After two years of winning his debut race of the season in the Tour of Oman, Team Sky's Chris Froome has decided to change his routine and instead start 2015 at the Vuelta a Andalucia on Wednesday. He was in a decidedly upbeat mood prior to tackling his first event of the year, to the point where he did not rule out going for the top spot overall.
Froome last raced the Vuelta a Andalucia in 2011, finishing 50th, but with so many races in the interim he couldn't recall any details of how he performed then, "It's all blurred into one," he said. His victories in Oman in 2013 and 2014, though, are much fresher in his mind, as are his reasons for changing to Andalucia, which runs concurrently with Oman, as his debut race for 2015.
"Obviously I won Oman two years in a row and it was a great experience and a nice way to start the season but I felt it was time for a new challenge," Froome told reporters in a press conference on Tuesday evening.
"I think already at Oman last year I decided I'd come here, given Oman is mainly about one day's racing" - to the Green Mountain summit finish - "whereas here there are a few days of pretty hard, full-on racing," with a time trial and two summit finishes, as well as tomorrow's first stage battle with the crosswind. "so it's perhaps a better way for me to start the season."
As a result, Froome will be testing his form against Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), arguably his key rival for the Tour de France. "I had no idea Alberto would be riding here, but I'm quite happy he is, it's good to have a measure [of how his rivals are racing] early on and you can't take too much away from it for the Tour, but it's good to get that gauge of where everyone's at."
Froome did not say that his own performance in Andalucia would radically change the way he approached the way he looked at the rest of the year because "I know the work I've done to get here. I've still got a lot more work before I'm in Tour de France form.
"I don't know where Alberto's at right now, but I've had a really decent winter, and I'm very happy with the work I've done, there have been minimal interruptions, good training and the weight’'s good, I've done all the exercises I need to do, I feel healthy and I'm hungry to get in it again."
Asked if he saw the Vuelta a Andalucia as his first building block towards the Tour de France, Froome answered "for me, the preparation for the 2015 Tour already started when I crashed out of the race last year. I was already at home getting ready for the Vuelta a España last year, already looking forward to this season, but my build-up for the Tour started a long time ago. This is just another step towards that.
"I feel good here, I feel relaxed, ready to start racing, I've been training for a long time and my last race was at the World Championships last year, and I'm ready to test my condition.
"This early in the season it's very difficult to tell the exact level of where we are, and it’s a nice opportunity."
Asked if he was going to be good enough to win, Froome smiled and said "that's why most guys are here, to try and win it… We've got a really good team here, I'm coming off of a good training block back in South Africa, so we'll try and win the race for sure."
As for whether Contador's presence changed his attitude to Andalucia, Froome said, "it'll be interesting to see where rivals like Alberto Contador are in terms of their condition but for sure, so early in the season, there are a lot of guys who can win the race, it's not just me or Alberto, it's going to be a tough week.
"We expect he'll be going well, he's coming off a good training camp, and now we will know how he's going," Sky sports director for Andalucia, Dario Cioni, told Cyclingnews. "It's quite a tough start to the season, this is a real test of a race. There's not only the two big climbs on stages 3 and 4 as finishes, there’s also a difficult time trial tomorrow [Thursday].
"At the end of the week, we will know how Chris is going. Everyone would like a good result, and for Chris a good result would be to win, but it depends on him and how the others are. The first race is of each season is always a bit of a surprise."
Froome was not present in the 2013 Vuelta a España, when Spain's flagship race tackled the Alto de Hazallanas and which now will be a probably decisive summit finish of stage 3 of the Vuelta a Andalucia, "but he's seen it on video. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to have good legs."
Asked, as was to be expected given he is in Spain, about Contador's potential retirement in two years, Froome refused to comment directly. However, he was more forthcoming about his own future, saying "Every rider is different, for me personally I love riding my bike and I hope to be able to continue til I'm 40 - or until my body will allow me. If Alberto is retiring, then he wants to finish at the top, and he's definitely at the top - that's his decision."