Moments that encapsulate a sporting rivalry become frozen in time.
A snapshot in the public’s imagination, they frame the physical embodiment of complex human relationships; the psychological battle for superiority, often with an equally engrossing socio-political sub-plot.
Ayrton Senna’s deliberate collision with Alain Prost at the first turn of the 1990 Japanese grand prix at Suzuka encapsulated a bitter rivalry between the two dominant drivers of their era.
Mary Dekker and Zola Budd’s entanglement in the 3000m final at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles provided one of many sporting sub-texts to the brutalities of apartheid South Africa; the homecoming queen’s party ruined by a barefoot teenager whose very presence at the Games in a British vest had been mired in controversy before the race had begun.
Similarly, the controversy surrounding Victoria Pendleton’s relegation for riding out of the sprinter’s lane and into the path of Anna Meares in the opening race of the women’s sprint final at the 2012 Games had a sense of the inevitable, given the increasingly public hostility between the pair in the long build-up to what would be their final confrontation and Pendleton’s final race.
Chris Froome’s much-discussed ‘attack’ on the slopes of La Toussuire on stage 11 of last year’s Tour de France is likely to take its place alongside these and other celebrated microcosms of sporting rivalries, given the amount of coverage generated subsequently. The Kilburn Kid and the kid from Kenya, riding the same stretch of Alpine highway having followed wildly different routes to get there; the Olympic track champion turned Grand Tour champion in waiting, paired with the son of ex-pat parents who learned to ride in the townships.
It has featured in three recent autobiographies from men with an insider’s view of events, and now looks set to feature in a fourth. This latest, however, might be the most revealing of all.
Chris Froome’s autobiography, The Climb, to be written with David Walsh, author of three revelatory books about Lance Armstrong and the soon to be published Inside Team Sky, promises, with some justification, “a journey unlike any other in the history of cycling”. It will be published next June.
“He has experienced soaring triumphs, humbling defeats, a public rivalry with Bradley Wiggins and, most recently, the pressures of Lance Armstrong’s legacy,” the publicity blurb reads.
For the fan of British cycle sport, the public rivalry with Wiggins (the knight’s title notably absent from the statement on Froome’s website announcing The Climb) will perhaps represent the greatest area of interest. Wiggins himself devoted an entire chapter of his own autobiography, My Time, to the events on La Toussuire, pointedly titled, Under Attack.
Sean Yates’ enjoyable but largely unexciting memoir, It’s All About The Bike, catches fire in the final chapters when he discusses the 2012 Tour and a text from Wiggins sent after the stage in question suggesting that it might be better for all if he went home. When Yates learned that Dave Brailsford had not discussed the incident with Froome, he writes, he did so himself, reminding the Kenyan-born Brit of his responsibilities to the team’s leader.
Mark Cavendish, a friend of both Froome and Wiggins, offers a characteristically uncompromising assessment of Froome’s “attack” (naivety, in the Manxman’s opinion) and Wiggins’ reaction to it, in his recent autobiography, At Speed.
“My own view from inside the team was the Chris had acted in good faith, just a little clumsily. If he’d wanted to betray Brad, he would have attacked on the penultimate climb that day, not the final one, and he wouldn’t have waited when he got the order to stop his effort over the radio. It was easy to see it as evidence of Chris’s naivety, which could make you either laugh or wince at times, both on and off the bike,” Cavendish writes.
“Brad didn’t say a lot that night, but it was obvious that he was upset or angry…I could see that he probably wasn’t in the mood for talking, but as I got up to go, I told him that I just had one thing to say – that in my opinion Chris hadn’t meant any harm and that, if he had, he wouldn’t have waited on the climb.”
If The Climb is to offer Froome’s account of events on La Toussuire, and it seems inconceivable that it will not, even for a rider as equanimous as the Tour champion, then let us hope it will be the last. Wiggins has damaged his own reputation in the eyes of many with a highly equivocal stance on his willingness to ride for Froome, and the latter surely deserves to be defined by his victories rather than by a single acceleration, however disputed its intentions.