This post has been extremely hard to write. It’s just so difficult to type out those three words. I…. Like…. Froome…. Phew. While that hard part is over, let’s get down to brass tacks.
Sports fandom is a weird and arbitrary thing. Case in point, my grandparents gifted my uncle with a lifetime of misery for his eighth birthday. He was given that electric vibrating football game, which I’m assuming was as ubiquitous in the 60’s for children growing up in the US as it was as a hand-me-down for a child, like myself, growing up in the 80’s. If you’ve never seen the game, it involves a metal football field that vibrates and two football teams that you set up on the field to run plays, and the vibration ostensibly makes them move and play football but instead they end up just going in circles around the field looking like escaped mental patients. Unfortunately for my uncle, the one set of football players that he ended up taking a shine to were emblazoned with the Cleveland Browns uniforms and so began my uncle’s four-plus decade torment as a Browns fan. If you don’t follow American football and don’t know anything about the Browns, just imagine Team Cannondale, Ef’d, Slipstream or whatever’s woes spread out over a half century and you’ll understand.
(Somewhat suspiciously, my wife’s best friend is also a life-long Browns fan after she received a teddy bear donning a Browns’ helmet as a present while in the hospital as a young girl, leading me to believe that there is some type of vast, multigenerational, B.F. Skinner experiment whereby young persons are being afflicted with Browns’ fandom.)
My newfound Chris Froome fandom did not come about as the result of receiving a David Brailsford bobblehead, but rather has evolved from serious dislike. I, like most cycling fans that are not Team Sky homers, didn’t like Froome’s riding style, didn’t like his mantis-like pedaling, nor his crooked neck from staring at his stem, nor his conservatism in riding to his power numbers, didn’t like his team who had enough money, begotten from an evil media empire, to buy grand tour contenders as domestiques, didn’t like his and his team’s absolute dominance over the Tour, and didn’t like Team Sky’s hypocritical message of winning the tour and doing it clean. Part of the reason that I liked Nairo Quintana was seeing him trying to face down the evil juggernaut in the 2013 Tour.
Perhaps using the word “evolved” above isn’t the right choice-- how about “sudden revolution.” You see, all it took was Froome ditching his bike and deciding to run instead. Of course, I’m talking about the Mont Ventoux stage of the 2016. I’m not even saying this in jest-- that moment was one of the best things that I’ve ever seen in cycling. Part of it was how it was framed by the motobike cameras. You’re watching Froome, Quintana, Porte, and Mollema riding away up the mountain through the dense crowds. The camera then cuts to the chasing group behind them. It’s all relatively exciting but also relatively mundane-- the kind of scene you’d expect to see on the Ventoux stage. Then suddenly there’s a smash cut back to the leading group and all you see is Froome running up the Ventoux sans Pinarello. It takes you a few seconds to even process what the fuck you are actually seeing. An experienced comedic director could not have framed the slapstick of that entire scene any better.
After the laughter from that absurdity died down, I came to a realization of what was happening. Froome crashed. His bike was rendered useless. But this beautiful mother fucker is so obsessed with yellow that he takes off on foot, vitiating the common understanding of the riders, the organizers, and the viewers that this is supposed to be a bicycle race. He’s no mere Skybot. He’s more like the protagonist in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo - a madman obsessed with a singular vision-- winning the Tour. In that moment, I went from laughter to tearing up with joy over such a beautiful and pure expression of Froome’s mad obsession.
That day I became a Froome fan, though I don’t think that I had the bravery to admit it to myself until this Giro. At the end of the Ventoux stage, ASO made the unfortunate decision to give Froome the same time as the other GC contenders. Had Froome been put to the test and had to claw back time to try to win the Tour, I think I would have fully committed to my new found fandom then and there. But instead, for the first time in many years, Froome is the underdog at this Giro. It’s this previously-unknown status of Froome that has me rooting for him, and I suspect has Froome winning over many other fans.
In 2011, the year of Froome’s first successful grand tour (2nd in the Vuelta), Malcolm Gladwell, the journalist, author, raconteur, and self-promotionalist told the public radio show and podcast, Radiolab, something that I found quite shocking-- that when it comes to sports, he never cheers for the underdog. In his view, he roots for the favorite because he’s “distressed by the injustice of the person who should win, not winning.” While this may have just been a contrarian plug for his upcoming pop psychology book David and Goliath, it was still notable to me what an incongruous notion this was. As Gladwell would later write in his book, studies have shown that the vast majority of humans route for the David and not the Goliath and this occurs in almost every aspect of our lives-- whether from sports, to business, to politics. To be emotionally-invested in routing for the favorite-- like a non-Patriots fan rooting for New England to win the Super Bowl or cheering for Ivan Drago instead of Rocky-- is just unfathomable. And Gladwell recognizes this. In an interview regarding his TED talk, Gladwell summarized his idea of why he thinks the “idea of the underdog has such appeal”:
Because it makes the world seem just. If the strongest win all the battles, there’s no hope for the rest of us, is there? If the same people who have all the power and all the money and all the authority are also going to win every contest, what’s the point of going on for the rest of us? So the underdog story gives all of us who are not on top hope. Occasionally we do get to come out on top. I think that is profoundly true, that’s what the underdog is all about.
Cycling is a sport that is steeped in the romanticism of the underdog. It’s part of the genes of road racing. Every single race or stage has the day’s breakaway, usually a handful of riders, that we always hope will somehow outsmart or outmuscle the multitudinous and omnipotent peloton and bring joy to cycling fans globally.
Tomorrow, Froome will be the underdog. With only two mountain stages remaining, he’s 3 minutes and 22 seconds behind Simon Yates. To get that time back is going to take some herculean effort by Froome. You can be sure that Froome will not be riding for a podium place. First, only the maglia rosa means anything to him-- with his palmares, getting a third place is meaningless. Second, and more importantly to me, Froome proved on Ventoux that despite his milquetoast interviews he is a victory obsessed madman (and, yes, I know the flipside to that as well- he probably shoved some salbutamol suppositories up his rectum at the Vuelta). He’s not going to give up and is going to ignite the racing in the next two stages. Whether he succeeds or pulls a Contadorian, go-down-in-flames, glorious failure, he’s going to be winning over quite a number of the tifosi and us DDIFP, and you know what, I’m no longer ashamed to say that I’ll be rooting for him.