t is almost 11pm when Chris Froome leans closer to the screen in his hotel room in Abu Dhabi. We have been talking for 40 minutes and while he has sometimes looked tired and vulnerable Froome has been cheerful and friendly. Of course there has been some difficulty when addressing doping in cycling and sobering memories of the accident that left him with fractured vertebrae and sternum, a shattered elbow, a collapsed lung and a double break of his femur that nearly ended his career.
Froome has also told me how much happier he is in the role of an underdog, as the new leader of a developing team in Israel Start-Up Nation (ISN), than riding at the front of a monster organisation such as Team Sky, which became Team Ineos, while winning his seven grand tours. There is less pressure and less tension. But, as he moves nearer to the camera, Froome insists the intensity of his sporting desire remains.
“It certainly does,” he says when asked if the old hunger runs as deep as ever and helps him believe he might win another unlikely Tour de France. “It is going to be a huge ask but, with four titles, I’ve come so close to the record of five. There’s nothing holding me back any more so I’d love to give it my best shot and win a fifth. A lot of it is mind over matter so I hope the body will follow.”
Froome is 35 but he talks seriously about competing at the highest level for another five years. “I’d like to, if possible. We are seeing more and more examples in professional sport with the most recent being Tom Brady, which was a pretty incredible story.”
This month Brady, aged 43, won his seventh Super Bowl. His first six had been with the remorseless New England Patriots but, just over two weeks ago, Brady achieved something more remarkable when, in his first season with a new team, he fired the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a shock victory against the champions, the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I love drawing parallels with other sports,” Froome says, “and seeing athletes going later and later into their careers. That’s due to a host of reasons but mainly because of nutrition and physiology. Everything is evolving. We’re learning more and more about our bodies and I certainly believe it’s more to do with mindset in your late 30s.”
Yet in his last race for Team Ineos three months ago, at the Vuelta a España, Froome finished three-and-a-half hours behind the winner, Primoz Roglic. Did he not feel humiliated – especially after a crushing first stage when he was 11 minutes adrift of Roglic? “I wouldn’t say humiliated. It was clear from the training data I wasn’t where I’d normally be if I was fighting for the win. It was frustrating and disappointing – but I could have a bit of perspective and remember that, if we rewind a year, I could barely walk.”
Chris Froome rides for Israel Start-Up Nation on the second stage of the Tour of UAE. Photograph: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images
In June 2019, before the Critérium du Dauphiné, Froome crashed into a wall at 37mph. Apart from the multiple fractures, he lost four pints of blood and was in intensive care for weeks. “I had quite a laundry list of injuries,” he says wryly, “but I didn’t want to finish my career like that. As soon as I knew there weren’t any physical limitations I approached the rehab process like I was preparing to win a Tour – with the same dedication and commitment.”
Froome nods when I say it must still have been a frightening experience. “There were definitely a few moments. When I had more difficulty breathing it was explained that I had internal injuries, some fractured vertebrae, a fractured sternum, collapsed lung. It felt serious then. I was completely in the hands of the first responders, almost as if I was a spectator watching from afar. So that was quite scary and helpless feeling, knowing my life depended on the people working around me.”
Was there a psychological aftermath? “I found that side quite easy as I was so eager to get back on the bike. If I’d overshot a corner I’d probably have more doubt over my abilities. But this happened on a perfectly straight road. A big gust of wind took my front wheel when I had one hand on the handlebars and directed me into somebody’s driveway wall. It’s one of those freak things.
I have huge respect for Dave Brailsford and what he’s created with Ineos. We still keep in touch
“I was lucky my wife and kids were fantastic throughout the ordeal. Kids at that age – Kellan is five and Katie is two – don’t see the bad stuff. I spent a couple of months bed-ridden and then I progressed to a wheelchair for a few months. I managed to get on to crutches eventually and be up walking six months later. But they thought it was quite cool I had this wheelchair to cruise around the house.”
When he resumed training last year Froome’s damaged right quad generated 20% less power than the left – while scans showed a surgical screw had penetrated a bone.
Last week, Froome flew to Abu Dhabi from California, and an extensive rehab programme that has completed his recovery, and on Sunday he started the UAE Tour with his new team.
“I am in no real pain now,” he says. “I get a little discomfort when I sleep on my right side and some burning from where I had a plate inserted but it doesn’t affect me on the bike. All the gym and rehab work is translating to power on the bike. That left/right ratio is equal again.”
