Chris Froome was stopped by the police the other day. It was a random check in Monaco and the officer simply wanted to see his driving licence.
But the moment Froome climbed off his motor scooter and lifted the visor of his crash helmet, the tone of their encounter changed. ‘He suddenly pulled out his phone and asked for a picture of us together,’ says Froome with a smile.
It is one example of how life has changed for the 28-year-old winner of this year’s Tour de France. Another would be the fact that he is among the contenders for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award this weekend.
But Froome has reached a point in his life where he wants to see more change. He wants to play a key role in leading his sport away from its drug-ridden past and into a brighter, cleaner future. And he wants to stop talking about the very public spat he has had with Sir Bradley Wiggins, his team-mate at Sky, since the 2012 Tour.
He rather hopes this interview will mark the last time he has to deal with such questions, even if he intends to revisit certain events in more detail in his autobiography.
‘The fact is Brad and I have just been on a training camp together in Mallorca and we’ve had a talk about things,’ says Froome. ‘It was very constructive and we are in a good place now. It was important we did that and it was important for the team, too.
‘To be honest we should have done it a very long time ago, just to clear the air, but we are on good terms now.’
This is quite a revelation and in his mind, at least, it brings closure to a bitter rivalry that has even seen their partners get involved.
It dates back to Stage 11 of the 2012 Tour, on the climb to the summit of La Toussuire. Froome’s job was to act as super-domestique to Wiggins; to protect his team leader’s position in the yellow jersey, often by guiding him up the Tour’s most brutal climbs.
But four kilometres from the top Froome attacked, springing out of his saddle and not only racing away from his rivals for a place on the podium — he would finish second in Paris — but from Wiggins.
It was astonishing, not least because Sean Yates, then Sky’s sports director, ordered Froome over the team radio to return to Wiggins’s side. Wiggins had cracked, after all, and was now losing precious time on the main threat to Sky’s dominance, the Italian Vincenzo Nibali.
In his recently published autobiography, Yates claimed Froome had reneged on an agreement that had been reached with the two riders the previous evening that he could attempt to win the stage, but only once Wiggins was safely delivered to nearer the top of the climb; with 500m to go.
According to Yates, Wiggins was so shaken by the episode that team principal Sir Dave Brailsford had to persuade him not to quit the race. Comments would then appear on Twitter from Wiggins’s wife, Cath, and Froome’s girlfriend, Michelle.
There would be further acrimony when Wiggins suggested a few months later that he would attempt to defend his title, knowing full well that Brailsford had already selected Froome as team leader for the 2013 race.
In another recently published book, it emerged that Wiggins was rather slow in paying Froome the bonus the winner of the Tour traditionally gives his team-mates.
Now, however, things appear to have improved. After receiving his knighthood at Buckingham Palace yesterday, Wiggins said he would be happy to play a ‘support role’ for Froome in next year’s Tour, while Froome, it has to be said, is every bit as respectful towards Wiggins as we reflect on the situation in the bar of a smart central London hotel. ‘The incident in 2012 was at the root of it all,’ says Froome. ‘I’m not sure it was that big a problem but it was all played out so much in the media, it was allowed to escalate.
‘Michelle got caught in the crossfire, too. At the end of the day she has her opinions and they’re not necessarily my opinions. But she’s very passionate about supporting me when she sees negative things. She’s just being loyal to me.’
Perhaps he should explain 2012 from his perspective. ‘It was a huge misunderstanding where I thought I was reading the race right,’ he says. ‘I thought the race had evolved in such a way that opened the door for me to go. Obviously it was the wrong moment.
‘And I thought if something happens to Brad, like it had the previous year when he crashed, I want to be in the strongest possible position if I’m then asked to take over. It didn’t even cross my mind to attack Brad.
‘People need to remember the Vuelta (the Tour of Spain) the year before, when Brad dropped off on the climbs and the team suddenly said, “Well, you go for GT (general classification)”. But I was too far behind by then and I lost the race, finishing second, by something like 11 seconds.
‘I accept that I read the situation wrong (in 2012). I thought Brad was fine. But it very quickly became apparent that it was a problem and that I needed to stop and come back, which is what I did.’
Froome won’t talk about the bonus story, confirming only that he has now received the money due to him from Wiggins. He is also reluctant to go into their conversation in Mallorca. ‘We’re very different people,’ he says. ‘Brad would say the same. But, like I say, we’re in a good place now.’
As fascinating a soap opera as it is, you can sympathise with his sense of frustration. This, after all, is a golden era for British road cycling and the qualities of two British Tour winners really need to be celebrated.
Off the bike, Froome is charming. He strides into the hotel lobby with a grin almost as wide as his slender frame and when he does complain in his soft South African accent that too many interviews are dominated by questions about his relationship with Wiggins, he could not be more polite about it.
I ask him if, like Wiggins, he rides a Vespa. ‘It’s a Yamaha,’ he says, laughing. ‘I’m just not that trendy.’ He also says the car he occasionally drives through Casino Square was chosen simply because it was ‘easy for throwing the bike in the back’. Not a Ferrari, then.
He shares a one-bedroom apartment with Michelle. ‘For training Monaco really is fantastic,’ he says. ‘The weather’s great and every day I slip out the back of Monaco and into the hills and mountains. I pretty much won’t see a car.’
As a rider, he really is a joy to watch. Wiggins’s Tour success was built on his time trial prowess and his ability to live with the world’s best climbers. Froome is no mean time trial rider either but he attacks his rivals on the climbs at a time when the race is being dominated by such specialists.
‘I like to think I’m quite an instinctive racer,’ he says. ‘We always go into a stage with a plan but a race is such a delicate thing. It’s always evolving. It can just be about the moment. It’s as much a psychological battle as a physical one, about who gives in first.
‘I’ve always recognised that the pain you suffer in that moment is temporary, and I always tell myself how much I will enjoy it afterwards if I can endure that pain.’
He will continue to endure it because he wants to win more Tour titles and prove that such a feat can be achieved without the assistance of performance-enhancing drugs.
‘Part of what’s driving me is a desire to show, post-Armstrong, that it’s possible to have successive Tour victories clean,’ he says.
Ideally with the assistance of Wiggins. – Daily Mail