In the Vuelta a España’s mountainous stages last year, Pete Kennaugh (Sky) was a key factor for teammate Chris Froome, and again in Spain on the Vuelta a Andalucia’s toughest ascent of Hazallanas on Friday, the current British national champion was once more in strong climbing form, and again alongside Froome.
Hard work by Kennaugh on the crucial steep segments of the stage’s 17-kilometre final climb thinned out the chase group behind Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) before Froome went clear. Having played his role, the Isle of Man rider still managed to finish in an impressive eighth place, 2:16 back.
“I’m a lot further ahead than I was this time last year,” Kennaugh told Cyclingnews after the stage as he warmed down outside the Team Sky bus. “My consistency has been really good, starting off well in the Tour Down Under, not playing catch-up as I was last year.
“I did a lot of work in the winter. I had a good block in January with the Tour Down Under too.”
As for the Hazallanas climb itself, it was not just Contador and Froome who were revving up their engines for the season ahead. Kennaugh was testing a different strategy for himself, too, choosing to ride steadier for a longer period, rather than risk burning through his energy levels too quickly by trying to match Contador’s accelerations.
“I was trying to do what Chris was doing, to be honest. I could have just gone with Contador when he went, but I would maybe have lasted two minutes. Instead, I wanted to pace it and limit my losses.”
“Me and Froome didn’t talk much, I knew he was behind me in the group of riders, so I thought I’d just keep it up now, just keep him there. When the group thinned out, he rode up to me, we were together for a bit, then he went ahead and did his thing and I did mine.”
Kennaugh was able to get a first-hand impression of how Froome is climbing, and he has nothing but admiration for his teammate. “He’s in a great place, too. You’ve got to remember that Contador is getting ready for the Giro. I think the way Froome rode was really impressive, he held back, rode within himself. He’s the only kind of rider in the peloton who’s got the skill and confidence and capabilities to do that.”
At the same time, Kennaugh has himself been to the fore on a variety of terrains at the Vuelta a Andalucia. He formed part of the front group on the opening stage after the crash, finished just four seconds behind Froome in the short first day time trial, placed a late attack on stage two’s draggy uphill finish at Lucena and then shone strongly on the Hazallanas climb.
“I’ve got good consistency on different kinds of terrain, which is good for the morale, and it’s good to come to races like this where you have a bit more of an opportunity,” he said.
The Vuelta a Andalucia is something of a test ground for other Sky riders too, such as Nicolas Roche, a new arrival at the team. In the Spanish race the Irishman is taking on, as Kennaugh put it, “a really good role as road captain. He’s good for guidance and to learn from.”
Kennaugh’s versatility will be one factor helping him this spring, where he will be one of the very few riders combining some of the cobbled Classics with participations in the Ardennes. His upcoming race programme kicks off with Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico, followed by Milan-Sanremo as support for Ben Swift – third last year – then E3 Harelbeke, the Tour of Flanders and the Ardennes Classics.
After that, Kennaugh has a short break prior to the Critérium du Dauphiné and – he hopes – the Tour de France. “That’s if it all goes to plan, but you never know. I’m sitting here telling you this now, but three months from now it could be a very different programme.”
At events like Tirreno and the Dauphiné, Kennaugh will have plenty of opportunities both to work alongside Froome and observe the duels between the top names close-up. Regardless of the outcome, Kennaugh argues that such battles are a timely throwback to the face-offs between the big stars of cycling’s golden years.
“Those duels between great champions back in the day were good, but then it settled down for a bit. Now you’ve got the rivalry between Contador, Froome and [Vincenzo] Nibali, it’s good for the fans.”
And as he points out, it’s clear that such duels do not increase interest in the Grand Tours alone, they also benefit the smaller events too. “It’s like this race, people don’t just turn up in their legwarmers and ride round anymore,” Kennaugh said. “I think that’s great for the sport.”