Froome highlights how he has been helped by ISN’s partnership with Hammerhead, which provides daily software and hardware updates based around the team’s needs with specific attention paid to Froome’s power ratio.
“I’m on the new head units we’ve got so I can see exactly what the left leg is doing versus the right leg. After speaking to Hammerhead they introduced it and that’s been a big focus for me and very handy. I’ve had great support from the Hammerhead guys.”
His objectives in the Tour of the UAE are understandably modest. “I don’t expect to be challenging for victory, but it would be nice to feel more comfortable in the peloton.”
ISN are owned by a billionaire in Sylvan Adams but what else, beyond their financial muscle, persuaded Froome to join them? “Their proposal for a grand tour programme resonated. They’ve been around for a few years but focused on the Classics. They’ve not competed to win an event like the Tour de France. They presented their ambitions to me last spring, and showed their desire for me to spearhead that project. It almost felt as if I was starting with a blank piece of paper to build a group to fight in the grand tours.
Froome with his son Kellan after winning the 2017 Tour de France. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters
“Ineos have been winning grand tours for years. This is something new, something fresh and just what I needed. I’ve never been part of a process of recruiting riders and staff, of planning. At Ineos all these things were done for us. Now I’m part of that process and it’s as if I’ve got more ownership of it as well.”
ISN includes some of Froome’s old friends such as Darryl Impey, Dan Martin and Michael Woods. “It’s an older team with lots of experience. We’ve got guys who by no means match up to Ineos’s roster but it’s a great group with fantastic intentions. I’d much rather be in this position than going in as a clear race favourite like I’ve been previously.”
Froome won so much with Team Sky/Ineos but it always looked like a cold-blooded marriage of convenience. There seemed to be no deep affection between Froome and Dave Brailsford. “I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily accurate,” Froome counters. “We’ve always had our ups and downs but we got on over the years and I have a huge respect for him as a manager and what he’s created with Team Sky and Ineos. We still exchange messages every now and then.”
He was much closer to Nicolas Portal, his sporting director at Sky/Ineos. Did Portal’s tragic death, aged 40, influence Froome’s decision to leave? “That was part of it. Nico had been part of every single grand tour bar one for me so not having him around changed the prospect of continuing with Ineos.
Chris Froome in a hospital bed after his serious crash while training in 2019. Photograph: @chrisfroome/PA Images
“It was such a huge loss for the team and everyone who knew Nico. He was an incredible guy in a very understated way. When it seemed as if the odds were overwhelming Nico would always be the voice of calm. He would be that extra rider in my ear even when I didn’t have teammates around me.”
Has Froome followed the case of Richard Freeman – the doctor who has been charged on two anti-doping counts relating to his work with Sky? “I see the headlines but not really, no. I’m not that interested in it.”
Froome might have had limited dealings with Freeman but surely the case leaves a heavy cloud over Sky’s past achievements? “I don’t know enough about the specifics of the case to comment. Are these questions in connection to Team Sky or British Cycling? I don’t know the answer so I don’t think it’s fair for me to comment on his case specifically. I don’t know the particulars.”
When I first interviewed Froome in 2013 he suggested cycling’s omertà had been broken and the sport was cleaner than it had been for decades. Eight years later and, with the Freeman case rumbling on, does he still believe this? “Very much so. I feel the sport has continued to lead the way in policing anti-doping. Lots of sports are implementing similar measures.
“Many people don’t understand the intricacies and how tight the policing is now in cycling. We needed to get credibility back and I feel we’ve turned the corner in that respect.”
Froome admits he was hurt badly by allegations against him after he tested positive for salbutamol at the Vuelta in September 2017. It took nine months for him to be cleared by cycling’s governing body, the UCI, and by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which accepted Froome and Team Sky had proved the finding fell within the expected range of variation consistent with him taking salbutamol for his longstanding asthma.
“It certainly was one of the most testing times of my career – having my credibility questioned like that when I hadn’t done anything wrong and my whole career I’ve been a huge advocate of clean cycling. That was an extremely tough period but I’m glad we finally got the truth out … I know what I’m doing. If other people believe otherwise, that’s up to them.”
Has Froome changed much as a person with all the success and scrutiny, the glory and adversity? “The last decade has given me more perspective on life. I’ve grown a thicker skin going through the ordeals of the last few years. I hope I’m coming to an end of it now because it feels like an exciting time. It’s a new start with new motivations for me.”