In winning a fourth Tour de France, Chris Froome cemented his legacy as one of Great Britain’s greatest ever cyclists, if not greatest ever sportsmen.
As my colleague Tom Fordyce wrote: “If you do not appreciate Froome now, you never will.”
Yet appreciating him is not something the British public has done over the last half a decade, in which he has achieved more in road racing than any Briton before him.
And I wonder if Lewis Hamilton is slipping into the Froome bracket too. Wonderful sportsman, naturally gifted, achieved more than most, yet not universally popular amongst the wider population.
Let’s examine why that might be the case….
- A Team Game
For all Hamilton’s race craft and sheer speed, the simple fact is that his three world titles would not have been possible without the fastest car on the grid.
What has turned off a lot of passive sports fans in recent years is the Mercedes domination during the hybrid era.
How do you respond do critics that say he wouldn’t have won if he was in any other car?
Granted he still had to beat his teammate but he’s not a driver to drag an ailing car to the top step of the podium. It’s not his fault admittedly, but it does diminish his star in that respect. He’s a victim of having a quick car.
The comparisons to Froome are striking.
A team that has dominated a sport in recent years, investing more money and assembling some of the best teammates to help him achieve his goal.
French cycling has never truly taken to Froome. Even after the yellow jersey wearer struggled his way back to his rivals on the Col de Peyra Taillade after suffering mechanical issues in this year’s race, he was booed by “fans” lining the route. In previous years, he’s been the subject of more crude abuse.
Part of the reason is Sky’s utter domination of the race. Their ruthless tactics and unrivaled strength have taken a bit of character out of the race. They’re only there to win. But the French, just like the English, love a plucky underdog.
Sky’s recent questionable ethical conduct hasn’t helped either.
Could Hamilton and Froome be as successful without their teams? Maybe. But the best sportsmen generally find themselves in the best teams. Until we consistently see true individual brilliance, in spite of, not because of, their teams, popularity may not grow
- Can we relate?
It would be wrong to begrudge Hamilton his success and riches.
A boy from a normal background in Stevenage, now living the dream. His jet set lifestyle includes Caribbean beach parties, New York fashion shows, Colorado skiing – destinations all reached on his private jet.
The British public loved Nigel “Our Nige” Mansell, who didn’t let success and riches forget his roots.
Damon Hill, twice BBC Sports Personality, preferred the quiet family life in Ireland. This is something the public could appreciate and could relate to. How many people can relate to Hamilton’s lifestyle?
Froome similarly lacks a distinct national identity for Britons to tessellate with.
Kenyan born and raised, Froome has always considered himself to be British (his passport has always said so). Yet he’s spent very little of his life actually living here. Based in the south of France, married to a South African, his British identity is not relatable.
In the same way Kevin Pietersen always had a little asterisk next to his nationality and the USA based Mo Farah, despite achieving more than any British middle distance runner, is not endeared as strongly as a Coe or Radcliffe. Froome suffers the same ignominy.
- Calculated but cold
Hamilton’s success, whilst owing largely to natural talent, is based on a supreme work ethic and an unparalleled will to win.
So much so that earlier in July, Hamilton shunned his own fans in London in order to best prepare for the British Grand Prix (that he won). Whilst always quick to thank his fans, this was a bit of an own goal. A mentality that winning is more important than popularity. Winning at all costs.
Contrast this to his attitude in 2014. A day after wrapping up his second title in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton was doing the charm offensive around the BBC’s MediaCityUK base in Salford. He appeared on BBC Breakfast, 5 live, digital platforms, you name it. He was directly in the public’s eye and managed to pip a peerless Rory McIlroy to the SPOTY crown that year. He wasn’t even in the top 3 when he won the title the following year.
Does anybody know who the real Chris Froome is?
We see this driven, hard working, cycling machine on the bike. We see a polite, personable chap off it. He even speaks French – something not universally undertaken in a modern, anglophone race. But where is his personality?
When Sir Bradley Wiggins won le Tour in 2012, cleats smoothly gliding over his pedals, he was full of character. Brash and outspoken, unassuming and unaffected by who he might offend. The Paul Weller sideburns, playing the guitar, living in Lancashire, the public loved him as much as his achievements. In 2017, the public love Froome’s achievements more than him.
Public affection is a sidebar for most elite sportspeople. A welcome add on to their global success. They strive for perfection in their chosen pursuit, many times they achieve it. To win over the hearts and minds of a nation, takes a little more than that.
The public often love a plucky loser too. Think how much the British opinion of Andy Murray changed when he bawled his eyes out after losing in the 2012 Wimbledon final. Think how much they loved Tim Henman who never even getting that far.
The public loves a touch of humility. When Andrew Flintoff consoled Brett Lee in 2005, it’s an image we remember more than lifting the Ashes that year.
The public loves an underdog, a fairytale story. Jessica Ennis Hill won hearts and minds by returning from having a baby to winning the World Heptathlon title in 2015. Leicester City were adored for upsetting the Premier League’s status quo. Hamilton and Froome have almost become the victims of their own success.
And for all of the conjecture laid out above, the truth is that neither Froome, nor Hamilton will be overly fussed by their perceived lack of affection. Their goal is winning and they’re pretty damn good at it.
Thursday, 27th July 2017