Chris Froome (Team Sky) chased down attacks from Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and chaperoned his young teammates on stage 3 of the Tour of the Alps, showing that he is gradually finding his form after a difficult start to the 2019 season.
The four-time Tour de France winner and Team Sky leader could have demanded Pavel Sivakov and Tao Geoghegan Hart ride for him, but after losing time on stage 2, Froome went deep and worked hard in a vital domestique role, doing a huge effort on the final climb of the 106km stage to ensure that Sivakov stayed in the race leader's cyclamen jersey and Geoghegan Hart could save himself for the sprint.
Only Fausto Masnada (Androni Giocattoli) stopped Team Sky from taking a third stage victory, but Froome was happy to have his mojo back and congratulated and quickly debriefed with Sivakov and Geoghegan Hart before leaving them to take the spotlight.
"Both Pavel and Tao have done a great job this week already, picking up a couple of stage wins, and Pavel is obviously in a good place to defend the jersey. I think they've both shown a lot of maturity and I think a lot of promise for the future," Froome explained beyond the finish line in Baselga di Pine.
"I'm trying to help out where I can and at least put them in the best place to try to win this race. I'm going to turn myself inside out to help him."
Sivakov, 22, is surprised to be the race leader at the Tour of the Alps, and stage 2 was his first win as professional. He is happy to be able to count on Froome's support.
"It's crazy when you think about it. I'm really happy to have him here during the race. He's been in this kind of situation so many times, so if needed, I can ask him and he gives me their advice on how to do it," Sivakov explained.
"We thought it would be a much more tricky stage but team did an amazing job and controlled all day. Even when Nibali and Majka attacked, Chris and Tao did a great job."
Back on track for the Tour de France
Froome was keen to enjoy a more gradual build-up to the 2019 Tour de France after the stress of his salbutamol case and targeting the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in 2018. He will not defend his Giro d'Italia victory, focusing on winning a fifth Tour de France in July.
Froome trained in Africa and then at altitude before his season debut at the Colombia 2.1 race in early February, but a crash took him out of overall contention. He surprisingly decided to skip the UAE Tour, saying he needed to "recover fully from Colombia', only revealing on the eve of the Tour of the Alps that he had not been well.
He rode the Volta a Catalunya in late March and recently spent time at altitude on Mount Teide before heading to the Tour of the Alps. He is expected to headline the presentation of new sponsor Ineos before riding the Tour de Yorkshire next week.
"I'm not feeling bad. Yesterday I was just caught out on the descent, but my legs don't feel to bad," Froome said of his time loss on the fast descent of the Passo Monte Giovo.
"I think the form's where it needs to be at this moment in the build up to the Tour. I'm happy with the feelings."
Team Sky will officially become Team Ineos on May 1, marking the end of a decade of sponsorship for the British WorldTour team. Froome has been part of the team since its debut in 2010 and is expected to stay loyal to team manager Dave Brailsford for the rest of his career. His current contract ends after the 2020 season, when he will be 35.
Froome would love to end the Team Sky era with a last victory at the Tour of the Alps.
"It'd be incredible if we could win this as the last race for us in Team Sky colours. It'd be really special if we could win this race," he said.