The last time Chris Froome truly turned the pedals in anger, he had a fractured foot courtesy of a stage 9 crash at the Vuelta a España. The defending Tour de France champion made an appearance at October's Saitama Criterium in Japan following the 2016 Tour de France presentation in Paris, but the prologue of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour on Wednesday would mark a return to competitive racing.
The 95th and penultimate starter of the 2.1-kilometre narrow, twisty and technical prologue along Melbourne’s Southbank, Froome crossed the line in 26th place, eight seconds down on repeat winner Will Clarke (Drapac).
"Definitely a bit of a lung opener that one, just under three minutes so really short, an intense sprint basically,” Froome told reporters near the media tent as fans swarmed the two-time Tour de France champion. "Not too technical, a few corners but pretty narrow and twisty,” he added of the parcours. "Definitely a good ride by Will there to repeat that again and the win by one second, that’s impressive."
With teammate Peter Kennaugh and Damien Howson (Orica-GreenEdge) tying for time on the prologue, Froome starts stage 1 in 27th place on GC as the fourth best placed Team Sky rider with Luke Rowe in 19th place and Sebastian Henao in 25th.
With overcast skies turning to drizzle in the early-evening, Froome explained that his intention for his first race day in 2016 was arrive in one piece at the finish line.
"I am happy with that, the main objective today I think was to stay upright,” he added. "I think the racing is still going to be decided over these next few days and undoubtedly when we get to Arthurs Seat at the end, that’s going to be the big day.”
Froome will start the 126.1km stage 1 loop from Healesville to Healesville through the Yarra Valley tomorrow with a slight deficient to overall rivals Jack Bobridge (Trek-Segafredo), Robert Hucker (AvantiIsowhey Sports) and Lachlan Norris (Drapac) but enjoys an advantage over Orica-GreenEdge’s Jack Haig, Lucas Hamilton (Kordamentha Australia).
With the category one Mt St Leonard climb featuring 20.6km from the finish and ten-bonus seconds on the line for the winner, Clarke anticipates the likes of Team Sky mixing things up tomorrow on a stage Froome describes he is “looking forward to”.
“On paper, they have a lot of guys who have ridden the Tour de France, Froomey has won the Tour de France and they know how to control a race. They could definitely take control I think if they wanted to,” Clarke said.