double acts have been the mainstay of the entertainment world for many a long year. laurel and hardy, morecambe and wise, rowan and martin, ant and dec, harmon and kelly; i'm sure you get the picture. in most of the aforementioned cases the yin and yang of each pairing is what made them so successful. in a comedic sense, it's almost essential that one be the straight man, the other the funny guy. if both play the same part, not only is there the spectre of competition between the two, but the combination is unlikely to be so popular.
so used have we become to the standard format, that anything that steps out such well-defined parameters is viewed with suspicion. which rather neatly brings us to the drama played out en route to the summit of la toussuire during stage eleven of the 2012 tour de france. the game, we are regularly assured, was all about putting bradley into yellow and keeping him there. each and every member of team sky's tour selection had been chosen for that singular purpose. in the interests of entertainment, for that ultimately is what professional cycling is all about, wiggins and chris froome were presented as the ultimate double act.
quite who was saddled with the task of being the funny guy, it's hard to say, but towards the summit of la toussuire, froome stepped away from his designated part, and briefly took on sir bradley's. if you've read the latter's recent autobiography my time you'll have a good idea how this affected wiggins. if you've read richard moore's chasing the badger you'll have just as good an idea as to how this fitted with the professional cycling milieu. suddenly, deja vu had happened all over again.
it's with this incident that author david sharp commences his rather ineptly titled va va froome, quite likely because it placed chris froome in a different space from bradley wiggins. i cannot deny that while reading this chapter i thought this to be a book that i would struggle with. not because of its subject matter; i'm as keen as the next cycling fan to understand what it is that makes froome tick, but due to sharp's writing style.
metaphors are a most useful device in any narrative, principally where appropriate, and like one of those china-type cymbals on a drum set, if used sparingly. i wouldn't like to hear sharp's drumming style. phrases such as 'hit the gas on the final climb', 'ready to rumble', 'sky picked up the gauntlet and threw it back in his face' and 'like unwanted ballast dropped from a hot-air balloon'. and that's only in the first few pages; sadly there are several more.
thankfully, once he exits chapter one, the narrative settles down a bit.
though froome is kenyan born, he is the youngest of three brothers of english parents, and for most of his early years, he held both british and kenyan passports. though few of the african states are noted for their cycling excellence, there can be little doubt that kenya is better known for its marathon runners, and the young froome had need of both an independent and resourceful mind to stake some sort of claim on an international stage. resorting to one of those annoying metaphors again, sharp states 'It is little wonder Froome developed such a strong sense of independence, which runs through him still like the copper core of an electric cable.'
his principal influence and educator on the bike was david kinjah, at the time, kenya's top professional cyclist and competitor in the 1998 commonwealth games. froome's mother introduced him to kinjah, explaining "My son loves bicycles, the school is closed for the holidays and I don't know what to do with him! Do you think you could take him out riding?"
it would be nice to say 'and the rest is history', and were froome to have been resident in britain with access to british cycling's performance plan, that might well have been the case. however, as mentioned, kenya is hardly the location you'd want to be with aspirations towards becoming a professional cyclist.
in 2007 his singular talent brought him to the attention of the konica-minolta team, south africa's most prominent sem-pro team, success with which gave froome the opportunity to attend the uci's centre mondial du cyclisme in aigle, switzerland. even at this point, his singularity stood out against his peers. konica-minolta team manager, john robertson is quoted "Chris stood out to me. He would go out on crazy rides of six or seven hours. The other guys did three hours, went to a coffee shop, and then came home, but Chris was out to Liege and back."
it was apparently a chance meeting with rod ellingworth that brought froome into the sphere of british cycling. this corresponded with another chance meeting with gb's doug dailey, bringing into perspective froome's nationality and in which geographical direction he wanted to go. "Although I was riding under the Kenyan flag, I made it clear that I always carried a British passport and felt British."
it is a matter of record that claudio corti subsequently signed froome to his barloworld team where he ended up as team-mate to robbie hunter and brits, ben swift and geraint thomas.
author david sharp has been particularly adept in his research into each and every aspect of the career of chris froome, from those early teenage days in kenya, through the stages precised above and his eventual signing with team sky. the narrative is somewhat on the dry side despite froome's well-documented single-mindedness, and an almost unbridled need to exist outside that more commonly expected of him. i rather doubt that such dryness is the fault of the author.
that froome made it to team sky after his years with barloworld could be viewed with some degree of surprise; "...his only consistency had been his inconsistency." team sky is an outward expression of sir dave brailsford, incorporating each and every minute detail and planning that this entails. it would seem the dream team of which to be a member, yet perhaps such structure does not necessarily suit all of the men with the blue stripes on their backs, assuming end of season moves to be true. froome's indiscretion at la toussuire last year was undoubtedly a sign that he has not (yet) become a yes man, but solo team leadership at this year's tour is indication that he feels confident enough to get his own way.
sharp gives little indication throughout the book's 246 pages that he has spent much, if any time discussing the finer points with froome himself. there are many "as he said to cyclingnews.com/procycling/cycling weekly et al" rather than any detailed one to one conversations. this in itself does not discount the author's ability to write a successful biography of the rider, but it does lose itself a somewhat marginal degree of credibility. however, this is something that cannot be easily laid at david sharp's door. another well-known author told me that froome can be 'difficult' which he qualified by saying "he doesn't give much away".
that could well be the telling factor, given that sean kelly, charly wegelius, rob hayles and even wiggins himself have all recently published autobiographies. perhaps va va froome is as close as we get, in which case, sharp's offering should be avariciously devoured in an attempt to understand the man who looks like he might just move up one step in paris this year. it's not a compulsive read, but it is particularly comprehensive, and at the risk of sounding unfairly condescending, you'll be better off for having read it.
from the days of robert millar's fourth place and polka dots in the 1984 tour de france, to having two british riders who can successfully challenge for yellow in paris has been a lengthy journey. if you're of the mind that it is better to travel well than to arrive, celebrate one half of the journey and pick up a copy of va va froome. perhaps with hindsight, someone will have the savvy to change that title on the reprint, and the courtesy to strip out at least some of the mentioned metaphors and similes.
sunday 7th july 2013