From Plan A to Plan B. With the stage 2 win and the overall race lead in the bag for Wout Poels, Team Sky will now be looking to the Dutchman, not Chris Froome, to net them a second victory in three years at Spain's Ruta del Sol.
As chance would have it, the transfer of power from Froome to Poels took place on the same climb, the Alto de Allanadas, where the Briton took a definitive lead in the Ruta del Sol three years ago. This time, as Froome struggled on the brutally difficult upper slopes, the 30-year-old Poels claimed his first win since the Tour de Pologne's final stage last year, blasting away twice in the closing kilometre.
After the stage, the new race leader Poels said, "We played two cards, with Chris and with me. So I could do my own thing the whole day and then I could finish it off."
Froome's participation in the race has proved controversial in some quarters. He was notified on September 20, 2017, that a urine sample taken from him on stage 18 of the Vuelta a España exceeded the allowed limit of the asthma drug salbutamol. He contends he did not exceed the WADA-allowed dosage of the medication, saying that his asthma worsened during the race, and he followed his team doctor's recommendation to increase his dose.
While his case was still being reviewed by the UCI, Froome started the Ruta del Sol on Wednesday, as allowed under UCI rules, which do not require a provisional suspension in cases of 'specified substances' like salbutamol.
Poels recognised that there was considerably heightened media interest in the race.
Asked what the atmosphere was like on the team bus given the extra scrutiny, Poels gave a half-humourous answer. "There's more press, but it is what it is. At least I'm getting a few more interviews with the media, so that's good," he joked.
The last few months have been turbulent for Team Sky, asked how he has handled it on a personal level, Poels said, "For me, it was a little bit the same. Of course, there was a lot going on, but there's nothing I can do about it. I just trained well and looked forward to racing again. Hopefully, we will get a quick solution.”
Team Sky's Philip Deignan, tipped by Froome as a possible option for the team on Thursday's climb, ended up doing much of the spadework on the lower slopes to pull back in the remnants of the day's early break. But when the decisive moves began to go clear, while Froome faltered - as he had warned would be likely - Poels was in every move that mattered.
The Dutchman followed Jakob Fuglsang and Luis León Sanchez (Astana) as they bore down on late breakaway Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) and then jumped away alone. Poels' first searing attack, which bridged him across to Wellens, was closed down by Sanchez. The Spaniard had spent a huge amount of energy in the process. Sanchez could not respond to Poels' second move, and he won the stage.
Team Sky gave Froome an automatically protected status during the race, but the team touted Poels as their Plan B, not surprising since Poels' had a strong start to the season last year.
As far back as 2011, he was third overall in the Tour of the Meditteranean and the Vuelta a Murcia, and in 2016 he took a convincing overall win in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana.
Last year Poels finished fourth in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana and the Ruta del Sol. This year in the Valencian stage race, Poels stayed with the favourites for much of the toughest ascent, to Coceintana, before cracking on its brutally steep slopes and taking 20th. Today at the Ruta del Sol, he has visibly upped his climbing game.
Poels was a decisive factor for Froome in last year's Vuelta, too, where he was one of Froome's key climbers in the third week. The last three stages of the Ruta del Sol could well see their roles reversed. Froome, seventh at the finish, gave Poels a hug of congratulations when he crossed the finish. The Briton said later that the team would now work to ensure Poels remains in the lead.
The question remains, of course, does Poels feel able to hold onto the lead himself?
"Of course there is a time trial [stage 5], and that will decide who wins the race," he argued on Thursday.
"But I was already feeling good yesterday [stage 1] and normally if you can go so well with 200 metres to go on a big climb like today's, that's a good sign, too. So we will see."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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