Sky's Tour de France TTT: Froome to begin fightback, Thomas eyeing yellow

DS Nico Portal says the pressure is on with Sky in rare position of needing to claw back time

Chris Froome emerged from the Team Sky bus in Mouilleron-Saint-German on Sunday morning to a throng of television cameras, all eager to discover how he was feeling after his dramatic crash towards the end of the opening stage. Froome assured everyone he was absolutely fine, and proceeded to the start line to embark on what turned out to be another chaotic stage, albeit one he came through unscathed.

Staying upright was the order of the day, but it would not undo the more lasting damage of that crash, which was a deficit of 51 seconds to most of his rivals for the yellow jersey.

As Team Sky directeur sportif Nicolas Portal noted, they find themselves on the unfamiliar ground of having time to make up at the Tour de France, with Froome having led from early on in all four of his victories.

"It's something a bit new. Well, we had that situation a bit in the Giro for a while, but in the Tour it's something different for us," Portal said.

"Chris is 51 seconds down. OK, we need to gain time, that's for sure. It's going to be in the team time trial, we hope, and it's going to be in the mountains, or maybe even in the crosswinds. We have to take some time back. When you look at Chris' Tour de France victories, except maybe last year, he has often had a big advantage, and you're trying to ride a little bit safer because it would be stupid to race hard, hard, hard. So it's something a bit new."

The recuperation process starts on Monday with the 35-kilometre stage 3 team time trial in Cholet. On the rolling but fast course, Sky, who won the TTT at the recent Critérium du Dauphiné in resounding fashion, are expected to be in the mix for the stage win and to put time into the weaker GC teams.

"Victory would obviously be perfect," said Portal. "It would give a lot of confidence to the group. But strategically, even if we don't win, a successful time trial for us is putting time into our GC rivals. Even if we're not on the podium, the important thing is to gain time back on GC.

"We need to make as few errors as possible and do the best 'chrono' we can, to really get everything out of the stage. That's what adds pressure – knowing that the 35 kilometres are 35 kilometres of opportunity, for everyone."

Somewhat unusually, Team Sky will be the second of the 22 teams off the start ramp in Cholet on Monday afternoon. The start times are set according to the reverse order of the teams classification and Sky, with Thomas their only rider who finished in the front peloton on stage 1, sit second bottom.

"We all set off in the afternoon, over the space of about an hour. It's not like an individual time trial, where you have 150 riders and between the first and last rider you can have big changes in weather conditions," Portal said.

"It's always interesting, though, to see how other teams get on. What's interesting maybe is the technical aspect: what speed they're taking the corners, where they went too fast – looking for their faults, in fact. But we've reconned the course well. We arrived three days before the Tour and went to ride it. We reconned it three times, and made some race-pace efforts. It will be important to do it again in the morning with the roads closed."

Asked how much time Sky could reasonably hope to pull back, Portal was non-committal, but he did predict the gaps would be less significant than at the Dauphiné, where they won by 37 seconds, with only three teams able to get within a minute.

Thomas in pole position

While all the attention still hovers around four-time Tour champion Froome, his teammate and nominal 'co-leader', Geraint Thomas, has made a quietly assured start to this year's race.

Indeed, it could be the Welshman everyone's talking about after stage 3, with a very real prospect of him pulling on the yellow jersey as overall leader.

Thomas has avoided trouble on both stages so far, and even stole a second at the all-new 'bonus sprint' on Sunday, although it was more a case of opportunism than a pre-meditated grab for time. He now sits seventh overall, one second up on the GC contenders, with the exception of Froome, BMC's Richie Porte, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), who are all further back after the opening-day chaos.

"We were up there and no one was going for it," Thomas said of the bonus-second sprint, although it could hardly be described as such. "[Philippe] Gilbert went and no one else seemed to follow, and I was, like, 'I'll go, then.' I was there, so I went. It didn't take any effort, and I'm not going to turn down a second."

Thomas has approached this Tour de France as if he were a leader in his own right, even if Chris Froome, who commands more status thanks to his four titles, is present and correct after being cleared in his salbutamol case.

Thomas, who won the Dauphiné last month, has said that team leadership will be decided in the Alps, once the treacherous opening nine days have been negotiated. In theory, he and Froome should both gain time on most of their rivals in the TTT, but it's Thomas who is expected to fare better on the pivotal cobblestones on stage 9 to Roubaix, and the 51-second gap between the two could well increase.

Asked about Thomas and the structure of the team, Sky manager Dave Brailsford said: "We have to get to the rest day first. This race will change a lot between now and that rest day. Until we get there, there is no point speculating.

"Every day of this first block, it's all about navigating through as best we can. Then the dynamic of the race will change totally. Then we can start thinking about the second strategy, if you like, but until we know where we're at, it's futile to think about it."

As for Thomas, he insisted that the yellow jersey, which carries with it that leadership status, wasn't at the forefront of his mind.

"We'll try to get the stage win first, and if I do end up in yellow, then that would be a really nice bonus," he said of the team time trial. "But the main thing is to go full-gas for the stage win." 

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