As the Vuelta a España got underway, Sky manager Dave Brailsford spoke of the need for Chris Froome to rebuild his confidence gradually after a season beset by an accumulation of troubles. On the evidence of the race’s foray along the windswept plateau of Castilla-La Mancha on Saturday, the restoration is gathering apace.
Like all of the overall contenders, Froome approached stage 8 to Albacete with vigilance and a dash of trepidation. When the Vuelta came here in 1996, for instance, Fernando Escartin and Tony Rominger lost all hope of victory when they were caught out in crosswinds, while Alejandro Valverde suffered a similar blow in 2003.
There was scarcely a shrub to offer any shelter from the breeze in the final 30 kilometres, and as expected, the Tinkoff-Saxo team of Alberto Contador was forceful in its pace-setting as the peloton reached the most exposed section.
Their efforts helped to split the peloton into three groups shortly afterwards, but unlike at Saint-Amand-Montrond at last year’s Tour de France, Froome was not caught on the back foot. Indeed, his Sky teammates were prominent in winding up the pace in the front group on the final approach to Albacete.
After crossing the line alongside Contador, red jersey Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and all of the podium contenders, Froome explained that he had felt attack was the best form of defence in such a frantic finale.
“It’s a good stage to have behind us today,” Froome said. “The team was fantastic today, always up front and keeping the position. We were definitely more on the offensive today rather than having to react to other people and that’s what we wanted.
“All the guys did a super job today, I’m just glad to get through that one and into the mountains tomorrow.”
Sunday sees the second summit finish of the race, the 8 kilometre haul to Valdelinares, and the Vuelta’s final scene before the first rest day ought to reveal more about the main players.
On Thursday, Froome was – along with Contador – the only man able to follow Valverde when he ripped clear of the leading group in the final kilometre at the Alto Cumbres Verdes. It seemed a confirmation of Froome’s physical condition, but he was coy about the prospect of going on the offensive at Valdelinares.
“I feel decent,” Froome said. “But I think it will be more about following the other favourites for the moment. We’ve still got a lot of racing to come and a lot of climbs to do, that’s for sure.”
The Briton has not, however, been simply following the wheels through the opening week of the Vuelta. The 27 seconds Froome conceded in the opening team time trial may have contributed to his sense of urgency, but he slipped away to gain two bonus seconds on the road to Ronda and then clipped off the front to tag on two more in the finale at Alcaudete on Friday. “I just saw Dan Martin and Philippe Gilbert go for it and I thought I needed to go for it,” he said of that effort.
Sunday’s setting will be a novel one for Froome – “I don’t know the climb, it’s a first for me,” he said – but the cast of characters, it seems, will be very familiar indeed.
“I think all the GC guys are going to be threats,” he said. “There’s Nairo Quintana, Valverde has already shown really good form, Rodriguez and Contador’s in good form. I think it’s going to be a pretty full-on race tomorrow.”