Title: Va Va Froome: The Remarkable Rise of Chris Froome
Author: David Sharp
What it is: A biography is Chris Froome
Strengths: Good introductory guide for those who haven't been paying attention
Weaknesses: No real insight into the man behind the mask
Back in 1998, a thirteen-year-old Chris Froome's mother put him in the charge of Kenya's then top professional cyclist, David Kinjah. The Froomes - mother and son - were then living in Karen, an affluent suburb of Nairobi, named after the author Karen Blixen, a Danish baroness who had arrived in Kenya in 1914 as a plantation manager and wrote about the country in her 1937 memoir Out of Africa (Va Va Froome is littered with such additional and inconsequential colour) and Froome's mother wanted her son to go play bikes on his BMX during the Summer school holidays. Kinjah ran a cycling club twenty kilometres away in Mai-a-Ihii and that was where she chose to send him.
Froome's mother - Jane - had been born in Nairobi in the year the Mau Mau uprising was effectively ended (1956) to English parents who had left behind their homeland to take up a new life in Kenya's coffee plantations. His father - Clive - was born and grew up in England before moving to eastern Africa where he eventually took up a career in the travel industry, organising safaris. The youngest of three bothers - both now accountants, one in England, the other Kenya - Froome has always described himself a Kenyan-born Brit. "I'm not sure you can call me African any more," he has told interviewers. "Even though I've never lived in Britain, I feel British. I'm not Kenyan - I can't be, I'm white. My parents are British and I have British ancestry."
Under to the tutelage of Kinjah Froome progressed from BMX to MTB, learning basic bicycle mechanics, picking up a smattering of Swahili and going for rides in the wilds of the Great Rift Valley. Froome also earned a nickname, murungaru, a coded taunt about his gangly frame. Of the nickname Kinjah had this to say to David Sharp: "He was aware we had nicknames for him but never quite new their exact translation."
Turning fourteen in 1999 Froome's parents decided that his educational needs required that he relocate and he was packed up and sent to South Africa - where his father lived - and public school. After eighteen months as a boarder in St Andrew's Junior School in Bloemfontein - the city of roses and the heart of the staunchly Afrikaans Free State Province, as Sharp tells us - Frome was sent north to the Highveld and the city of Johannesburg, where he entered a local boarding school, St John's College, the Eton of the Highveld: "Founded in 1898 by Reverend John Darragh, rector of St Mary's Anglican Church, it has one of the best academic record of any school in the country with hefty annual fees for boarders." (Sharp's colour even extends to footnotes, such as this example:
"St John's has become known for its war cry, accompanied by intricate drum lines, chants and movements, in which the letters SJC or the words of the school motto (Lux Vita Caritas/Light, Life, Love) are spelled out in a sort of semaphore by the raising and lowering of school blazers to reveal the white shirt underneath."
During his time at boarding school in South Africa - and on holidays home to Kenya - Froome continued to ride his bike, alone at St Andrew's and St John's (often indoors on a home-trainer), or with Kinjah's club back in Kenya. Aged seventeen Froome inherited his first road bike from one of his brothers. He also had his first encounter with the Tour de France, watching the 2002 race on TV: "It was on TV in the boarding house at St John's. I was seventeen and I was transfixed by it. I was in awe of the ambience of the crowd and the mountains. I had that 'Wow, I'd love to do that one day' feeling. That was the pipe dream, but I never really, until recently, thought it'd come true."
As Froome became more and more interested in the sport, Kinjah became his long-distance coach, emailing him training plans and nutrition advice. He also encouraged Froome to develop the ability to turn the pedals over at speed, as Kinjah explains to Sharp: "I emphasised the value of spinning on easy gears. I told him not to copy the older guys on big gear because he needed to develop his leg speed, cadence and oscillation. I wanted him to work on getting a good riding rhythm."
After completing his time at St John's Froome moved on to the University of Johannesburg where he commenced study for a degree, a BCom in economics. In 2005 he turned up for his first official race as rider with the Hi-Q Super Cycling Academy, a local club sponsored by a chain of car servicing centres. In twenty starts in local races over the rest of that year Froome recorded zero wins. But in the Tour de Maurice, a six-day race on the island of Mauritius, Froome recorded the first win of his cycling career. Aptly, it was on the slopes of a dormant volcano.
