What we talk about when we talk about Chris

Bryn Lennon

So we know the winner of the Tour de France. For the moment. That, at least, everyone can agree with. And, to be honest, that is about all that is agreed in the conversations about Chris Froome, wearer of the sparkliest yellow jersey in Tour history. Any other statement would be - to be polite about it - a matter for debate, for conjecture, discussion, argument, confrontation and downright jeremiad. For the seemingly simple statement "Chris Froome won the 2013 Tour de France" is analysed more than reported. When it is headline news that one journalist believes something, and another journalist may (or may not) disagree with him, you know that the shark has been not so much jumped as pole vaulted.

And yet, for all the pixels and gigabytes and interviews and statements of belief or incredulity, one thing stands out to me. Certainly, the subjects of the declarative sentences are Chris Froome in all his various guises - tour winner, bike racer, attacker, team Sky leader, come from nowhere man - but for all the focus and attention over the last three weeks, we actually know very little about this super thin, super polite, super calm man whose most aggressive statement to date has been "not cool". This is for one very simple reason: we are not actually talking about him.

So, if not Froome, what are we talking about? To start with we are talking about uncertainty, and our human desire to combat or remove it on all possible occasions. Road racing is a majestic sport, but one that is not - and can never be - absolute. It is the ultimate in comparative human endeavour. Take a cyclist riding up a hill. Look at him... with no-one around him. No-one to compare him to. Is he riding well? Is he on a super day? Or is he in a state of collapse? It is almost impossible to tell. He could be breathing normally, looking like he was going on a Sunday club ride... and I give you TJ VG, rolling into irrelevance up Ventoux. Or he could be wrenching the bike around, body stiff, head to one side and mouth agape: and be Cadel Evans, riding for the Tour win on the Alpe. Beyond the most obvious square pedalling, the only way to tell whether a cyclist is going fast or slow is to compare him to another cyclist. And that has its own challenges - since we don't know how fast of slow that comparative cyclist is going, either. And so, lost in a fog of comparative unknowns, we reach for the certainty of data, of times on a climb, of watts per kilo, of VAM. Never mind that the assumptions and data that go into the calculations are estimates of various quality, never mind that the calculations themselves are hypotheses, never mind that the results are dominantly influenced by outside conditions which vary from race to race and even minute to minute, and most of all never mind that they completely miss the purpose of what is going on out there ("How well did you do today, Chris?" "Oh, I averaged 6.23 watts per kilo"). The human mind craves certainty, we seek data and cling to it like the proverbial downing man and his raft. Cycling's beautiful, outdoor, chaotic nature is, at its very core, resistant to comparison and measurement, and we as fans - perhaps programmed by the digital age we live in - reject that with all the strength that an untested, unverifiable hypothesis can muster.

Of course, if we were just interested in this one bike race, this data would have much less allure. X won, Y lost, would be sufficient. But we aren't talking about this winner - or at least, not about this winner, per se. We are talking about this bike race compared to history. Is he better than Lance, better than Pantani, better than LeMond? And there is literally no way to tell. For a sport that is not so much steeped in history as marinaded in it, there are remarkably few quantifiable benchmarks. We are the anti-baseball. The urge for measurement has really only exploded in the last few years, so comparisons across eras are anecdotal and impressionistic, and more troubling because of it. LeMond (contractual obligations compel us to refer to him as "the only American winner of the yellow jersey") was asked "could you have beaten Chris Froome?" as if it were a meaningful question. And in cycling, perhaps it is. To state that cycling is backwards looking is to reach pub bore levels of obviousness, but in some ways the sport's narrative is framed as the opposite of the Whig theory of history: it peaked at Eddie, and has been getting worse ever since. Most sports judge themselves by evolution and progress. Road racing views itself via a rear view mirror. So as Froome accelerates up towards the summit, in our eyes he is not so much racing his competitors (we know how he is doing against them) but against his predecessors.

