in motor racing so it’s fair to say you think the industry could be ripe for a bit of disruption.
CF: Certainly, I think that it’s huge, huge opportunity and I think over the next decade we’re going to see some great advances hopefully in that regard.
KT: You mentioned the delicate balance though with technology getting involved in sport now Team Sky is known to take great stock in numbers, thresholds, the science of cycling. The sport has gone just a little but techy from the back office. How much of this detracts away from the raw experience of just getting on a bike and going for a ride?
CF: I mean at the end of the day that’s what I fell in love with the sport for, just being able to get on the bike and go for a ride and that feeling of independence and just being able to really engage with your body and the outdoors. And still for me that hasn’t changed. I mean it has become now a lot more measured and calculated. I mean when I’m preparing for the Tour de France, I’m going out and I’m doing specific efforts at certain power wattages, really measuring the efforts and it does take a little bit away from that old feeling of just getting on your bike and riding, but at the same time I genuinely love what I am doing and feel very privileged to be able to do it professionally.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.