Chris Froome tries his hand as a racing driver
YOU get the impression Chris Froome doesn't really know what's hit him. A month ago he was pedalling furiously up some of Europe's toughest climbs in the successful pursuit of his first Tour de France victory. Now he's been decked out in his skintight suit and is being asked to pedal furiously against a Jaguar F-type on a private test track. Such is the price of fulfilling your life's ambition. "Although I watched [teammate] Bradley [Wiggins] go through this last year, I didn't really appreciate how different winning the Tour would be compared to finishing second, as I did in 2012. I've only had two days at home since June and now I'm on the road for another month."
This morning started with interviews from 8am, then he's off to Heathrow for a flight to the US and his first competitive event since his victory in Paris. In comparison to the feisty, charismatic Sir Wiggo, Froome is a considered, quietly spoken and introspective character. One suspects he'd rather be punishing his body on some god-forsaken hillside than talking to a journalist, but he knows it's part of the game. Moreover, he admits he's enjoying some of the trappings of success.
After he won this year's Tour, Team Sky sponsor Jaguar presented Froome with a F-type roadster, complete with a bespoke yellow stripe. There's a picture of him leaving a Paris hotel looking like a cat who's found an endless supply of cream. This trip to Jaguar's private test track at Gaydon in Warwickshire is a chance for him to drive without the constraints of the law and celebrity status.
Cycling might be best known as an endurance sport, but there are more similarities with motor racing than you might think. On this year's Tour, the riders descended Alpine and Pyrenean passes at more than 60mph on skinny tyres and wearing little more than Lycra. Staying upright and in touch with the man in front requires plenty of skill and big balls.
"It's all about taking the right line and conserving momentum, like on a race track," explains Froome. It's a dangerous game.
On the stage to Gap this year, Froome very nearly crashed while chasing arch rival Alberto Contador. Serious injuries are common and in 1995 Fabio Casartelli lost his life while descending the Col de Portet d'Aspet. "When you're in the yellow jersey it's a nervous time and you're just keen to get down in one piece. But when you're out training, you can have some fun and throw the bike around a bit. It's good to get the adrenaline flowing." Froome admits his technique spills over into his driving. "I've discussed this with my teammates and we're all the same. You find yourself taking similar lines in a car. I'll instinctively find myself leaning through corners, which must look ridiculous."
Gaydon isn't known for its mountain passes, but it does have challenging high-speed corners and a long stretch of what looks like motorway. It's here that Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin test drivers develop the cars of tomorrow.
Despite living in Monaco, Froome admits he's had little experience of a proper racetrack. His everyday car is an Audi SQ5, the sporty version of Audi's SUV which, he admits, is perfect for carrying his cycling clobber. Jaguar's promised to loan him an F-type for a year, but that's commensurate on him securing an extra parking space, no easy task in Monte Carlo. Froome is ushered into the driving seat of a F-type V8 S with track manager Chris Bailey for company. There's a signature V8 roar and they're off. We stand and watch for a few minutes as the F-type powers past, Froome getting up to speed with his new discipline. Then they're back in the pits.
"That was brilliant," he says. "The car I had at the end of the tour was a V6 but the V8 is so much faster. There was a lot to get used to. I was trying to find the point at which it starts to slide, but it's got so much grip. It'd take me more time to get properly up to speed."
Bailey was impressed with his charge. "We host a lot of business leaders and celebrities here and most get above 100mph and start to feel nervous. Chris was straight up to the 155mph top speed on the straight and on the second lap he was really starting to push it in the corners.
"Through the hairpin I could feel he was trying to find the limit of the car to the point where I was starting to think 'hang on'. You can understand why he's a sportsman. He's a nice, normal guy, but you can see how focused and single-minded he is."
Minutes later, his fat-free frame is poured into a race suit and he's sent for a passenger ride in a C-X75, Jaguar's prototype for a hybrid supercar. It's not destined for production and is thus beyond the reach even of a millionaire Tour de France winner.
"It's difficult to know what was more impressive," Froome says on his return, "the near silence of the electric mode or the speed when the petrol engine kicks in."
He can barely get his words out before he's whisked off to sign some shirts and then pose for shots on his bike. This must be his life now. I can tell he's enjoyed the experience and tells he'd "love to do a proper track day," but he's being pulled in a million different directions.
By the end, I almost feel sorry for "Froomey". It must be a relief to finally get back on his bike.
Goes on tour... stays on tour
The basic shape of a Tour de France bike might not have changed dramatically over the years, but the technology certainly has. The Pinarello Dogma 65.1Think2 ridden by Team Sky has an asymmetrical carbon-fibre frame, an electronic gear change and weighs just 6.8kg (the minimum allowed by the cycling rules). It also has an onboard computer measuring everything from your real time power output to your heart rate and altitude. Should you feel the need to ride like a Tour winner, Pinarello will sell you one for around £10,000 but you still have to pedal yourself.
A lot less effort
An easier option than the bike is to spend £79,985 on an F-type V8 S, the fastest version of Jaguar's new roadster. It has a comfier saddle and a supercharged 5.0-litre V8 developing 488bhp. To put that into context, even a man of Froome's ability will generate little more than 2bhp on his bike.