Chris Froome's overall victory at the Tour of Oman may well be go down in the history books as one small step during a long career but the significance of his performance is surely a giant leap forward for his chances of winning the Tour de France in July.
Froome finished second in the 2011 Vuelta a España and then second in last year's Tour de France, but the difference between first and second is huge because of the pressure, responsibility and all the extra obligations that come with a leaders jersey.
Sky manager Dave Brailsford and head coach Tim Kerrison were both in Oman to observe Froome's performance, how he interacted with his teammates and how they worked for Froome as a leader.
He seemed to pass the first test of 2013, learning more about team leadership, race leadership and competing against Alberto Contador in the decisive moments of a race. There was the odd moment in the race when Froome was caught out of position and Contador rode aggressively to try and take advantage. However, Froome was markedly fitter than the Spaniard and responded clinically to his attacks, imposing his authority by winning stage five. He headed home to Monte Carlo with much more confidence, a word he repeated like a mantra whenever he talked about the significance of his week in Oman.
"It feels like it's been a very fast progression, I've just been trying to take it all in," Froome told the written media present in Oman during an informal press event.
"It's still very early days but when I came here there were question marks about where I'd be against all these big names. I guess my confidence has grown this week."
Froome bought his teammates a round of drinks the night before the final stage as a symbolic way of paying them back for their hard work and support during the Tour of Oman.
All the riders worked hard during the six days of racing, with Richie Porte playing an especially vital role in finale of the mountain stages. The friendly Tasmanian and the Kenyan-born Briton already have a special relationship. They are both based in Monte Carlo during the season and it is likely that Porte will go on to be Froome’s most vital teammate at the Tour de France.
"The guys have done a fantastic job this week and a round of drinks is nothing in comparison to what they did for me," Froome said of his teammates.
"It's quite a daunting feeling knowing that everyone is there for you, but being able to finish it off and win a stage is great. The fact that I can finish it off like that and secure the win makes it all worth it. All of us will come away with a smile on our faces.
"The confidence people have in me has grown. I think coming here my teammates were perhaps wondering if I would be on the podium or top five. But to come away having beaten a lot of GC contenders, that gives my teammates a lot of confidence and naturally raises your profile as leader."
The Froome-Wiggins relationship
The relationship between Froome and Bradley Wiggins will no doubt be analysed and dissected as much as Froome’s racing and results.
For now, an amnesty seems to be holding and Wiggins worked hard for Froome in Oman. However, there appears to be little empathy between them. At stage starts and finishes in Oman, each man did his own thing: they were rarely seen chatting, they did not travel together during the many transfers nor did they line up at the start together.
Brailsford and the Team Sky management are working hard to ensure everyone portrays a sense of harmony and brotherhood. Wiggins said he hadn't talked to Froome about how to handle the pressure of stage race leadership but Froome seems happy to stay on message, saying that Wiggins had mentored him to victory.
"Bradley's raced in a different role, helping me, looking after me, he's actually been really great," Froome said.
"It's been great having his input. He's been through all this last year; having the team behind him, having that pressure, so it's been really good for me to have him by my side and in a way mentor me through this. It's only someone like him, who has achieved so much, who is able to help like that."
The two riders' long-term goals and ambitions highlight their distinct differences of character and personality. Wiggins is targeting the Giro d'Italia this year after acknowledging he didn’t want to face the same pressures and go through the same routine needed to prepare for the Tour de France. Froome revealed that he hopes to target the Tour for the rest of his career. Froome is chalk to Wiggins' cheese.
"I know I have limited time as a cyclist, probably another 8 to 12 years maximum, so for me personally I want to be best I can be for those 8-12 years. That means lining up at Tour each year with goal of at least being in contention," Froome said.
"I'd love to win the Tour one day, if I win it then I'm sure hunger would be there to go back for it."
Taking on Contador
Froome was flanked by two former Tour de France winners on the final Tour of Oman podium. It is still only February but the significance of Froome beating Contador – arguably the best stage rider of his generation – is huge, especially psychologically.
"The hardest moment was on Friday, on the final climb, when Contador attacked and I was isolated. I had to close the gap or he would have won the race," Froome recalled.
"He is definitely the rider to look out for when it comes to stage racing, so to be in front of him at the moment is a good place to be, it leaves me feeling very confident."
Building the season on good foundations
Despite the Tour of Oman being his first race of the 2013 season, Froome had the form to get the better of Contador and win the distinctive red jersey.
After the efforts of targeting the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España in 2012, Froome spent most of the winter training in the rarefied air of Johannesburg, where he now has a house. He clearly has laid down a solid foundation to his season. He revealed he still 2.5kg above his best race weight but that the bilharzias infection that has affected him on and off since 2009 now seems under control.
"Oman has been a really good indication where my form is at the moment, and that the training I've done over the past couple of months in Johannesburg in South Africa has been the right kind of training," he explained.
Froome will no doubt begin the quality workouts in the hills of the South of France this week as he starts to think of his next race and next showdown with Contador, Evans, Nibali and Rodriguez: Tirreno- Adriatico (March 6-12).
He tried to play down expectations of another victory but will surely be looking to continue wining and so take another step towards success at the Tour de France in July.
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