And why is that? Well, perhaps 840 words into this post, it is time to acknowledge the D word. From the moment CF jumped out from behind Porte on the road to Aix 3 Domaine, I would be surprised if there was a single press article, blog post, tv interview or 140 character tweet which managed to mention "Froome" without also containing "allegation". And here, the conversation became rapidly self-consumptive: "How fast is he going?" Who really knows. "Is he faster than Armstrong?" No idea, and if he is, what of it? And all because of "IS HE DOPING?" And here, we are really not talking about Chris Froome, not in any meaningful sense. We are talking of Chris Froome "the leader of the Tour de France". You could change the subject of the sentence, but not the verb or the object. If Nairo Quintana had won the Tour (and remember that cycling is comparative) HE would be the subject of the polemica. In our post Armstrong landscape, to win is to be suspicious. What is the cause of the suspicion? Well, the charges seemed to break down into a number of categories*. Firstly, he rode really fast - which the less cynical amongst you would have thought was the aim of the game. Secondly he appeared to accelerate really fast - again, the object of the exercise, though exacerbated by the fact that we have no idea how much he was actually accelerating, or how long, or to what speed. And finally, the few measurables we could vaguely convince ourselves were reliable seemed to indicate that the only person who would be capable of producing what (we thought) he was doing would be a physiological freak. Which, in the hardest endurance sport in the world, is again, dare I say it, rather the point. Darwin is at work, and my goodness the workforce is evolving.

*Yes, I am aware of both Leinders and Tenerife. But come on, really?

And consider this: anyone who has followed cycling for less than twenty five years - a quarter of a century - has literally no idea what an undoped performance looks like. None. Yes, there may be a clean grand tour winner somewhere in the mix between 1991ish and (say, to be charitable) 2010, but the fact that we cannot point to one is telling in itself. Dope has not only taken over the racing, it has destroyed the record. People look at an acceleration and say "must be doped" - but how do they know? We simply have no real idea as to how good a clean rider can be, with application and focus. Take any sport in the world, and look at video of it from the 1980s. I guarantee that it will look - to modern eyes - clumsy, small, fat, unfit and generally incompetent. The performance world has moved on so far, that knowable pre doping exploits are simply irrelevant for use in judging today's athletes. For good or ill, if this sport is largely clean - and I acknowledge the IF - we have effectively a brand new sport. What we are talking about is terra incognita.

Note also the question: "Are you clean? Do you dope?". The lack of specificity is key. Well informed observers now have a relatively good understanding of the types of doping that are possible, and what effects are achieved. EPO (either macro or micro dosed) and autologous blood transfusions have different effects, requirements and profiles. HGH and steroids are different again. But Froome wasn't being asked about specific instances which fit a known pattern - he was being asked about the Dragon Dope. A catch all charge like "doping?" speaks as much to the knowledge and agenda of the questioner than it does the activities of the target. These weren't interviews: we were watching an exorcism.

But as for all exorcisms, the demons are at least partly in ourselves. For all the challenge, interview and debate nominally about Froome, I think it is actually us we were talking about. Froome was simply the prism through which we looked. We were talking about a history of betrayal, a litany of fraud. We were mourning for lost innocence, for an age where we could - rightly or wrongly - believe in what we were seeing. We were picking over the bones of the Fall. It isn't a coincidence that our reference points were Pantani, Armstrong, USPS. The line that "Sky* were racing like Postal" was trotted out with monotonous regularity, despite the fact that it was painfully obvious that it wasn't true, and that for the few moments it was, it was highly explicable via the simple medium of the god sterling. Journalists were atoning for their dereliction of duty, for their wilful cheerleading, for their incompetence, for their cravenness. Fans were paying penance for their gullibility, for their belief, and yes - for their cheerleading. The debate around Froome was, at its heart, a promise never to be fooled again. Sadly it came out closer to a vow of perpetual cynicism. And equally sadly, like all acts of contrition, it is likely to be forgotten.

* An aside about Sky: I am sure that some of the debate around Froome was driven at least in part by his sponsor - though why a commercial investment by an international media company should be any worse as a source of money than a large telecoms company, a financial services trading house, the Russian Oligarchy, or alternatively the Kazakhstan state's desire to support the ambitions of a known doper is a mystery to me. It may also be a reaction against a perceived style or racing - despite the fact that that style wasn't deployed by Sky (who weren't capable of it when push came to shove) but was deployed by SaxoBank (incompetently) and Movistar (succesfully). Again, the beauty of cycling is in the eye of the beholder.

The future winner of the Tour came into the race as a cypher. We knew he could time trial, we knew he could climb, we knew he came from Africa and was fair haired and improbably skinny, even for a professional cyclist. And we might vaguely recognise his polite, low key voice with its gently lilt and lisp. Now, despite winning the race with explosive attacks and tactical savvy, and being buried in an avalanche of analysis, interview and profiling, we still barely know him. Which shouldn't surprise anyone - because, at its core, almost none of the discussion was actually about Chris Froome.

And Chris, I apologise for stealing your title. It seemed appropriate.

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