Tenerife’s volcanic Mount Teide looms out from the blossoming, pinkish light of dawn, trailing a blasted Martian landscape of rock like a cloak. The cold, arid air is thin enough to make exercise a chore for most, but a lone, elongated figure is visible through the window of the hotel gym.
Britain’s Chris Froome – Olympic medallist, two-time winner of the Tour de France, and defender of the yellow jersey – is not an imposing figure. His arms look emaciated and he moves awkwardly as he begins his dawn muscle-conditioning workout at the Team Sky training camp, as if countless miles of riding have tattooed their mark onto his bones.
“It’s so isolated up here that we just ride, eat and sleep,” he says. “It’s the perfect model to improve condition. The harder we work here, the easier it’ll be come race day. There are days when you come back to the hotel on your hands and knees. I put myself through hell.” Froome isn’t given to exaggeration, and his efforts surprise even fellow cycling pros. “I trained with him in South Africa and what really impressed me wasn’t the physical side so much as his mental strength,” says one of his teammates, Ian Boswell. “He was doing these three-hour intervals, and when he got off his bike he literally couldn’t walk because his muscles were so hammered.”
This is the sort of heroic effort and self-sacrifice that you’d expect to see in a glorious push for the finishing line, not on a routine training ride. But, in Froome’s world, pain and progress are inseparable.
“When it comes to training, ‘no pain, no gain’ is a very old-school sentiment,” he says. “But there is a lot of truth to it.”
Our obsession with wellness, the benefits of exercise and sport as ‘fun’, obscures an unfashionable truth: physical performance hurts, and endurance sports mess you up. A day’s stage of the Tour de France looks like a punishing game of elimination in which 198 riders start in a bunch (the peloton) and ride progressively faster for 150-plus kilometres until a combination of tired legs, crashes and mechanical mishaps leaves one small group of riders out in front.
The finale often involves a steep gradient, like at the Alpe d’Huez (just over eight per cent at its steepest) where the racing line narrows as the riders enter a human tunnel of unsupervised spectators who scream and wave like delirious fans at a rock concert.
The elite riders fight through the bedlam, battling fatigue and each other, spilling sweat and pain onto the tarmac like Lycra-clad gladiators, until one man crosses the line first.If the riders make the distance before the time cut-off, they then have to recover overnight and do it all again – for three weeks.
It’s this brutal regime that has informed Froome’s attitude to his sport: if you want to master the inevitable pain, you can’t fear it. “I’ve learnt what I have to do to push myself further,” he says calmly. “And I’ve had to embrace the struggle. I’ve had to learn to love suffering.”
Racing over mountain tops and across sun-baked plains for up to six hours a day burns a lot of energy. During last year’s Tour de France, the riders rode an average of 160km per day, burning 6,000 calories – the equivalent of 32 jam doughnuts. There’s a conspicuous lack of doughnuts at this training camp. After breakfast – a plain omelette – Froome and his teammates Geraint Thomas, Nicolas Roche, Wout Poels and Ian Boswell head out for a five-hour ride down to sea level and back again.
“There are very few places in the world where you can go from sea level to 2,000m and climb continuously for 50km,” says Tim Kerrison, head of athlete performance. The riders spend 20 hours a day at 2,000m, only dipping to sea level for intense, oxygen-fuelled efforts, for marginal fitness gains.
These cyclists do up to 1,000 tough kilometres of riding per week to prep for competition. Add to this five or more hours per day in the gym, working to counter the poor posture created by so much time in the saddle. But alongside the physical, it’s essential that resolves are toughened, too.
“For riders battling it out on a tough climb, it’s a mental game,” says Froome. “You’re pushing the other guy into flicking the switch and saying, ‘Right, that’s too fast, Ican’t maintain that.’ Your body is screaming at you. It comes down to who can ignore it the longest.”
The real battle is one of wills. The rider who doesn’t crack, wins. “When your rivals flick that switch, their morale goes out of the window and that’s when you get your gap,” says Froome. “It’s an amazing feeling, a huge sense of satisfaction. For sure it hurts – you’re breathing through your ears – but seeing them struggling makes you push even harder. You embrace the pain. You tell yourself that everything you’re feeling is only temporary.”
At this level, food also becomes a weapon. Out on the road, the team are setting a keen pace despite this being a low-carb ride, designed to improve the riders’ power-to-weight ratio. “You need to teach your body to be more efficient,” says Froome, “to burn fat as fuel.”
Watching what he eats has enabled Froome to make big gains by dropping his racing weight from 71kg to 67kg. “You only find the gains by pushing yourself that bit further and following a stricter eating programme,’ he says. He sticks to unprocessed foods, lean protein and easy-to-digest carbs, and cuts out gluten, which can increase water retention.
As a result, Froome lives on a knife edge between health and illness, which has its own challenges. Froome raced for at least two seasons with Team Sky unaware he was suffering with bilharzia. “It’s a parasite that buries itself deep in your organs and intestines, and feeds off red blood cells – not ideal for an endurance athlete,” he says with typical understatement.
