Chris Froome came into this year’s Vuelta a España with a question mark over his form, however, Team Sky's Dave Brailsford has seen plenty of positives in his rider’s performance so far in the race. Froome currently sits fifth overall, just 28 seconds behind race leader Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and although he lost time on stage 9 to Aramón Valdelinares, Brailsford believes that his rider can fight for the win.
“Obviously we came into the race with a bit of an unknown situation with Chris needing time off after his Tour crash but if you stand back and look at how things stand at the moment we can be quite happy with how the race has gone so far,” Brailsford told Cyclingnews.
After nine days of racing, six riders sit within a minute of each other in the overall standings and although Froome suffered on the final climb to Aramón Valdelinares he has raced aggressively in the opening week, attacking several times in the hunt for precious bonus seconds.
“The team has ridden well overall. Chris rode well on the stage to Alcaudete and the emphasis since we’ve been here is to make sure that we commit 100 per cent during the race. He lost a bit of time yesterday and it’s been a hard nine days but overall, if you’d said to me at the start of the race that we’d be in this position, I think we would have been really happy.”
Following today’s rest-day, Tuesday’s individual time trial from Real Monasterio de Santa María de Veruela to Borja could see Froome close the gap and perhaps leapfrog his closest rivals, who include Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Quintana.
Under normal circumstances Froome is arguably the strongest time trialist in contention for the overall. However this Vuelta is a mesh of riders coming back from injury, those retuning to form after a break and some of the more desperate looking to hang onto or improve their contract situation for next season. It’s a blend that has given the Vuelta a sense of excitement and unpredictability.
“You’re dealing with guys coming back, like Chris and Contador. Also we’ve seen Quintana suffer in the heat but come back and be very, very strong. It’s really difficult to call but that’s just made it a fantastic race. There isn’t one guy who is head and shoulders above the rest so I couldn’t really call it.”
Although the Vuelta has become a major objective for the team since Froome’s abandonment at the Tour de France in July, Brailsford stresses that the pressure is off his riders. They are committed to riding for Froome and giving the race 100 per cent, he says, however their mentality differs from the approach they applied in July.
“I don’t think we’ve come here with that same out-and-out winning mentality. We’ve come here with the plan of competing all the way through the race with a leader who is coming back. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got but the mentality is a little bit different because it doesn’t feel like there’s any pressure on us at all. It’s actually been fun.
“We’ve enjoyed the race and taking it all on. The Vuelta is a fantastic race and you’re reminded of that every time you come here. Back home everyone knows the Tour de France but this week, with all the excitement and the close positions on GC, it’s reminded everyone of what a special race the Vuelta is. The race deserves a lot of credit in the racing world.”
Wiggins close to contract agreement
Away from the Vuelta and Brailsford is busily putting the finishing touches to his team for 2015.
One rider who is still to put pen to paper is Bradley Wiggins. It was reported in July that the former Tour de France winner wanted to remain at the team after his existing deal expired at the end of this year. The negotiations between rider and team are still ongoing and Brailsford is positive that a deal can be struck soon.
“We’re still negotiating and trying to piece that one together,” Brailford told Cyclingnews.
“We’re still all trying to make something work. It will not be your straight forward style of rider contract though because there’s the opportunity to do something different, which we hope will support Brad right through until the Olympic ambitions, the Hour Record and a chance to ride the Classics next year.
“We want to build that all into a package that works for both Brad and for Team Sky. That’s why it has taken a little bit longer but we’re all working on it and it’s all positive and optimistic that we can sort something out.”
Wiggins is set to defend his Tour of Britain title later this month before he competes in the time trial at the world championships in Spain.
“The clock is ticking and we have to make some decisions pretty soon but everyone is keen to get it to work.”
Team Sky have been linked with a number of new signings in recent weeks with Nicolas Roche expected to sign and reports in Europe that both Wout Poels and Lars Petter Nordhaug will follow suit. Brailsford refused to discuss the team’s transfer targets, adding that the Vuelta was his main focus and that “while we’re here we’re not making any announcements on new riders. We’ll do that in due course.”
Boasson Hagen moves on
The departure of Edvald Boasson Hagen, however, does leave a gap in the team’s roster. The Norwegian may have had a poor 2014 season by his own standards but he has been a mainstay in the British team since their inaugural season in 2010. His move to MTN Qhubeka on a two-year deal leaves the team without one of their most recognised one-day riders, however Brailsford sees the loss as an opportunity for a number of his other talents to step up.
“We really battled hard to bring Edvald to the team for that first year and we were really proud when he joined us. He’s been a fantastic member of the team and has won over twenty races with us. He won our first Tour de France stage and he’s taken some of our biggest victories. And on top of that he was a consummate teammate,” Brailsford said.
“Ultimately there comes a point in time where it’s good to have a new jersey and a new impetus. I think Edvald still has some strong ambitions and maybe a change is exactly what he needs in his career and while it’s sad when things come to end, sometimes it feels right. He leaves us on very good terms and we’re very thankful of what he’s brought to the team.”
Despite a number of high profile wins there is still a sense that Boasson Hagen could have achieved more at Sky, a factor that MTN will certainly hope they can turn into their own form of success next year.
“There was a certain point in time when he burst onto the scene and it seemed like anything was possible with him. But still he’s had a very solid time with Sky but it’s the right time to change and I’m sure he can still go on and achieve great results.
“Now there are riders like (Salvatore) Puccio and (Luke) Rowe who we’ve developed in the team and at some point in time it’s there opportunity to step up. I think we’ll be looking for the existing guys like (Ian) Stannard, (Geraint) Thomas, (Bernhard) Eisel and Brad to continue their level of performance but then for the Rowe, Puccio and others to take a step forward.”