At 9:33pm on 21 July, Chris Froome linked arms with his Sky teammates and crossed the finish line on a floodlit Champs Elysées to become the second British champion of the Tour de France and the first rider born in Africa to take home the coveted yellow jersey – a sequined maillot jaune to boot, in honour of the 100th edition of the race.
It had taken Froome 83 hours, 56 minutes and 40 seconds to reach Paris after 21 days of gruelling racing over 2,115 miles.
He won four individual stages, including a stunning mountaintop victory on the unforgiving Mont Ventoux, after which he required oxygen. And he “absolutely smashed” the race despite an allergy to the latex in his cycling kit that causes his skin to erupt in red welts even in training.
“If he’s itching all day, he just carries on. When he sets his mind on something, nothing is going to stop him,” says his fiancée Michelle Cound.
Few people know about his allergy, or that he has to manage bilharzia, a parasitic disease he caught on a childhood fishing trip in Kenya, or that his favourite hobby is spear fishing.
Froome, 28, may be the fourth cyclist in six years to be shortlisted for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award, but he’s the least known. Whereas Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins – who won the title in 2008, 2011 and 2012 respectively – came to the fore as Olympic track cyclists in front of high- decibel partisan velodrome crowds, Froome grew up BMX-racing on the dirt roads of Kenya’s Rift Valley and did not move to Europe as a road racer until he was in his early 20s.
When Wiggins was growing up as a Mod on a Kilburn council estate, Froome was enjoying adventures such as being chased up a tree by a hippopotamus.
“My upbringing gave me independence and the confidence to make my own decisions at an unusually young age,” he acknowledges, briefly back at home in Monaco after a whirlwind post-Tour period.
It also makes him a curious version of an “innocent abroad”. The BBC’s SPOTY awards ceremony is a much-loved annual sportsfest (this year is the 60th), but it is “completely new” to Froome. “I attended last year’s show and I’ve seen the last few editions, but I’m actually going back now and looking at its history and I’m amazed to see what a big event it is.”
Straight up, he says, Andy Murray would have his vote – “His achievement, winning Wimbledon, required a huge amount of dedication and rigorous training. I can only respect what Andy’s gone through to get to where he has” – and he describes his own nomination on the shortlist of contenders as an accolade in itself.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been singled out individually, but I think the fact I’m even being considered for an award shows how far cycling has come in the UK. It’s fantastic that people recognise how hard winning the Tour de France is and that, even though a British rider has won two years in a row, it’s not something that comes by easily.”
On a bike, Froome races with panache and aggression. “Inside him there is an absolute iron will to win,” says his team boss Dave Brailsford.
Out of the saddle, he has a Christopher Robin-ish demeanour: quiet, cheerful, modest and unerringly polite. This has led to his personality being considered “vanilla” to Wiggins’s more complex “Rocky Road with sprinkles on top”.
They have had a prickly relationship as teammates. Comparisons have been inevitable since Froome finished an easy second to Wiggins in the 2012 Tour, matched his breakthrough win this year, and now follows him as a SPOTY contender.
“I don’t feel I’m in Bradley’s shadow at all,” he says robustly. “We’re very different people. We come from different backgrounds. We’re very different athletes. We have different goals. I’m never going to be the first Brit to win the Tour, but I’m happy to be the second and achieve my lifetime goal.”
He’s such an unassuming, likeable chap, and has overcome so many setbacks (the bilharzia, the death of his mother, to whom he dedicated his 2013 Tour victory, shortly before his Grand Tour debut in 2008), that an interviewer feels bad suggesting anything that seems to detract from his achievement.
I find myself suggesting that even if Wiggins is hailed as the first British man to win the Tour, “Froomey” will always be in the record books as the rider who won the centenary edition. “I hadn’t thought of that, but I don’t think one trumps the other,” he laughs.
Froome was born in Nairobi, to his Kenyan- born mother Jane (whose parents had emigrated from Tetbury, Gloucestershire, to run a crop farm) and English father, Clive, who once played hockey for England at under-19 level.
He has had a British passport since birth, and always said he didn’t want to take a legitimate Kenyan’s place on the Kenyan cycling team, but his African accent always prompts the question about his nationality – even in Kenya, where he spent much of November visiting family and friends.
“People were saying, ‘You grew up here, but you’re racing under the British flag. How does that work? Surely you’re Kenyan?’ And my answer is very simple. I’m definitely not Kenyan. You only have to look at me to see I’m not Kenyan. I have British ancestry. I am simply a Brit who was born in Kenya and had a different upbringing from many British kids, but it doesn’t change the fact of who I am. My parents brought me up with British traits – table manners were always really important, small things like that.”
As a role model, he prefers to think his success can inspire youngsters in two nations. For Froome – the first Tour de France winner since Lance Armstrong’s admission to doping – this meant a parallel mission to show that his sport has now changed, that his yellow jersey is one that will stand the test of time.
What does he think of the disgraced American’s current media offensive to overturn his life ban?
“I certainly think he should be banned for life – if nothing else, to make an example to other people who break the rules. Cycling has done a complete turn since his era of racing, and [doping] is not going to be accepted on any level in this day and age.”
As for SPOTY, there’s no doubt Froome will be clocking up more appearances. Cycling insiders are convinced he’ll win multiple Tour titles. He confirms he’s already training for 2014.
“My number one goal is to try to achieve a back-to-back victory. Physically, I am capable of doing it. Mentally, I’m up for it. The team has given me the backing. I just have to get myself back in shape again and find some kind of form. If I can do that, then I stand a pretty good chance of taking it on again.”