The following year, 2006, Froome represented Kenya - alongside David Kinjah and four others - at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, where they raced on their own bikes, the Kenyan federation's budget (or interest) not stretching to providing their riders with kit. Here he first met Dough Dailey, one of the often-overlooked drivers of the renaissance in British cycling's fortunes. Of Froome's murungaru-like riding style, Dailey has this to say to Sharp: "He was all over the place. I think that was due to his formative years in Kenya, riding without the best equipment, on a bike that was too small for him - no one had tackled that problem. And he stuck with that style - but it seemed to work."
Despite the riding style, Dailey was quick to spot potential. And he was also quick to query Froome on his nationality: "I just thought, I bet he's a dual nationality, I bet he's got a British passport, and he told me that he did in fact have a British and Kenyan passport." In fact, Froome had only recently acquired a Kenyan passport, to ride in the Games, having previously travelled under British documents. Dailey was quick to send word back to Manchester warning Dave Brailsford and Shane Sutton that Froome needed to be on their watch list.
Following the Commonwealth Games Froome returned to the Tour de Maurice where he again won a stage on the dormant volcano, then added victory in the ITT, sealing the overall win and highlighting his stage racing talents. From there he went on to ride as part of the Kenya team at the World Championships in Salzburg. Actually, from there he went on to be the Kenya team at the World Championships.
When Froome approached the Kenyan federation to enquire about riding the Worlds he was laughed off the stage. So he and Kinjah cooked up a ruse. Accessing the email account of the federation's chairman - they had the password, so it wasn't quite hacking in the normal sense - they emailed the UCI saying the federation would be sending a rider to Salzburg, Froome. (In an alternative version of the story they fooled the UCI using a less illegal fake Hotmail account.)
Froome's intention was to ride the U23's ITT and the road race. Turning up the day before the ITT he stumbled into the team manager's meeting, wet from the rain and carrying two bikes, where he announced himself as Kenya's rider-manager. In the race the next day the twenty-one-year-old Froome shot down the start ramp, began to build up his speed and - just one hundred fifty metres into the ride - ploughed into a commissaire on a corner and both went down. A mid-ranking finish in the ITT was followed by similar in the road race the next day, though this time without falling off spectacularly. Among the riders Froome raced against in Salzburg that week were future team-mates Edvald Boasson Hagen and Mark Cavendish.
Froome plays skittles with a commissaire
In 2007 Froome moved on from the Hi-Q Super Cycling Academy to John Robertson's Konica-Minolta squad, which though based in South Africa also had a European headquarters in Belgium. Robertson had been part of an early iteration of the Barloworld squad but was now operating on a fraction of that team's budget (€200,000 versus €3,000,000 he tells Sharp). With just seven riders on his roster after losing the core of his 2006 squad - one of whom, John-Lee Augustyn, had been poached by Barloworld - Robertson needed an eighth man. Former USPS member David George - who Robertson had worked with in 2003 and 2004 at Barloworld - was initially that man. But when he failed to put his name on a contract Robertson was forced to turn his attention elsewhere. Where it fell on Froome.
Initially not welcomed by his team-mates Froome quickly showed his worth, dropping them on a climb during a four-day training camp: "I went up beside him in the car," Robertson tells Sharp, "and it was obvious he wasn't going as hard as he could. So I said, 'Chris, fucking ride your bike!'" Through Robertson Froome was sent to Switzerland for a couple of stints in the UCI world cycling centre (WCC) in Aigle, where he was coached by Michel Thèze. In WCC colours Froome raced the espoirs version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and went on to win a stage in the Giro delle Regioni, part of the U23 Nations Cup series. Froome's inability to get down descents without crashing contributed to him failing to put up a challenge for the overall in the Italian stage race.