Even when you’re in good health, training hard and reducing your weight suppresses your immune system. “You’re on the limit. And having bilharzia at the same time meant I kept on going over the limit,” he says. “I was catching colds and stopping training to recover.” Treatment was harsh: “Every six months for two-and-a-half years, I took these pills that nuke your system and kill everything – good or bad.”
Now 31, Froome also battles life-long asthma, which is exacerbated by altitude and cold air – so mountain-top finishes in early-season races are avoided in favour of training in hotter climes, which isn’t the traditional route to building Tour de France fitness. “Part of the discipline of preparation is being able to make those calls,” he says.
In short, Froome isn’t your typical sporting hero. His has been an interesting journey to the top. He’s always held a UK passport thanks to his British father, but grew up in Kenya and then spent his youth in South Africa. “I’ve always felt that my roots are there,” he says. A youth spent mountain biking in the Great Rift Valley and speaking Swahili led to a place in the Kenyan national team and a host of South African outfits; later, in 2009, he rode for England.
Though Froome joined Team Sky in 2010, the bilharzia delayed his breakthrough, which eventually came in the 2011 Tour de France, as Bradley Wiggins’ super-domestique, making Froome an extremely late bloomer.
Indeed, Froome has always seemed as if he’s something of an outsider in the world of road cycling – his ‘unconventional’ style of riding with elbows out, looking down, irritates the traditionalists – but he has remained unafraid of forging his own path. And he does it with humble but dogged determination, humour in the face of adversity, self-effacing wit, and an old-school sense of honour.
It’s clear this individualism doesn’t extend to the team: camaraderie fuels the five Team Sky riders as they grind up the endless switchbacks, hazed with midday sun. Geraint Thomas switches on the Bluetooth speaker in his bottle cage and tunes drift from the group.
“I did not expect to hear Total Eclipse Of The Heart – that’s my era!” laughs Kerrison. Despite the tough nature of their training, all the riders know that the real pressure comes in competition, especially when you’re wearing the yellow jersey. And it doesn’t only come from your opponents; during Stage 14 of the 2015 Tour de France, following sensationalist opinion pieces in sections of the French media, a spectator threw a cup of urine into Froome’s face and screamed, “Doper!” Every rider who has worn the leader’s jersey since the disgrace of Lance Armstrong has faced media questions about doping, and 2015 was no different.
- Christopher Froome
- Nicknames: Froomey, “White Kenyan”
Born: May 20, 1985 in Nairobi (Kenya)
Career: pro rider since 2007
Awards: winner of the Tour de France in 2013 and 2015
Froome has remained calm in the face of such pressures. ‘You’ve got to push me quite far to make me angry,” he says. “I could understand that sentiment wasn’t a personal attack on me, but more a view on the yellow jersey of the Tour de France. Given the history of the sport, it’s natural that questions are asked. But I know that all the results I’ve got, and will get, are purely the result of hard work and doing things the right way. There’s no substance I’m taking now that will be found, or become banned in a few years’ time. It doesn’t exist.”
The sport has recently shown signs of healing, with the authorities tackling issues including a lack of 24-hour drug testing and a failure to test at altitude camps; this has closed loopholes that Froome himself pointed out. “It’s not just about winning the biggest bike race on the planet, it’s how you go about it,” he says. “I said on the podium in Paris that the yellow jersey isn’t something I would disrespect or dishonour. I understand that for a lot of people it’s going to take time.”
It’s a sentiment that Froome carries into his personal life, too. Though his punishing routine of racing and training impacts on his family time, becoming a father for the first time has increased the importance of this work ethic. “With our son, Kellen, I feel a whole new level of motivation to teach him things about life through cycling,” he says. “Hard work, determination, doing things the right way…”
Froome is targeting both the Tour de France and Olympic road race this year, which will require the sort of gutsy determination he’s known for. Early in the Queen Stage of last year’s Vuelta a España, he crashed and fractured his foot, but still got back onto his bike. “The whole team worked for me for the first 10 days of the race,” says Froome. “I can’t just go, ‘Oh, my foot’s sore, I’ll just stop.’ You really have to give it everything until you can’t any more.” e finished the stage to help win the team competition.
This year’s Tour de France is looking as if it will be a climbers’ course. “It’s savage, with a lot of emphasis on climbing, especially in the last week,” he says. “It’ll keep us on our toes trying to get those precious seconds.” And the Olympic course? “I was blown away when I saw it. Savage gradients, 260km, close to 5,000m elevation. It’s going to be brutal.” There’s certainly no dread in this sentence; Froome knows brutality, pain and suffering are the emotional fuel that can help him break boundaries. He’ll push on. “I’m definitely up for it,” he says without any hesitation. “I’m a firm believer that if you really want to do something badly enough, you find a way.”