Chris Froome (Team Sky) suffered a surprise defeat on the Alta de Allanadas summit finish on stage 2 of the Ruta del Sol, but denied that the media storm surrounding his participation in the race was the reason.
Froome is competing in his first race since news broke in December of his adverse analytical finding for salbutamol at the 2017 Vuelta a España. He said he was "not on a great day" and that he had struggled somewhat as a result, getting dropped from the lead group with less than a kilometre to go.
The Briton did not crack completely, however, and crossed the line in seventh place, 27 seconds down on stage winner and teammate Wout Poels, and 25 seconds behind his best-placed rival, Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana).
Although sweating from his exertion in the unexpectedly warm afternoon sunshine – as were many other riders – Froome pedalled smoothly across the finish line and continued to ride a little around the finish area. He then briefly responded to reporters' questions before riding down the 6km climb to his team bus.
"Wout's win is an amazing result for the team," Froome said. "I wasn't feeling super but I think for my first race of the season, I'm happy with at least being up there or thereabouts and there's definitely a lot more to come."
Froome had warned before the stage that he wasn't on a great day, and that the team could use other options. Although he stayed with the leaders for most of the climb, he was never looking to be on the front foot, and on a climb with segments of up to 17 per cent, Froome finally cracked three quarters of the way up.
On a tough stage through the sierras of eastern Andalucia, the Team Sky leader said he had told the team early on that it would be better to move to plan B and ride on behalf of Poels.
"I called it pretty early. I told the team I wasn't feeling at my absolute best, and I said to the guys, 'Let's put everything behind Wout and give it everything we've got,'" Froome explained.
Quite apart from the setback, Froome insisted that he was enjoying the race, and he described the Spanish crowds as "amazing." But his relative difficulty on the Allanadas contrasted notably with his strong performance in the same climb three years ago, when in much tougher weather conditions he managed to drop Alberto Contador and take the stage win en route to final overall victory.
However, Froome denied that the distractions off the bike, as one reporter rather tactfully put it, had had anything to do with his less powerful ride compared to 2015. Ahead of Wednesday's opening stage, Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford defended the decision to field Froome in the race.
"Not at all, not at all," Froome said. "This is my first race. I wasn't necessarily coming here expecting to smash the whole race. I think we've got the leader's jersey now with Wout so we'll do absolutely everything to keep that jersey on his shoulders."
Froome should have a more straightforward day on Friday, on a flat run across central Andalusia that is expected to end in a bunch sprint. On Saturday, there will be another test in the form another, albeit much shorter, uphill finish.