• Despite being the gentleman he is, Chris Froome has a way of getting inside his rivals' heads. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
In an age of political correctness gone mad, many of our cycling stars lack the temerity to battle with words as effectively as they do with their wheels, writes Anthony Tan.
Cycling Central
31 Oct 2017 - 12:04 PM  UPDATED 31 Oct 2017 - 12:22 PM

"I try and look in the opposition's eyes and try and work out: 'How can I dislike this player? How can I get on top of him?' You have to delve and dig deep into yourself to actually get some hatred about them to actually get up when you're out there."

Predictably, the Australian men's cricket team vice-captain's war of words in the lead-up to the 2017-18 Ashes series against England drew an equally pugnacious response from the politically correct; "pathetic", "destructive", "deplorable" among the adjectives used to describe his rhetoric.

"As soon as you step on that line it's war," David Warner told the ABC. "You try and get into a battle as quick as you can."

What's wrong with that? What's wrong with showing a bit of mongrel?

In any elite sport, be it individual or team-based, commentators often speak about those who excel versus those who do not, or at least not as well, in such terms. Physical talent is one thing, but if it cannot be matched by mental robustness, great success is unlikely to eventuate.

As sports writer Gideon Haigh observed of Warner in The Australian newspaper a few weeks ago, "His most provocative word was actually not war, battle or hatred - the hackneyed hyperbole of an age in which nothing is knowingly understated - but try."

Explained Haigh: "Warner was straining, awkwardly, to convey that tapping into peak aggression does not come naturally; it requires an individual to 'delve and dig deep'; it might even necessitate generating a simulated animosity."

To which Warner later acknowledged. "Everyone's mates, we are mates, but sometimes you have to really try and work a way out to actually build some kind of - I used the word hatred' the other day - but some dislike, make things a little uncomfortable for blokes when they're out there."

His One Day Internationals and Test Match figures over the past five to six years speak for themselves, certainly far louder than any sledging he's dished out.

While most claim not to think about their adversaries outside of the racing environment - "I focus only on what I can control" is an oft-parroted line - Froome dwells on those he's up against quite a bit.

In professional cycling, I think we've got to a point where most are afraid to try to hate in a way Warner so efficaciously does. Too often nowadays, we see those who lose a sprint against Marcel Kittel give him a pat on the back or bum immediately after crossing the line.

What for? You just lost, son - again!

Too often, we have seen those who have just finished behind Chris Froome on a mountaintop finish also congratulate him for his efforts; a handshake from Alberto Contador, a chapeau from Romain Bardet, a deferential nod from Nairo Quintana.

What for? His team did most of the work; he just finished things off, just like he finished you off. Again!

The moment someone like Vincenzo Nibali gives the Kenyan-born Brit a bit of stick, the Twitterverse admonishes him for it. He's Sicilian, after all - how do you expect him to be?!

Even before this year's Tour began, Froome was getting inside the head of his rivals, or at least trying to.

Take, for instance, Richie Porte, his former bestie/super-domestique at Team Sky. On the final stage of the Criterium du Dauphiné, he said the Tasmanian was the favourite for the Tour despite having just capitulated to overall winner Jakob Fuglsang - not to mention he's never finished on the Paris podium. "I'd still say that Richie was far and away the strongest man in the race. He did get caught out tactically, his team did get caught out tactically today, but I still say that he's the favourite for July and the strongest rider in the peloton at the moment."

Bollocks. Froome, irrespective of the fact he had not won a race all season, knew exactly where he was, and where he needed to be. And he knew what he said would get picked up by every media outlet present at the Dauphiné, which is exactly what happened.

Asked if he had the mental edge over Porte, he told Cyclingnews: "I don't think so."

It should go without saying I'm not referring to - nor condoning - the kind of racial sledging that Froome's team-mate Gianni Moscon took liberty in dishing out to FDJ's Kévin Reza at this year's Tour de Romandie, for which he received a six-week ban. (Team Sky has said a second offence will result in termination of the Italian's contract, which has since been extended.)

Such slurs show a lack of intelligence and respect for your peers regardless of race, colour or religion. They're also symptomatic of what has been, until very recently, a very Anglo/Euro-looking professional peloton, and the rather sheltered lives of certain individuals within it. (Read in The Conversation: 'The unbearable whiteness of cycling'.)

While most claim not to think about their adversaries outside of the racing environment - "I focus only on what I can control" is an oft-parroted line - Froome recently told The Cycling Podcast that he dwells on those he's up against quite a bit. "I do. I do. I do," he confessed in an interview with journalist Richard Moore.

"Especially in my training, I think about how I'm going to tackle a race. I think it also changes, tactically how we ride a race, how we we ride a Grand Tour.

"In the Tour this year, for example, knowing that time trial in Marseille was at the end of the race, I'd hedged most of my bets on being better than Romain Bardet and the (other) pure climbers. I didn't necessarily need to attack the climbs."

He also mentioned "the level of my rivals is getting higher each year". It goes some way to explain his continual foraging for small advantages, or marginal gains as his boss Dave Brailsford likes to call them, be it improvement in his descending ability, attacking only when necessary rather than to make a statement, or getting inside the heads of his competitors. "I think next year is going to be all that (closer) again," he said.

After four wins in the last five attempts, the 32-year-old from Nairobi is becoming a master at controlling a cycling race with arguably more variables than any other. So far, he has not only managed to tame the course, despite everything Christian Prudhomme and race competitions director Thierry Gouvenou have thrown at him, but his rivals, too, it seems.

Let's hope the latter aren't so easily beaten by his words before they reach the Vendée Grand Départ on July 7 next year.