We all love that moment when a supposedly predictable fight is upended by a gutsy challenger, as was the case in the 2011 Vuelta a España, which became a battle royal between two designated underdogs — Team Sky’s Chris Froome and eventual winner Juan Jose Cobo of Geox-TMC.
Team Sky had written its script with Bradley Wiggins playing the lead role. But second-in-command Chris Froome upstaged the established grand-tour contender in the stage-10 individual time trial — finishing second to Tony Martin and taking the overall lead — then showed superior form in the mountains, practically dragging his team leader along in a bid to stay in contention for the overall title.
Team management came in for a great deal of criticism for sticking with Wiggins rather than rallying behind the 26-year-old upstart.
But Froome kept playing the role of loyal teammate, right up until Wiggins met his bitter end on the cruelly steep slopes of the Angliru, on stage 15, by which time it was all but too late for Froome to rally his reserves and take control of the race for himself.
Still, showing grit beyond belief Froome battled Cobo to the very end, scoring an impressive victory on stage 17 and ending up second overall, just 13 seconds behind the Spanish veteran, when the race finished in Madrid.
Not bad for a rider who hadn’t been assured of a contract for 2012 when he rolled out of the start house with the rest of the team for the Vuelta’s opening team time trial in Benidorm.
“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,” he said.
In the meantime, there was the matter of the Vuelta a España to get through.
Strong, but second in command
Froome knew his form was good, but he was expecting to use it in service of team leader Wiggins.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Froome credited a combination of factors for his breakout performance.
“Firstly, I’ve worked very closely with (coach) Bobby Julich this year. He lives just 15km away from me in Nice, and that has been going very well,” he said.
“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.”
Not from the track — from the bush
Froome, who was born in Kenya, didn’t work his way up to the road via the British track-racing program, as have so many top cyclists.
“I’m definitely no good on the track, and it’s a good idea to stay away from it,” he said.
Instead, Froome began riding mountain bikes in Kenya, then took up road racing at age 13 when he moved to South Africa for schooling.
“I hadn’t really been on a road bike until then, so it was a whole new thing for me,” he said. “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.”
After joining the under-23 ranks Froome was enjoying some success about the same time “the British thing started to take off” and a ProTour team was being talked about.
“So the opportunity was there,” he said. “But when they were riding the track I was probably out riding a mountain bike somewhere in the Kenyan bush.”
Kenyan by birth, British at heart
Froome’s grandparents were born in the United Kingdom and moved to Kenya as crop farmers. His father was likewise born in the UK and was involved in tourism, organizing safaris and things.
“There was no outside cycling influence in there— it was something I just found and did myself,” noted Froome.
His first exposure to European cycling came while attending the UCI World Cycling Centre in Switzerland.
While there he met British Cycling’s Rod Ellingworth — now coach for Team Sky — 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,” said Froome. “It was then that we started talking about racing under the Union Jack, and we stayed in touch.”
Froome began his pro career with the South African based Konica-Minolta team. Then, on the recommendation of South African Robbie Hunter, he moved to Barloworld in 2008 and rode to 84th overall in the Tour de France.
He signed with Sky in 2010 and lives in Monaco during the season. But he returns at year’s end to Johannesburg, where he also runs a cycling import business.
In 2012, a bit more freedom
Having equaled the best ever grand-tour finish by a rider from the United Kingdom (Scot Robert Millar finished second in the 1987 Giro d’Italia and at the 1985 and ’86 editions of the Vuelta) Froome finally has his contract for 2012 and he’s hoping to spread his wings a bit.
“Having been with Sky for two 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,” he said.
“I think I’ll be given more freedom and also be able to choose 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.”
He’d also like to be the joker in Sky’s deck at the Tour.
“I think every team needs more than one card to play,” Froome said. “I think it would be in the team’s 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 a slots on the British team at the world road championships in Denmark, where he helped lead Mark Cavendish to victory — a job he could find himself doing regularly when Cav’ joins Sky in 2012.
No problem, says Froome.
“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,” he said.
“The difference is now Cav’ is on the back of that train — I don’t think it will change things too much.”
That goes for the 2012 Olympics Games in London, too.
“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.”
But that doesn’t mean he has no ambitions of his own.
Added Froome: “I’d really like to try for the time trial too.”