Froome is actually enjoying his racing, says Brailsford

Sky rider to the fore at Arcos de la Frontera

For Chris Froome, the cool down after stage 3 of the Vuelta a España took on a novel form, as he completed the ALS ice bucket challenge outside the Team Sky bus with Pete Kennaugh and trainer Tim Kerrison, to the mirth of the fans who gathered for a glimpse of the former Tour de France winner.

The trio had been nominated by manager Dave Brailsford. Coincidence or not, his devotion to marginal gains seemingly knows no bounds – Monday’s was the hottest stage of the Vuelta to date, with temperatures in excess of 30 degrees as the peloton wound its way from Cadiz to Arcos de la Frontera.

The heat was such that, two buses down, IAM Cycling had an impromptu ice bath on hand for their riders, and Froome was clearly glad of an ice bucket after the stage but he declined to talk to waiting reporters, citing fatigue.

It had, Brailsford explained, been a demanding day in deepest Andalusia, and he had taken heart from Froome’s performance on the short, sharp final climb to the line. The Sky man emerged at the front of the peloton inside the final 500 metres, and while he was unable to match Dan Martin’s fierce acceleration within sight of the line, he claimed 10th place on the stage.

“I don’t think it tells you too much about GC but I must say I was impressed by Chris’ performance,” Brailsford told Cyclingnews. “His starting position at the bottom was 30th so to come out of that corner in first position – he’s moved up well there. It might not be defining but it’s all about little bits of confidence so it’s all good.”

Froome has not raced since crashing out of the Tour de France on the road to Arenberg during the opening week, and Monday’s stage of the Vuelta was an important trial on two levels.

The searing pace on the short final climb provided a brisk anaerobic test in itself, while the technical finale that preceded it was an examination, perhaps, of how well Froome had recovered mentally from his falls at the Dauphiné and the Tour.

“When you’ve had an experience like the Tour where obviously he had his crash, he had to bounce back from that disappointment,” Brailsford said. “All those little things build up your confidence and put your belief systems back in place.

“He’s actually enjoying his racing. I think he’s having fun, which is a great thing. We want to forget anything to do with his past, forget what he’s won, and just think: ‘right, you’re here. You’ve got the condition you’ve got, you’re a bike racer. You enjoy doing it, so go out and do it.’”

Like Froome, Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) lines up at the Vuelta after a crash-shortened Tour, although having made a surprisingly quick return to action after fracturing his tibia, the Spaniard’s condition remains an unknown.

Contador showed few signs of weakness and a good deal of defiance when he followed the accelerations near the front on the final climb, before finishing 16th on the stage, last in the leading group. For those seeking to read the runes regarding his red jersey chances, the verdict was inconclusive.

“I think that’s one of the joys of this race. There’s question marks about where everyone is at, and I think that gives everyone a bit of suspense, it gives it a bit of intrigue,” Brailsford said. “Nobody quite knows and that’s what it’s all about.”

The Vuelta is a race apart in so many respects, not least because so many of its participants know so little about so much of the route. Thursday’s summit finish at La Zubia, for instance, is unfamiliar to Sky and Froome. It would be an unthinkable approach for Sky at the Tour, but in Spain in August, there is an acceptance that not everything can be controlled.

“I know it’s a bit of a cliché but it literally is that we’re taking it stage by stage, kilometre by kilometre and not worrying too much about the future,” said Brailsford, who did wonder if one, latent, issue would begin to make itself felt in the coming days.

“You’ve got to bear in mind that it’s hot here and people deal differently with the heat. For the first few days people are getting used to racing in the heat again, that can be a factor.

“But at the end of the day it’s like a hurdle race and you don’t worry about the seventh hurdle when you’re trying to get over the second. You jump the hurdle that’s in front of you.”

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