We all love that moment when a supposedly predictable fight is flipped sideways by a gutsy underdog, and that was certainly the case in this year’s Vuelta a’ Espana, which turned into a battle royal between two designated underdogs; Britain’s Chris Froome and eventual winner Juan Jose Cobo of the Spanish Geox TMC team.
The Team Sky script had been clearly written with the established grand tour contender Bradley Wiggins playing the lead role, and he duly did. But completely by default his second in command, Chris Froome, upstaged his leader in the individual time trial, and then showed superior all-round form in the mountains, practically dragging Wiggins on in a bid to remain in contention for the overall title.
With Froome already having taken the race lead and demonstrating such good form the Sky team management came in for a great deal of criticism for not playing their new hand of cards in the direction of the great outsider, Froome.
But, that story is old hat now, and he played loyal team-mate right until the bitter end was splattered above Wiggins name on the cruelly steep slopes of the Angliru, by which time it was all but too late for him to rally his reserves and take control of the race for himself.
Showing true grit beyond belief he took the fight the very end, and scored an impressive stage victory in with the deal, finally ending up second overall, just 13 seconds behind the veteran Spaniard when the race finished in Madrid.
But, who would have guessed that Froome would find himself in that position? “I knew going into the Vuelta that I was in good shape, but I had no idea that I would be using it for the GC, that only became apparent after about a week. I was there to work for Bradley and going along quite happily working, and then I figured it out for myself that these guys weren’t actually going much faster than I was, and that there was no reason why I shouldn’t be in the front group.”
There’s no doubting that he was marked as a classy rider before the Vuelta, but he’d hardly set alight a race of such stature; what lead to the raising of his game? “I think it was a combination of things; firstly I’ve worked very closely with Bobby Julich (my coach) this year. He lives just 15-km away from me in Nice, and that has been going very well. I’ve also had health issues for a long time, and had finally just got on top on things, which made a big difference to me physically. Also mentally I was going into the race not expecting to attack or do things for myself, just to work for Bradley; riding like that meant that I didn’t chase after silly attacks and conserved myself more, and they all combined together.”
As the race evolved and his form became more apparent so his role within the team gradually changed; “In one sense it was a relief, knowing that I didn’t have to go back and do the usual things I do – like get water. I was able to ride knowing that I was riding for the last part of the race, which relieved a lot of pressure.”
When the Vuelta started he still hadn’t received confirmation of a contract to race in 2012’ “I hadn’t actually had any confirmation from Sky, and had obviously explored other options and spoken with several teams. There were some very attractive offers on the table. But, having been with Sky for 2 years I know how things work and I like the support and believe in their vision and the whole ethos of the team, so am happy to stay. For me it was quite an easy decision.”
Having just equalled the best ever grand tour finishes by a British rider (Robert Millar finished 2nd in the Giro and the Vuelta) his rating within the sport and the team must have increased a whole heap. What changes can we expect for 2012? “I think I’ll be given more freedom and also be able to chose my program more. There will be a lot more focus in there - to aim at the races that suit me, and I’ll be able to train around that.”
This year has certainly shown he can perform with the best in the grand tours; “I think obviously I’m suited to the grand tours and longer races, I don’t really see myself as a one day rider. For now I’d like to focus at the Tour de France, I think every rider would; but I really want to give it a shot for GC, and possibly even go back to the Vuelta, it’s clearly a good race for us.”
Given the internal strengths of Team Sky could we see him playing a lead role in next year’s Tour? “I think every team needs more than one card to play. I think it would be in the teams interest to go into the race with options, and I’d obviously like to go into the race with the aim of giving the GC a shot, but it has to be decided by the team.”
His strong teamwork ethos and great end of season form earned him one of the prized team slots for the British team at the World Championships, where he played a key workhorse role in leading Mark Cavendish to the world title, a job he could find himself doing even more in 2012 when Cav joins the Sky team. Could this detract from his and the teams grand tour GC hopes? “No, I don’t think so; obviously it will place expectations on the team to perform and to work hard. But whoever we’ve had sprinting we’ve had to lead them out. The difference is now Cav is on the back of that train – I don’t think it will change things too much.”
With the Olympics taking place in London in 2012 much of the Sky and British focus is on Cav and the road race title. Is there any long-term indication that he’ll be there to play a role? “I hope so, I rode the test race and know what to expect, and would like to be there to do the same job as I did at the World Championships. I’d really like to try for the time trial too.”
Chris’s road to London was paved a whole lot differently to most of the other Brit’s who’ve largely evolved from the national track system; “I’m definitely no good on the track, and it’s a good idea to stay away from it. I guess my background is very different to the others and I speak with a different accent. But I think that the world of cycling is opening up and there are routes there for other nationalities (out of the mainframe) to come through. I think it’s an interesting time for cycling.”
The British system as it stands has evolved greatly over the past decade or so, meaning that the current “first generation of newly evolved” British road stars are of a similar age to him; “I think it was at that critical time when I turned Under 23 that I begun to shine and show my colours and it was also at the same time when the British thing started to take off and a Pro-Tour team was being talked about, so the opportunity was there. But when they were riding the track I was probably out riding a mountain bike somewhere in the Kenyan bush.”
His first racing steps into Europe were taken in conjunction with the UCI World Cycling Centre; “A couple of years prior to that (turning Under 23) I was at the UCI school (World Cycling Centre) in Switzerland and had met Rod Ellingworth (British Cycling and Team Sky DS) at the Giro delle Regione (where he won a stage in 2007). Although I was riding under the Kenyan flag I made it clear that I had always carried a British passport and felt British. It was then that we started talking about racing under the Union Jack, and we stayed in touch.”
Born in Kenya, he started out mountain biking in the bush; “My grandparents were born in the UK and moved to Kenya as crop farmers, but my father was also born in the UK and was involved in tourism, organising safaris and things. There was no outside cycling influence in there, it was something I just found and did myself.”
At the age of 13 he moved to South Africa for schooling, which is when he started racing on the road; “I hadn’t really been on a road bike until then, so it was a whole new thing for me. Road cycling was very popular in South Africa and I had the opportunity to race almost every weekend if I wanted to, so I just drew on that.”
His pro racing career started with the South African based Konica-Minolta team, and then on the recommendation of Robbie Hunter he moved to Barloworld in 2008 and rode to 84th overall in the Tour de France.
His home during the racing season is in Monaco, along with many other leading stars of the pro peloton. But as soon as the season closes he returns to his “now native” Johannesburg, where he also runs a cycling import business.
It’s a strange twist on modern day nationalized cycling systems – that Britain’s first grand tour champion could actually prove to be a bi-product of the system, which just goes to show that raw talent can indeed find a way