Chris Froome, a man who is about to win his fourth Tour de France title in five years, has never had much luck with the British public.
In 2012 he rode as a ‘super-domestique’ to help Bradley Wiggins win the Tour de France, as Wiggins became the first Briton to do so for 110 years. Wiggins may well have made history, but Froome has gone above and beyond this feat. With three titles about to become four, Froome should be one of Britain’s most adored sporting heroes.
Yet, history has shown that Chris Froome is rather unpopular amongst the British public. In the 2013 Sports Personality of the Year Award, he finished a disappointing sixth with just 5.2% of the vote. This was after a five-year period when British male cyclists – Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins – had won the award three times between them, and after Froome had triumphed in the Tour for the first time.
Froome’s victory in 2013 was, arguably, even more impressive than Wiggins’ the previous year. Unlike Wiggins who had Froome to largely thank for his triumph in 2012, Froome succeeded even with insufficient support from team-mate Richie Porte who appeared lethargic and uncomfortable as his wingman.
And, in 2015, when Froome became the first Briton to ever win two Tour de France titles, he still came seventh in the eventual public vote, with a mere 3.86% of the total votes cast. Even more remarkable, in 2016, on the back of yet another Tour victory, Froome did not even make the shortlist of the 16 sportsmen and women to be nominated for the award.
Personality holding Froome back?
Froome has never been one to hog the limelight – maybe this has been his downfall. Wiggins, an outspoken and witty character, struck a chord with the British people. Froome, instead, cannot buy any form of support.
The British public want someone to engage with them, make them laugh and interest them. Froome, although polite and approachable, simply does not have the charisma to become an idol in the same mould as Wiggins and Hoy. But why should he have to change his mantra? Froome does his talking on the track and that is what should matter, but in this day-and-age of social media and personality ‘cults’, a bouncy and jovial character is often what separates the respected sportsmen from the adored.
Froome also has the problem of not winning in 2012. When a record of such magnitude that Wiggins broke in that year has been achieved, the shadow in which his successor has to operate is often too much of an obstacle to overcome. The buzz surrounding the first British Tour victory for over a century was, understandably, going to undermine any following successes, regardless of how emphatic Froome’s victories have been.
The fact that a Brit (the majority Froome) has won every Tour de France since 2012, except the 2014 Tour, has also created an apathy amongst the British public that Froome has, so far, been unable to break. There is a sort of expectancy to win, and when Froome duly obliges as he has done four astonishing times, it almost has a feel of ‘business as usual’. No doubt, therefore, when Froome’s record-breaking run ends, the British public and media will paint him as being ‘past it’.
There is also the argument that Froome is not ‘properly’ British. His Kenyan-born and South African-upbringing heritage seems a far cry away from the guitar-loving, working-class hero from Kilburn. And, whilst Froome habits in the sovereign-city state of Monaco, ‘the land of the rich’, Wiggins resides in the good old Lancashire town of Chorley.
Froome and Wiggins are chalk and cheese and, inevitably, the British public love someone who can apparently relate to their own childhood and life. Despite Wiggins himself being born in Belgium and to an Australian father, the departure of his father at the age of two and his mother’s subsequent move to Kilburn, has enamoured Wiggins into the British heart. Froome, meanwhile, seems a distant apart with his upper-class and ‘silver spoon’ background.
The scale of Froome’s achievements are unbelievable when one takes into consideration the dedication and sacrifices needed to just compete
“Just to complete the Tour is hard enough.
Just to physically get round 3,000-odd kilometres of mountains, sprints, wind and rain, the pressure you’re under – you have to be on top of your game to get through it. To win it takes a whole new level, and to win it multiple times, year in, year out hitting that same level, is super impressive.”
Geraint Thomas, long-term team-mate of Froome’s
Cycling is also difficult in a completely different way. There is nowhere to hide out on the roads, amongst the people. Froome knows all about this, having encountered much hostility by bystanders in the past. In 2015, he was spat on by one spectator and even had a cup of urine thrown at him. Usually, Britons love a figure who can overcome adversity through strength.
“You get booed a lot. And it can be intimidating on those mountain roads. It’s not like football, when the spectators can abuse you but not actually touch you. On those big climbs on the open roads, you never know. They could hit you; riders in our team have been punched before.”
The ghost of Lance Armstrong
But support for Froome has been consistently flat. Maybe it’s the attitude towards cycling in general. The disgust shown throughout the country, and indeed the world, towards Lance Armstrong after he was banned in 2012 from cycling for life for doping offences, after winning seven consecutive Tours, could well have created doubts about Froome’s victories.
Wiggins’ Tour victory was special, a one-off, Froome’s repeated triumphs, through no fault of his own, could well be bringing back memories of the Armstrong domination, achieved through cheating. Perhaps the tendency to not get carried away is strong amongst a cycling fraternity still smarting from the pain the sport went through when Armstrong was revealed to be no more than a fraud.
So, as Froome dons the yellow jersey for a fourth time as he rides into the final stage in Paris, the British public seem no more bothered as they were the first time he achieved this, quite brilliant, accomplishment. Chris Froome, instead of being hailed as one of Britain’s finest ever sportsmen, has to, through little fault of his own, contend with being a mere headline in the tabloids.