Chris Froome (Team Sky) doesn't go many places in Colombia without a police escort. The four-time Tour de France winner is incredibly popular in a country rich with cycling history and has an abundance of enthusiastic fans.
While talking with Cyclingnews and an Italian journalist in the WorldTour team hotel at Tour Colombia 2.1 on Thursday, Froome's fans had to almost literally be held back by the Team Sky's press officer because a crowd started to gather as soon as Froome appeared in the hotel lobby for the interview.
Although Froome's safety and peace of mind are well-taken care of here, there's nothing his security detail can do to make the country's high altitude any easier to deal with.
"You can definitely feel it," Froome said of the thin Colombian air. "I think most of the European guys are feeling it too, despite having been here for two weeks already. But that's what I'm here for, to soak up as much of it as I can and hopefully improve the condition going into the races coming up this spring."
Froome's 2019 season is aimed headlong at claiming a record-tying fifth Tour de France win this year after his Giro-Tour double last year netted him a win in Italy but only third in the Tour behind winner and teammate Geraint Thomas and runner-up Tom Dumoulin.
The Team Sky leader has raced four successive Grand Tours, starting with his fourth Tour win in 2017, followed by a win at the 2017 Vuelta a Espana and then success at the 2018 Giro d'Italia. His record in the four Grand Tours was three wins and one third place. That's not a bad legacy for any cyclist, but Froome, who will turn 34 in May, is fully focused now on winning his fifth Tour.
"Every year I'm extremely motivated for the Tour," he said when Cyclingnews asked if not winning last year brought him extra motivation for this year's race.
"I have to say that last year, I mean I can admit already that last year – it was four Grand Tours in a row and having won three of them – I basically just had a level of fatigue going into the Tour last year," he said. "This year I feel different: so much more energy, so much more focus having had a good break after the season last year. I'm as motivated as ever to get to the Tour this year."
After Colombia, Froome said, he'll travel to the Middle East for the seven-stage UAE Tour, then he'll race the Tour de Yorkshire in Great Britain and the Criteium du Dauphine in France as his final race before the Grand Boucle in July.
Team Sky will be going into the race with the defending champion in Thomas, in what would appear to be an obvious obstacle for Froome's July ambitions. But he said he doesn't view his and Thomas' standing with the team at the Tour de France as internal competition.
"We'll just help each other as we have in the past," he said. "But it's still way too early to be talking about how it can work and the rest of it. There are still a lot of races to come before then, and a lot can happen before then as well."
Froome would be 35 at the 2020 Tour de France and would be the second-oldest rider ever to win if he found success there again. Only Firmin Lambot, who won the race in 1922 at the age of 36, would top him. Yet Froome told Cyclingnews he hasn't given much thought to how many more Tours he can target.
"I'm just taking it one at a time for now," he said. "It isn't getting any easier every time. I mean, sure, I've got experience on my side now, and I can trust in my training and trust in what I'm doing and know that my work with [trainer] Tim Kerrison will get me to the Tour in my best shape possible."
Asked if he'd ever ride another Giro-Tour double, perhaps in 2020, Froome said he'd consider it and that pulling off the double-feat is certainly possible in today's racing.
"Dumoulin came close last year with second in both," he said. "I came close last year with first and third. So, it's a possibility, sure."
Finding a new sponsor
Before Froome and his team can look to 2020, however, they've get to get through 2019 and replace long-term title sponsor Sky, which announced in December that 2019 would be their final year of sponsorship.
The team, and principal Dave Brailsford, have been linked to several possible sponsors for 2019, including Colombian oil company Ecopetrol, but the UCI's new rule requiring teams to notify the governing body of their intent to apply for a WorldTour license by April 1 adds a fast-approaching deadline to keep the team at the top level.
Despite this, Froome said he hasn't thought about looking elsewhere for 2020 or how long he can wait for new funding to be put in place to support a 2020 WorldTour squad.
"It hasn't really crossed my mind to look elsewhere, to be honest," he said. "I'm confident the team will find a new title sponsor for next year. Obviously, Sky have been incredible to us over the last 10 years, and we've been incredibly fortunate to have a sponsor for 10 years. That's quite rare in cycling. But I've got every faith in the management of the team in that they'll secure something going forward for 2019 and beyond."
There are several options for Froome as the twilight of his career approaches. Asked if he'd consider riding out his final days on an African team, or possibly a Colombian team, Froome left the door open.
"That hadn't crossed my mind, but, yeah, sure," he said. "Anything is possible, especially in this day and age. But I haven't given either of those options much thought, to be honest."