At this point British Cycling - through Rod Ellingworth, then running their U23 academy in Quarrata - again queried Froome's nationality. "Although I was riding under the Kenyan flag," Froome has explained, "I made it clear that I had always carried a British passport and felt British. It was then that we started talking about racing under the Union Jack." Having already represented Kenya at international level - at the Commonwealth Games, the Worlds and the All-Africa Games - the rules required a three-year quarantine period should an athlete switch nationalities. That could though be wiped out if all sides agreed. Unfortunately for Froome the Kenyan federation did not agree and so Froome had to sit on the sidelines for the required period, ruling him out of participating in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
By the end of the 2007 season Froome's talents were becoming more and more obvious and it wasn't much of a surprise when Barloworld boss Claudio Corti poached Froome from Robertson on a two-year deal. In an early race for Barloworld - a series of five one-day races in South Africa in February, the Intaka Tech World's View Challenge - Froome got a harsh reminder that a race is not over until you've crossed the line. In the third part of the series Froome went away sixty kilometres into the 108km stage, alongside Martin Velits (Milram) and Ian McLeod (MTN Energade). Launching his own attack on the final climb Froome was away and clear, the win in the bag. As he approached the line he sat up to zip up his jersey. Just before the bunch came steaming down the finishing straight and left him for dust. Fortunately team-mate Robbie Hunter took the sprint, saving Froome from a total bollocking.
Two seasons with Barloworld saw Froome learn la metier, with Corti throwing him into a variety of races, from the Classics to the Tour and the Giro d'Italia. At the 2009 Tour Froome got a lesson in the problems caused by doping when team-mate Moisés Dueñas popped a positive for EPO. Barloworld were quick to cut their ties to the now tainted team, announcing they would not be renewing their sponsorship when the current contact ran out at the end of 2009.
From there, I guess, the rest is well known. The ups and downs in performance that were finally diagnosed as being caused by bilharzia, the 2011 Vuelta a España, the 2012 Tour de France, the Olympics, and the first half of the 2013 season are already well-trodden ground. How he was thrown off the 2010 Giro for holding on to a motorbike - he says he was only hitching a lift to the top of the climb where he planned on climbing off - and how, before the 2011 Vuelta Sky were only willing to renew his two-year contract if he accepted a paltry £100,000, effectively making him an offer he could easily refuse. And then how, during the Vuelta, the caterpillar turned into a butterfly and Brailsford and co had to quickly add a zero to their offer, plus a bit more for the pot.
* * * * *
Overall Sharp's biography of Froome is a pretty straightforward by-the-numbers affair - particularly fitting for a rider who rides by the numbers - that shines a light on the riding career of this public-school educated Kenyan-born Briton. What it totally fails to do is to offer any real insight into the man himself.
Froome's quotes within the book all seem to come from interviews published in the cycling press and the British media. The book isn't quite one of those music-industry clippings jobs produced with gay abandon whenever someone hits a high note but it's not far off. Sharp does interview some people who played crucial roles in Froome's career - from David Kinjah through Dough Daily, John Robertson, Michel Thèze, Sean Yates and others and all the way up to Dave Brailsford -but Froome himself doesn't not appear to have granted Sharp his co-operation. Certainly he is conspicuous by his absence in the book's acknowledgements.
This, in and off itself, is not necessarily a problem. Look at the two recent Eddy Merckx biographies, neither of which had access to the Cannibal, a fact which didn't hurt their ability to tell compelling stories. Look at any biography of any long-dead historical figure. Biography doesn't have to have the co-operation of the subject. But for that to be the case there has to be a solid body of secondary sources which, quite frankly, are not there for a twenty-eight-year-old cyclist who has only very, very recently come to prominence.
That said Va Va Froome does have some value as an introductory text, a guide to the early career of Froome, offering some understanding for those who did not notice him at Barloworld or at Team Sky before the 2011 Vuelta a España and the 2012 Tour de France. For cycling fans, there is ample information on Froome's early races - and the book is primarily a series of race reports - but for people coming new to the sport, or simply wanting to know more about his new champion and national hero fresh off the British Cycling production line, I'm not sure what Va Va Froome really offers.
Yes, it tells you where he came from. But beyond the standard soundbites doled out to interviewers down the years what's offered doesn't really amount to much in terms of understanding the man behind the mask of a diligent and driven athlete. And behind that mask is where the real story of Chris Froome is hidden. And that is a story I think may stay hidden for quite some time to come.