Book Review : "The Climb," by Chris Froome (and David Walsh)
After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb
-- Nelson Mandela
(From the dedication page of "The Climb")
THE climb on Mt. Ventoux
“The Climb,” is Chris Froome’s autobiographical account of his journey on-and-off the bike from his early childhood to being his successful 2013 season. The title is apt, for it not only represents his greatest strength on the bike, but also neatly captures his life on a macroscopic as well as microscopic scales. The Climb is not just a feel-good story of a young kijana from Kenya who dreamt of racing in the fabled European circuits someday; and then worked his way from the bottom to the very top of the peloton; it is also a very frank documentary of the harsh conditions that aspiring cyclists endure in underdeveloped parts of the worlds. That one Chris Froome succeeded in achieving his dream, underscores the reality of countless others who fell by the way for lack of will, resources, training or any of the numerous intangibles that make one person succeed beyond all expectations.
Comparing "The Climb" to the more recent autobiographical narratives to come out of the British Cycling factory, Froome's narrative is the closest to an actual autobiography. Instead of a chronological list of racing accomplishments, or a compressed view into the personal space of the champion rider, this is as complete a story of a pro-rider that we can get - with all the personal baggage discussed in a very frank yet personal style.
The book is divided into three parts - (a) Froome's childhood in Africa, (b) Early pro-racing years in Europe, and (c) Riding the Tour for Team Sky.
The three parts are quite separate in their emphasis and takeaway messages. The first part, in Africa, is quite informative with respect to the social environment and (lack of) infrastructure for building a good biking culture in the more underdeveloped parts of the world. It also gives a window into a very different upbringing and environment (pythons for pets, anyone?), glimpses of which can still be found in the way Froome rides his races. Here is a childhood not without its levity and innocence, but tempered with some harsh realities of life, race (no pun intended) and social-political issues that only a child can find so difficult to grasp. Included is, of course, the infamous email "hack" - although the way Froome explains it, it was less a hack and more an invitation - and the disastrous time trial that followed. Froome's early years in the pro-peloton form the bulk of the second section. His frequent tumbles on the bike (earning him the moniker "Crash Froome"), the Italian style of managing a team, and a struggle to fit into a world where tradition was sacrosanct when it came to training - left a deep impression of how things should not be done. Although he had sporadic success with stage wins and good standings in the continental races, it was not until 2010 when he came aboard Team Sky that things began to look up. The third section of the book describes his years riding the Tour for Team Sky, first as a bidon-carrier for the rest of the guys, then as a super domestique when his climbing ability was 'discovered' (along with the bilharzia parasite - which he was cured off) and finally, as a champion in his own right in the 2013 tour. Froome does not tiptoe around the controversial tours of 2012 and 2013. He provides his account of the 'rivalry' with Bradley Wiggins. The rivalry is portrayed not as a fierce battle for team control a la Lance-Contador in the 2009 tour, but more as a misunderstanding between two introverted teammates. Froome, however, was not the only one in the team who felt uncomfortable around Wiggins - the entire team dynamics changed once Wiggins had moved out of the picture as a tour contender. Mark Cavendish comes off as a sympathetic figure who found an ally in Froome during the 2012 tour (both riders were looking for more opportunities in the face of Plan A - Wiggins). Contador and Quintana are afforded some respect, although Froome does not hesitate to point towards Contador's recent suspension due to contaminated steak!
David Walsh serves as the dutiful scribe to Froome’s narrator, documenting every step of the journey in a way that can easily connect with the readers. This in itself is a major plus for the book. Walsh weaves an intricate narrative in the form of an exciting tale that engages the reader’s attention from the first pages! The destination of this well-known and overly-scrutinized journey is not the suspense, it is the journey itself that is more intriguing than most would assume. Written in a very lucid form through the eyes of the protagonist, even a daily training ride through the back-lands of Kenya takes on a dimension of a personal struggle to overcome much larger circumstances. There are instances when the ghostwriter shines through with some immaculate, if unneeded, information pertaining to bike races and their history - but that also adds to the charm of the story told through two very different voices.
In conclusion, Froome & Walsh have taken a lump of coal from the African mines and transformed it into a gleaming stone worthy to be put into a winner’s crown.