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July 18, 2018

Tour de France 2017: Is Chris Froome Britain's least loved great sportsman?

A file photo of Tour de France champion Chris Froome (C-L) posing for a picture with his mentor David Kinja (C-R) and Kenyan cyclists of his former racing team, the Safari Simbaz, during a private visit to Nairobi on November 19, 2013. /SIMON MAINA
A file photo of Tour de France champion Chris Froome (C-L) posing for a picture with his mentor David Kinja (C-R) and Kenyan cyclists of his former racing team, the Safari Simbaz, during a private visit to Nairobi on November 19, 2013. /SIMON MAINA

Bearing in mind that it took 110 years for the first Briton to win a Tour de France, you'd expect the man who then wins four of the next five to be one of the most loved and admired sportsmen of this or any other era.

There is no fluking a yellow jersey. Three weeks of physical attrition, of relentless mental calculations and stress, of staying ahead of a shifting mass of rivals ganging up to unseat you, of managing egos and efforts within your own team, of high mountains and cruel cross-winds.

And yet when Chris Froome won his third Tour last year, having run up Mont Ventoux in his cleats on his way to victory, he failed to even make the 16-strong shortlist for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year.

In case you want to blame the host broadcaster, it is worth remembering that in addition to the three BBC representatives on the selection panel there were former sporting greats Ryan Giggs, Victoria Pendleton and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson; sports presenter Ore Oduba, writer Amy Lawrence and Liz Nicholl, chief executive of UK Sport; David James (sports editor of the Sunday Mirror and Sunday People), Adam Sills (sports editor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph) and the Mail on Sunday's Alison Kervin.

That is a pretty wide cross-section of the sport-obsessed. It was also in an Olympic and Paralympic year. But 2015, when Froome became the first Briton to win the Tour twice, was not. He still came seventh in the eventual public vote, with just 3.86% of the total votes cast.

In 2013 he finished sixth with 5.2 per cent of the vote. This after a five-year period when British male cyclists - Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins - had won SPOTY three times between them.

Froome is not a man to bemoan his lot. Yet as he rides into Paris in yellow once again, having survived multiple challenges in one of the most competitive and ferocious Tours in memory, you could forgive him wondering what else he must do to be as cherished as some who have achieved significantly less.

There was certainly a shadow cast at the start of his reign by the success of Wiggins, the Neil Armstrong to his Buzz Aldrin. The second man on the moon will never enjoy the instinctive adoration as the first. There was the perception too, unfair though it may have been, that on the stage to La Toussuire during Wiggins' coronation in 2012, Froome had at least considered regicide if not tried to commit it.

It explains a slow start to his dance with the British public. But now, when his own Tour deeds have thrown Wiggins' achievements into stark relief, when the revelations about his former team-mate's therapeutic use exemptions have made some place a mental asterisk next to his win?

Only four other men in history have won three yellow jerseys in a row before. Each of them is a giant of the sport: Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Miguel Indurain. Only the last three of them and Bernard Hinault have won four or more in total.

If you do not appreciate Froome now, you probably never will. If the Champs-Elysees this Sunday doesn't make you relish what he has done and sense it in its proper context, you may also be missing out.

"Just to complete the Tour is hard enough," says Geraint Thomas, his team-mate first at Barloworld almost a decade ago and with Sky in the garlanded years since.

"Just to physically get round 3,000-odd kilometres of mountains, sprints, wind and rain, the pressure you're under - you have to be on top of your game to get through it. To win it takes a whole new level, and to win it multiple times, year in, year out hitting that same level, is super impressive.

"The training to even get there is full-on. Chris lives and breathes it from November all the way through to the following October. There is a lot of time away from his young family, a lot of training camps, on top of a volcano in Tenerife, hour after hour of hard graft.

"And it's not just the training - it's living the right way. The mental discipline is just as hard as the physical work. I do the training and I enjoy it. That's the easy part.

"It's when you're at home and you're starving hungry and you want to pig out but can't, when tea is quinoa rather than the massive pizza you'd really like. You go out with your partner and she will have a glass of wine or a dessert, or she orders a steak and you have to settle for a piece of steamed fish. Chris lives like that throughout the year."

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