On Saturday a few thousand people gathered in Australia’s Snowy Mountains to go for a ride. The inaugural edition of L’Etape Australia was, by all accounts, a roaring success.
One rider in particular enjoyed the experience because of the company he kept for the 157km journey from Crackenback to Perisher. Harrison Bailey was called in at the last minute to chaperone the three-time Tour de France champion during this mass participation ride. He tells the story of his experience…
– By Harrison Bailey
The presence of Chris Froome brought to L’Etape what no one else could, a simple “hello” to anyone who acknowledged him along the road. Even something as small as being passed by Froome evoked beaming grins from fellow participants.
I was able to witness the impact the champion rider had on those he spoke to and it was impressive. Humility and grace was on display and nothing seemed too much for Froome. From where I sat, it was clear that his presence turned a good event into a great one.
I’m always in amazement of how some simple gestures and actions hold such a large significance on individuals, creating a memory and – for some of the lucky one’s – a ‘selfie’ or signature which will stay with them forever.
My trip to Jindabyne was already secured several weeks prior to the event where I was to work as a mechanic for the weekend with the mobile mechanics ‘The Rolling Fix”. But the prospect of riding with Froome came about only days before I set off for Jindy.
A phone call from event organiser Phill Bates the Tuesday was the catalyst. “Harrison, how would you like to ride with Chris Froome on Saturday at L’Etape?”
There could be no other answer. “Yes!”
I was flattered to even be considered.
Patrick Sharpe, Matt Snowden and myself had all been enlisted as part of the support cast, to ride along with Froome on the Saturday.
I was anticipating a nice chilled out endurance ride with Chris, only for this thought to be crushed the evening before when Flo, a representative from from the ASO explained that he wanted us to start from the last group and “try to get Chris to the front group, some 20 minutes up the road”.
The idea behind this is obvious: to ensure that as many people on the road would have the opportunity to see and ride with Chris Froome. It’s a great theory but it was a nearly impossible task, with designated stops along the road for Chris to meet and greet, I’m guessing that even the Team Sky train would have trouble bringing this gap back.
The 4.45am wake-up on Saturday was not a struggle. The excitement of the day ahead was too much for me to be tired.
A big bowl of oats for breakfast meant I was adequately fuelled for what looked to be a tough 157km in the saddle. Driving out with Patrick we both became a little worried with the back-up of traffic heading to the start, with both of us sharing the concern that we might not make it. After kitting up and getting the bikes out of the car we had about 10 minutes to drop our bags off in the follow car and present to the start line.
Phew…! We made it to the start line with two minutes to spare with a rather nervous looking Phill Bates awaiting us.
I was taken back when I introduced myself to Chris, almost intimidated to talk to him at first. I simply didn’t know what to expect of such a high-profile athlete.
As explained the evening before, we were to ride hard, and ride hard we did.
We rolled out fairly relaxed for the first kilometre and then we were straight into it: 10 minutes later it was just Chris, Patrick and myself left – unfortunately for Matt, he had been dropped early with the high pace we set.
Rolling hard turns with the reigning Tour de France champion is an experience I know both Patrick and I won’t forget, especially with encouraging comments from Chris: ”Solid turn” or ”Good turn” – are you kidding? This kind of reaction only poured fuel on our fire. It urged us on even more.
With just the three of us riding consistent turns – and the occasional assistance of a few others from groups that we had passed – we managed to average nearly 39km/h for the first two hours… on undulating roads with a harsh dead surface.
Unfortunately a series of punctures ended Patrick’s day; he was forced to ride in the following support vehicle. This meant that it was me – just me – left as Chris’ chaperone for the next 90km.
A stop just after the sprint in Berridale gave some fans and volunteers the opportunity to meet and take photos with Chris for around 15 minutes. Upon our roll-out from Berridale it was decided that we would “no longer ride full-gas” – his suggestion, I promise – but instead ride at “a little steadier pace”.
From this point onwards I was able to sit beside Froome and talk for the next few hours.
It seems no topic was off the table with Chris: whether it was his early career, the state of professional cycling, or his thoughts on Peter Sagan. We talked about these things and a whole lot more.
I’m incredibly grateful for how he treated me and spoke with me; both myself and Pat earned a little bit of respect from Chris and – and my estimation of him rose to another level. He was a little more open in his conversation with me.
The three or so hours I spent riding side-by-side with Froome was an incredible experience for me. It helped to give me quite a significant insight into what it’s like as a professional cyclist.
One thing that struck me was his theory about many of the riders in the WorldTour – how some are, in fact, not necessarily naturally gifted athletes, rather their success is more the result of dedication to training and a love of the sport. This is something I can relate to – and, I’m sure, so can many others.
I don’t consider myself overly talented but rather someone who is dedicated and hard working on the bike. And it paid off this weekend by being able to ride with Chris on a glorious day in the Snowy Mountains.
I was incredibly impressed with just how professional and approachable Chris is.
I had never met him before but I was able to chat with him as if I had known him for years. Every time we passed someone on the road or someone said anything to Chris, he acknowledge them, encouraged them, and let them take a photo to capture the moment.
Even people who had stopped for mechanicals or one man who was laying on the side of the road with fatigue on the climb to Perisher were not ignored; Chris had the compassion to stop and check that they were okay.
From what I saw on Saturday he is a true gentleman and embodies the image that all professional cyclists should portray. I can think of no better person in the world of cycling – and possibly sport itself – that aspiring athletes should look to for inspiration.
I think that famous athletes sometimes aren’t aware of the impact that they are able to have on people, and also how famous they actually are.
The way I described it to Chris to make him appreciate what it was like for me to ride with him – and probably what it was like for everyone else on the road – was that it would be the equivalent of kicking a ball around the park with the likes of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, something few people will ever do.
I felt he was a little shocked by this statement; he remarked how “cool” it would be to be able to train with Messi or Ronaldo.
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What makes cycling and events like L’Etape so special is that the athletes who we all look up to are so accessible and that is something that should be appreciated but also respected.
I did sense a hint of frustration from Chris when people would ask for a photo or autograph when he was clearly in the middle of something, I can only imagine the level of frustration when he’s at ”work” ie. The Tour de France.
Here’s to hoping Chris can win a fourth Tour de France in 2017, as I know that everyone who encountered him will be screaming at the TV in July and hoping to see him back at next year’s L’Etape.
– By Harrison Bailey