Chris Froome’s achievement in becoming the first African-born rider to win the Tour de France on Sunday comes as no surprise to his first coach, who revealed that the Kenyan-born, South African-educated 28-year-old paid more than his fair share of racing dues in his formative racing years.
Robbie Nilson, a Johannesburg attorney, became Froome’s first coach when his son, Rory, and Froome raced on the Cycle Lab Supercycling club’s Hi Q Academy team, the road racing youth development squad of South Africa’s largest cycling club.
“Chris raced largely for fun when we first came across him on a rival youth team in 2003. He was studying a B.Com with the aim of becoming a chartered accountant, and enjoyed cycling, but it wasn’t his primary focus at that stage,” recalled Nilson.
“There were some changes in the youth team structures in Johannesburg at the end of that year and Chris asked if we’d consider creating an Under-23 section to include him and some of his teammates at the Hi Q Academy. We were only an Under-16 and Junior academy at that stage, but we felt adding some Under-23s would be good for the academy as that had been the original plan.”
Nilson and Gavin Cocks, the academy sponsor, whose son Edwin was also in the squad, had decided that the South African road racing landscape was too focussed on the short, flat races that are so popular in the country. Nilsen put the academy riders onto periodised training plans that focussed on proper endurance and strength training. Part of that strategy had them only racing for six months per year.
“This worked well because for part of the year we’d still let the riders do races, but there was no pressure on them to get podiums. This made a big difference because they got to enjoy racing and when the races were longer or harder, they were hungry for success, physically strong and they excelled.
“It’s hard to believe now, but Chris initially struggled to finish in the main peloton in the South African races, which are mostly short (around 100km) and flat. Our first goal, when I started coaching him, was to ensure he finished in the main pack. Our next goal, because Chris is so light and not a great sprinter, was to make him a super-domestique,” recalled Nilsen.
“He was great at this and would go off on long breaks, often solo, forcing the other teams to chase and softening the finale up for the sprinters on our squad.
“We focussed heavily on deep endurance in training because we knew that Chris’s future was in Europe and not in South Africa. He would train for hours and hours and hours. Always calculated training though, not just wasted mileage. He’s a smart guy and he always wanted to know exactly how the training I prescribed would benefit him,” added Nilsen.
When Froome moved on to race for the South African-based Konica Minolta team in 2007, Nilsen continued to coach him.
“We needed Chris to race overseas where the races suited him better. At that time, Konica Minolta was the only South African team with an international racing programme. He did really well and from there went on to attract the attention of the Barloworld team, which was South African sponsored, but Italian based.
Froome rode his first Tour de France in 2008 on Team Barloworld. He climbed many of the big mountains with some of the sports best ascenders and finished 16th in the 53km individual time trial on the penultimate day.
“Chris only found out 10 days before the start that he was included in Barloworld’s Tour de France team. He wasn’t properly prepared for it, but the way he rode confirmed that he was indeed destined for success in this race,” said Nilsen.
“I continued to coach him when he raced for Barloworld but when he was approached by Sky, a team with a huge budget and the best sports science backing you can get, I was happy for Chris to be guided by that kind of expertise. We are still quite close. Chris does his own contract negotiations and sometimes bounces some things off me when he needs another opinion,” added Nilsen.
Froome’s calm temperament and humility off the bike have been commented on regularly by the media during the 2013 Tour de France.
For Cocks, one of Froome’s earliest sponsors, his temperament has always been an asset and the main reason he’s so well liked.
“Chris has always had great manners and so much empathy. When he stayed at our home a few years ago when Team Barloworld did a race in our part of South Africa, he would help my wife wash the dishes and always made his own bed in the morning. Watching his TV interviews during the Tour de France, where you see a quite confidence and humility, it’s the same Chris Froome as we got to know a decade ago. He is still grounded despite his amazing success,” added Cocks.
“Of all the athletes I’ve coached, Chris stands out as the most disciplined and the toughest. He knows how to manage suffering, but I always was impressed with his ability to recover rapidly, an essential quality for stage racing success. His victory in the Tour de France is richly deserved. But it didn’t come easily. Chris paid his dues but never let anything obscure his progression. He chased his dream even when it seemed out of reach to others,” said Nilsen.
“When Chris joined Sky in 2010, he told me he wanted to be a Grand Tour contender within five years,” said Cocks. “The following year he was second at the Tour of Spain, then second at last year’s Tour de France. And now, he’s a Tour de France winner. It happened a lot quicker than five years, which isn’t really surprising. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”