Second in the Tour de France, third in the Olympic time trial and fourth in the Vuelta – in any year prior to 2012, Chris Froome would have had the best season by any British cyclist ever.
However, if his achievements showed what British cyclists could achieve, Bradley Wiggins redefined the boundaries of possibility forever.
The timing of this interview is best described as scripted. We met less than 24 hours after Wiggins was crowned BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Four days before that, Wiggins had said that the Tour was his main goal for 2013, having previously stated he would target the Giro.
Wiggins had had his chance to speak; now the microphone was passed to Froome. Predictably, the 27 year old was in bullish mood, and only three minutes passed before the prickly subjects of this year’s Tour and the position of Team Sky leader in it came up.
Froome’s climbing ability could decide the 2013 Tour
“The Tour is definitely my focus 100 per cent,” Froome stated. “I’ve had some pretty in-depth talks with Dave [Brailsford] and Tim [Kerrison, Sky’s sport scientist] about the Tour next year. They’ve both reassured me that that should remain as my focus.”
So what about Bradley? “Dave will have to decide how he plays those cards,” he said. “I think a lot of people are playing on this situation with Brad and me as a negative thing, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. It’s about safety in numbers, and possibly a two-pronged attack, which will be stronger than it was this year,” he added.
From a results perspective, such an approach paid off in 2012. Froome was Wiggins’s nearest challenger on general classification, even if he never got within 90 seconds of the yellow jersey after puncturing on the opening road stage. However, it did not help relations between the pair, in particular when an injection of pace from Froome led to Wiggins briefly being placed in difficulty on the climb of La Toussuire during stage 11.
Both riders and the team played down the incident for the rest of the race, with all parties fervently denying a fractious relationship. Yet proof all was not well belatedly came in Wiggins’s autobiography My Time. It was here that the Tour champion admitted to being ”confused” by Froome’s riding, saying he felt under attack from his own team-mate.
“It’s unfortunate that he conceived it as an attack. It was never meant to be that at all,” said Froome. “I was still fourth at the time on GC, I think, and I was trying to gain time on [Vincenzo] Nibali and Cadel [Evans], who were ahead of me at the time.” (Froome actually started the day in third on GC, 14 seconds behind Evans, but 16 ahead of Nibali).
“As soon as I heard that Brad was in trouble, I stopped. It seems to me a lot of people played on that, sensationalised it, but I feel I did my job from start to finish in that race.
“I went into the Tour as a back-up GC rider, so my goal was to get as close to Brad as I could, so if something went wrong with him, I could take over.”
Learning from legends
Despite his second place in the Tour – which followed on from finishing runner-up in the 2011 Vuelta – Froome describes last year’s fourth-place finish in Spain as the race in which he learned the most in 2012.
He explained: “I think I can take a lot away from the Vuelta. It was a huge experience for me being the leader for the first time and doing two Grand Tours back to back.
“I won’t deny that I was in pieces throughout that race. I didn’t feel super in the last two weeks, but it was a great learning experience, in particular riding for GC against [Alberto] Contador and [Joaquim] Rodriguez. It was good to get a feel for how they ride in the mountains, which will be useful come the Tour.
“There’s also a lot of added pressure as a leader that you don’t have as a domestique. I’m glad I experienced that, even if the Vuelta isn’t on the same scale as the Tour.”
It is too early to tell if a return to Spain for a third consecutive year in 2013 will happen. However, Froome’s preparations leading into the summer will largely replicate those from last year.
After attending Sky’s training camp in Majorca later this month, his racing campaign begins with the Tour of Algarve (February 13-17), just as it did in 2012.
Furthermore, what on paper appears to be the biggest change between this year and last -the departure from Sky of Bobby Julich, who coached him throughout 2012 – may prove to be less significant than it seems.
“I’ve only just started off working with Tim [Kerrison]. It’s still early days, but I’m more or less doing exactly what I was doing at this time last year,” Froome said. “A lot of my training before was fed down from Tim to Bobby anyway, who was managing me on a more personal level.”
Strength in depth
Froome looked and sounded happy throughout the duration of our interview. He did not appear tired, which is the by-product of a month off the bike at the end of the season. Beginning his preparations for 2013 in South Africa looks to have worked, too.
“Not only has training there around my friends and family added some normality to my life,” he said, “I feel like I’m a long way ahead of where I was at this time last year.” There’s more good news, too. The parasitic bilharzia disease that hindered Froome’s start to last season has shown no signs of coming back.
Crucially, he appeared unflustered and positive whenever the Tour or Wiggins were mentioned. This remained the case when asked what effect seeking to win two Grand Tours in the same season – something last achieved by Liquigas in 2010 – would have on Sky.
“I think we’ve got the strength in depth. We should be able to select two Grand Tour teams, and you wouldn’t be able to say one is the A team and one is the B team. Maybe a couple of guys will double up just like Brad’s doing,” said Froome.
And does he expect to have full support from his team-mates in the Tour? His answer was nothing short of emphatic.
“Definitely. Without someone like Mark [Cavendish] riding for Team Sky, that will free up possibly one or two spaces from this year’s team that we can devote to the GC. Mark leaving was good for him – it means he can get a team that will work 100 per cent for him at the Tour, and for us, it means we can focus solely on the yellow jersey.”
Trade team-mates finishing first and second in the Tour de France was commonplace in the pre-war era. In the 33 editions of the race from 1903 to 1939, it happened on 16 occasions.
However, when Team Sky achieved the feat during last year’s race, it was only the fourth time it had happened since 1947. 1985 was the first of those, and the battle between La Vie Claire team-mates Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond offers some striking parallels to the relationship between Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins during the 2012 edition.
When Frenchman Hinault was struggling on the 17th stage, a difficult Pyrenean affair that finished at Luz Ardiden, the American was told to sacrifice his own ambitions and wait for race leader Hinault. Although the pair did not finish the stage together, the decision by team management not to let LeMond follow Pedro Delgado and Stephen Roche up the road all but guaranteed Hinault’s fifth Tour victory.
LeMond was so angry after that stage he threatened to quit. Days later, ‘the Badger’ promised to return the favour the following year, but by then the pair’s relationship was strained. Despite a turbulent partnership in the 1986 race, LeMond did indeed win the Tour, with Hinault finishing in second.
Twenty years passed before the next one-two, with Telekom’s Bjarne Riis finishing ahead of Jan Ullrich. As with LeMond, Ullrich went one better and won the race the following year.