Chris Froome’s fourth victory in the Tour de France takes him within one of the all-time record that is shared between four of cycling’s greats.
His latest win was achieved by the smallest margin of victory for ten years, during a fiercely competitive race in which most of the leading names arrived in good form and put up a strong challenge for the yellow jersey. This was among the reasons that Froome hailed the win as his greatest achievement yet.
But despite coming out on top after 21 stages of racing during 23 days, covering 2,200 miles and taking in some of the toughest climbs in the Pyrenees and the Alps, there is still a reluctance among the British public to recognise Froome’s place alongside some of the greatest names in sport.
Given that Bradley Wiggins was knighted after becoming the first Briton to win one of cycling’s three Grand Tours when he added a Tour de France title to a long list of cycling honours in 2012, it’s fair to suggest that a four-time winner would have long since earned the adoration of the nation’s public, even if not accompanied by a knighthood.
But for various reasons – most of which are unfair – Froome continues to be one of the most under-appreciated of sports people when considering his monumental level of success over the past five years.
Firstly, there is the nationality debate. It’s not news to most people that Chris Froome born and raised in Africa. This is enough to cause a lack of acceptance among some, if not many, and particularly among those who either don’t follow the sport or don’t know much of Froome’s background.
The debate over one’s nationality is also very subjective, and rarely argued with any consistency.
For example, Bradley Wiggins was also born outside of Britain. Additionally, Wiggins’ father is Australian. Yet despite Froome’s parents both being British, it is Wiggins who enjoys almost unanimous acceptance of his Britishness. Mo Farah is another hugely popular British figure, with the recently-knighted athlete born in Somalia to parents of whom only one held British citizenship.
And there are many other examples, with some people embraced much more readily than others – often for no apparent reason.
Country of residence also shouldn’t be a barrier. The nation’s leading Formula 1 drivers opt to live in Monaco rather than the Midlands, yet don’t have their nationality questioned. In sports that involve so much international travelling, one’s place of residence must be selected for practical benefits as much as anything else.
When British sports stars are representing their country and achieving success at the world’s biggest events, the nation shouldn’t be so desperate to identify the most fickle of things to be critical of and instead should offer a show of support.
Another view that attempts to discredit Chris Froome’s achievements is that he owes his success entirely the work of his team mates.
That road cycling is a team sport is not for dispute, and it’s true that Team Sky are among the strongest teams. But that alone doesn’t give any certainties of success for a rider within the team, and any individual challenging for the leader’s jersey has to put every ounce of effort into the race themselves.
Each member has a different role to play, and Froome will always express his appreciation of the hard work done among his teammates, but by no means is he given a free and easy ride to the yellow jersey, and the suggestion that he cannot compete without his teammates is easily disproved.
Team Sky have always placed victory at the Tour de France as their biggest target for the season, and therefore travel to France with their strongest line-up of riders. That isn’t as true of the other two Grand Tours, and at last year’s Vuelta a Espana, it was Movistar who dominated the race, with Team Sky failing even to make the top 10 in the team classification – despite Chris Froome finishing a close second overall to Movistar’s Nairo Quintana.
There was little to chose between Froome and Quintana for most of the race, yet nowhere was a suggestion made in the media that Quintana’s victory was purely down to being part of the most dominant team. Nor was there much credit for a heroic performance by Froome in coming so close to a Tour-Vuelta double – a feat last achieved in 1978.
Given the fine margin by which he missed out, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that a slightly stronger team line-up might have been enough to make a difference. In the interests of balance, it might be wise if the people who discredit Froome’s Tour de France wins are at least willing to recognise that he has shown the credentials of a champion in races where the support hasn’t been nearly as strong.
Ultimately, a Grand Tour champion will usually need some assistance from teammates. But it shouldn’t detract from the achievement of anyone who finishes at the top of the general classification at the end of three intense weeks of fierce competition.
On the topic of the team, it’s safe to say that Team Sky aren’t the most popular UCI team. As the team’s leading rider, Chris Froome inevitably gets more of the focus when discontent is expressed. The data-driven, scientific approach that they employ has drawn criticism due to a perception that it drains excitement out of races that would otherwise have more drama if competitors rode purely on instinct rather than power meters.
The measured approach might not appeal to everyone, but there remains plenty of drama when the big names attack each other and Froome is one rider who cannot be accused of not making attacking moves when the time is right to do so.
If rival teams believe in a different way of securing victory, there’s nothing to stop them from executing a different strategy entirely, so the level of excitement in any given race cannot be blamed entirely on any one team or rider.
There are also references made by critics to the size of the team’s budget, which has helped assemble a wealth of talented riders – even though most will be restricted to the role of domestiques. This is a more valid criticism, as it relates to the imbalance among the peloton, although is hardly a unique situation in team sport.
But even with a strong line-up, the nature of road cycling brings with it so many hazards that anything could occur which will damage the chances of team success.
At this year’s Giro D’Italia, both Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa were well-positioned in the overall classification when a police motorbike was responsible for a crash which took out the entire team. Thomas recovered to complete the stage, but in addition to losing out on more than five minutes on the stage itself, he suffered injuries which led to a retirement from the race. Landa lost even more time, and spent the final week aiming only to achieve a stage victory.
And at this year’s Tour, Thomas was again knocked off his bike, this time by a fellow rider. A broken collarbone ensured another premature trip home, and having been in a strong position himself, it was a blow to the whole team.
Geraint Thomas was one of a number of the leading contenders to withdraw from the race early due to serious injuries, illustrating the perilous nature of the race and the dangers faced by every rider taking part – for which no amount of money can prevent.
And finally, there is a lack of acceptance because of his public persona.
In modern day Britain, it seems that anyone famous is expected to entertain. There’s no shortage of sporting heroes, but the highest profile names can often be judged, by too many people, on how interesting they appear to be.
It’s not enough to be professional, polite, friendly and articulate when the public is expecting to be entertained.
It’s particularly evident when the BBC’s annual Sports Personality of the Year awards take place, and there is always criticism of certain nominees due to them not deemed to have any personality. Ignoring the obvious misunderstanding of the use of the word “personality”, the comments show where many people’s priorities lie in terms of how they would vote for a candidate.
Even if personality was important, the way in which someone actually comes across when speaking on live TV or addressing huge crowds on the Champs-Elysees isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection on what a person is like to be around in a more relaxed environment.
A lot of the pressure inevitably comes from a media who still hold a lot of power in determining how someone is portrayed. Controversial characters, and those who make the job of writing sensational headlines easy are always going to be given more attention than those who get on with their professions more quietly.
Not always has it been the case that sportspeople have had so much involvement with live TV interviews and with emotions running high in the aftermath of events that are both physically and mentally draining, it’s a testament to those people who do conduct themselves so well, of which Froome is no exception.
Ultimately, when he’s reaching the kind of professional heights that most cyclists of any nationality couldn’t even dream of, it’s only right that his achievements are recognised and respected for what they are – regardless of how amusing the general public consider him to be.
Since the conclusion of Friday’s 19th stage when, with only a time trial to come, it was looking likely that Froome would retain the lead over his rivals, there has been much written in the press on how underappreciated a sportsman he is.
The problem with many articles is that there is still an unwillingness to issue praise without trying hard, on the other hand, to undermine it.
Sport will always divide opinions, but the facts relating to Chris Froome’s performances at the Tour de France aren’t up for debate. He is a four-time champion. And maybe it’s time to focus on that a little more – and simply give him the credit that is long overdue.