Chris Froome's hugely successful 2013 season began with an impressive victory at the Tour of Oman and he appeared lean and keen to challenge for a second successful victory when he sat down with the media on the eve of the race.
Froome will wear dossard number one when the Tour of Oman kicks of on Tuesday. Last year the six-day race marked the start of his meticulous development for the Tour de France. This year he starts as the Tour winner with far less pressure on his shoulders and far more experience of racing and winning important stage races.
He faced questions about his form, his rivals, the pressures of being a Tour de France winner, and also about doping, the Cycling Independent Reform Commission investigation. The questions would have irritated many riders and some of his Team Sky teammates but Froome answered them all with his usual aplomb.
"Its different this year in the sense that I don't have the same pressure that I had last year. I'm not here feeling that I have to win this as build up to the Tour," he explained calmly.
"There's less pressure because I'm not here to gain experience as a leader. I did already last year. It was critical last year but this year I feel more relaxed but I'm still motivated."
"I've done some really good training and the race will tell how good that has been. I feel like I'm in good condition. I'm looking forward to racing again now. I've done a lot of training and its good to put it to use now."
Froome travelled directly from South Africa to Oman and acknowledged that he has the advantage of having trained in the heat in recent weeks. He has clocked up some intense workout under the watchful eye of coach Tim Kerrison and with teammate Kanstantsin Siutsou but is unsure how his form will compare to the likes of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), who have raced both the Tour of San Luis and the Dubai Tour.
"I don't quite know where I am but I'd love to see where I'm at. I'd love a victory but I'm not sure where I am compared to the other guys. We'll see," he said, explaining his reasons for a warm-weather season debut in Oman.
"This time of year I prefer to do warmer races where good weather is guaranteed. Having spent most of my off-season in South Africa, it's easy to come here and start racing. I'm acclimatized already to the heat; there's a mountaintop finish and a few very lumpy stages in between. I think it's just a good race to kick thing off and take it from there."
Landing an early psychological blow
Froome landed his first psychological blow against Alberto Contador in Oman last year and is keen to compare his form with his 2014 Grand Tour rivals. Contador has shied away from another early season confrontation but Nibali, Rodriguez, Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Robert Gesink (Belkin), Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), Thibaut Pinot (Fdj.fr) Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) plus Andy and Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) are all at the Tour of Oman.
"There are always good riders coming here and it's good to compare to where you are after winter. For the Tour de France I don't think it's here or there at this point. There's a lot of time between now and the Tour and a lot can happen. Riders can gain form, lose form, get injured, so it's too early to say anything about the Tour. But whoever does win here is going to come out with a mental advantage over the other guys for sure."
No Milan-San Remo without the Pompeiana, no early taste of Le Tour cobbles
Froome confirmed his race and altitude programme for 2014, revealing he will skip Milan-San Remo if the Pompeiana climb is taken out of the race.
"I don't think I'm going to be doing Milan-San Remo. I think the new climb has been taken out, so it's not quite 100% a climbers race as it would have been. I plan doing the Volta a Catalunya, which starts the day after San Remo and so unless it's 100% a climber's race, I'll rule it out of my programme"
"I'll be riding Tirreno-Adriatico as far as I can see, then after Catalunya, I'll ride Romandie and the Dauphine. Like always, I'll try to do at least two blocks of two weeks up in Teide."
Froome clarified that he won't ride Paris-Roubaix or another cobbled Classic to get a taste of the pave that will feature on stage five. Though he will study and train on the sections of pave that feature in the nerve-wracking stage.
"From what I can understand, the cobbles are very different in a one-day race than in a Grand Tour. I'd personally prefer not to take the risk in a race on the cobbles. I'd like to go and train on cobbles a lot to prep for that cobbled-stage in the Tour.
"I've done Paris-Roubaix and so I know what to expect. I pulled out at the second feed, after giving a wheel to my then teammate Baden Cooke. It was fine as a neo-pro. I was quite happy to make it to 200km."
Not avoiding the doping questions
Froome never ducked away from doping questions during 2013 and faced several more while talking to the media at the Tour of Oman.
He reiterated his belief that cycling has moved on since the widespread doping of the past.
"I can only speak from my personal point of view but I know where I'm at and if I'm able to get the results that I get, that tells me that cycling is in a very good place," he said.
"I think it's just going to take a little more time for other people to have the same confidence"
Asked for opinion on the recently created Cycling Independent Reform Commission (CIRC), which will investigate the years of widespread doping in professional, Froome admitted he did not know the details of how the Commission will work but backed the idea of the investigation.
"I can't say I'm up to date on what's been happening there. If that is going to happen (lesser bans for people who confess), there's going to be some really interesting things coming out," he said.
"For sure there are a lot of riders who are still riding at the moment who were riding in that era and haven't had any kind of penalty. Not to say they're guilty but I'll follow that very closely."
Froome agreed that it is time for cycling to draw a line under cycling murky past and look to the future. He is ready to play his part, so his Tour de France victories are never called into doubt.
"We definitely need to draw a line in the sand to say: 'Ok. Listen. This is where the sport is now. That's what happened back then and it's not a secret anymore, we know about that.' And then we can move on from there. I do believe that it could be important," he said.
"Certainly. It's something that is still damaging us today and its something we're going to have to live with. It's up to us now to change that image."
"I think it's going to take a few consecutive Tour wins that aren't ruined by doping cases. Personally that's what I'd like to see. The only way for me to guarantee that is for me to win. I'd love to see that. I genuinely would."
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