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Cycling: Born scrapper Chris Froome faces his biggest fight

Chris Froome
Chris Froome

LONDON • Some sports stars appear destined for glory even at an early age. Chris Froome's true ability on a bike, however, started to uncoil and manifest itself only after his mid-20s.

Since then his achievements have been staggering. Four Tour de France wins. The first man to complete the Tour-Vuelta a Espana double since 1978. And that rare ability to hang with the best time-triallers and nimblest mountain goats.

What makes Froome's success even more extraordinary is that he grew up in Kenya, an athletics powerhouse but a cycling backwater, and got into the sport only at age 12, when he asked a talented local rider David Kinjah to teach him to mountain bike.

Soon the pair were regularly riding for 48km up into the mountains above Nairobi where they would sometimes camp in a meadow. Once a cow ate half their tent.

It was only in 2004, when he was 19, that he watched the Tour de France for the first time. He was soon captivated by the duel between Lance Armstrong and Ivan Basso. "I was cheering for Ivan," Froome said. "He was the underdog. I wanted him to win."

Froome has followed a similar road for most of his sporting life. At 21, he made it to Europe where most major road races are staged. Again his methods to get there were far from orthodox.

LOYALTY NOT IN DOUBT

When I represented Kenya, when I was younger, that was when I felt I was cheating the system, or doing something not quite kosher. I was representing a country and maybe taking a place of someone, shall we say, more bona fide Kenyan.

CHRIS FROOME, Team Sky rider and four-time Tour de France winner, on critics who question his allegiance to Britain. He was born in Kenya.

Without anyone realising, he used the Hotmail account of the chairman of the Kenyan cycling association to e-mail the sport's world governing body, the UCI, to say: "We're going to send a cyclist to the U23 worlds."

He turned up and after 150m of the individual time trial he rode into a race commissaire before recovering to finish 36th. He turned pro the following year and showed enough promise - 84th in his first Tour de France in 2008 and 35th in the Giro d'Italia the following year - to be signed by Team Sky in 2010.

Yet, at 24 years old, no one regarded him as a future general classification contender.

It was also at that stage that he decided to race for Britain even as some questioned his loyalties. However in a recent interview with the Times, Froome insisted it was more complicated than that.

"When I represented Kenya, when I was younger, that was when I felt I was cheating the system, or doing something not quite kosher," he said. "I was representing a country and maybe taking a place of someone, shall we say, more bona fide Kenyan. As soon as I made the switch (to riding for Britain) I felt I was doing things properly, the way they should have been from the start."

Froome's performances in 2010 were mixed and he was diagnosed with the tropical bug bilharzia, which he caught when he was fishing with his brother in Kenya.

"It feeds on red blood cells so your immune system is always weaker and your recovery is not as fast," he said in 2013.

Yet this diagnosis did not immediately bring a change in his fortunes. Froome looked set to be dropped by Team Sky until he produced a remarkable ride in the 2011 Vuelta to finish second ahead of his team-mate Bradley Wiggins.

Ten months later he was a not particularly loyal wingman to Wiggins, who became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France, and the uneasy relationship between the pair spilled out to the pair's partners arguing on Twitter. But a second-place finish showed he was a completely different rider from only 12 months earlier.

In 2013, with Wiggins out of the way, Froome won his first Tour de France yellow jersey. He added further wins in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Along the way Froome has faced the same question - are you clean? - that almost every leading cyclist has to endure. Before the 2013 Tour, the French journalist and former Festina trainer Antoine Vayer published a report 'Not Normal?' casting doubt on Froome.

Froome replied: "There is still a lot of scepticism out there and a lot of fans have been let down. I sympathise with that. But I know that my results aren't going to be stripped in five, six, seven years' time."

However, an adverse analytical finding in this September's Vuelta means he could well be stripped of his latest title unless he can provide a sufficient explanation or challenge the result to avoid a potential sanction from the UCI.

Team Sky say salbutamol levels can vary depending on dehydration and other factors.

Froome has got used to defeating tough challenges during his career. This, however, could be his hardest yet.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 18, 2017, with the headline 'Born scrapper Froome faces his biggest fight'. Print Edition | Subscribe