Members of the Giro d'Italia convoy leaving Agrigento ahead of stage 5 were greeted by the curious sight of Chris Froome riding in the opposite direction back towards the start, while his bodyguard – rather burlier of build – strained to keep pace on a flat-barred bike behind him.
Froome had elected to warm up for the afternoon's stage by spinning his legs on the road that winds towards the Valley of the Temples, the striking ruins of the ancient Greek city of Akragas, and his security detail was brought along for the ride. The Team Sky rider appeared to be the only man in the peloton to perform such an exercise - an indication, perhaps, that the lingering effects of his crash ahead of the Giro’s opening time trial may not quite have abated.
Uncertainty has, in any case, been the leitmotif of Froome’s Giro thus far, beginning with the thorny question of whether he should be in the race at all given his positive test for salbutamol at last year’s Vuelta a España. The case has yet to be resolved, and there is – despite Giro director Mauro Vegni’s protestations – the very real prospect that Froome's eventual result might be expunged from the record books.
For now, ahead of the Giro's first mountaintop rendezvous at Mount Etna, Froome lies in 20th place overall, some 55 seconds off the maglia rosa of Rohan Dennis (BMC), and 54 behind defending champion Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb). His crash during his pre-stage reconnaissance undoubtedly contributed to his subdued showing in the short Jerusalem time trial on stage 1, but his careless loss of 21 seconds on the fraught run-in to Caltagirone on stage 4 was perhaps a more worrying omen for Team Sky’s management.
Speaking in Agrigento on Wednesday, however, Sky directeur sportif Nicolas Portal reckoned that the concession of ground on the opening day in Sicily had been a matter of positioning rather than condition, maintaining that Froome had simply paid an exaggerated price for losing the wheel of teammate Kenny Elissonde in the final kilometre.
"Someone wanted to take Kenny's wheel and Froomey just lost his momentum. He dropped down from full speed, and that was with 700 or 800 metres to go, when it really started to get hard," Portal said.
"I think Chris is in good shape. He just had bad luck in the prologue and then yesterday is something that hasn't happened often in the past, but it can happen. In five years, we haven't made many mistakes, but we just need to look at how it happened and not let it affect our mentality. We're optimistic and Chris is fine. We'll see more at Etna, and on the next uphill finish."
While Sky can point to mitigating circumstances to explain away Froome's time losses to this point, the Giro's first summit finish at Mount Etna on Thursday afternoon ought to reveal more about the precise nature of his current physical condition.
A block headwind made the Giro's visit to the volcano a year ago something of an anti-climax, but this year's approach by way of Ragalna promises to provide a more selective kind of a race. Even so, Portal believes that most of the podium contenders will race conservatively at this early juncture.
"What you don't want is to lose time on this climb," Portal said. "It’s probably the same thing for most of the GC contenders. They want to race but they also don't want to lose 30 seconds stupidly by going full and then getting caught by a counter-attack near the top. It could be a bit of cat and mouse a little bit, but it’s still a hard climb."
With Froome planning to line out at the Tour de France after the Giro – assuming, of course, that he is allowed to ride given his salbutamol case – he must strike an equilibrium between being strong enough to win in May while holding something in reserve for July. Balancing the equation has proved beyond Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana in recent years, and it remains to be seen if Froome can be any more successful in resolving the problem.
"Early in the season, we don't want to have Chris at 100 per cent yet. We're going to see over the next two, three weeks," Portal said. "The big challenge is to get Chris in good shape, but not too strong, too early, because he's got a big challenge in July."
But while Froome may have hoped to bide his time for the Giro's extremely demanding third week in the high Alps, his brace of early setbacks means that he surely needs to start recouping the time lost to Dumoulin, in particular, given that the Dutchman will expect to shine again in the Rovereto time trial on stage 16.
Portal rejected the idea, however, that Sky would approach the early summit finishes at Etna on Thursday and Gran Sasso d'Italia on Sunday with greater urgency as a result of Froome's current deficit.
"Ok, we're a few seconds down on GC, but he never did plan to smash Etna," Portal said. "Etna is early, and I don't think it's going to be the decisive climb of the Giro. There are so many hard climbs, and they are back-to-back in the second week and the third week. You might win Etna with 30 seconds and then totally explode in the second or third week. So we just need to go day-by-day, and make sure our guys are still getting better and better every day."
In Santa Ninfa on Wednesday evening, meanwhile, the maglia rosa Dennis downplayed the notion that Froome, who has so dominated stage racing in the years since his sudden and surprising emergence at the 2011 Vuelta, might be vulnerable on Etna.
"You can never say he's going to do badly. He's always going to do good, even when he isn't good," Dennis said. "I don’t know if he's at his best, but you can't rule him out in a hilltop finish."
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.