Team Sky's management at the Ruta del Sol say they are confident Chris Froome will be able to handle the high-pressure situation surrounding his first race of the 2018 season and fight for the win in the five-day event.
The Ruta del Sol is Froome's first race since news broke in December of his adverse analytical finding for salbutamol during the 2017 Vuelta a España. Sky’s sports director Brett Lancaster recognised that the situation was an unusual one, but was succinct when asked by Cyclingnews if he thought that Froome would be able to handle it: "He's Chris, you know, and Chris will do that."
Having observed team leaders of all kinds and how they handle their duties during his career, Lancaster is confident that Froome will be able to perform on the road during the Ruta del Sol, despite the attention surrounding his presence in the race.
"He's good at doing that. As you know, in the Tour he's copped a little crap there from the public or whatever, but Chris just gets on with the job. He's unbelievable at doing that," Lancaster said.
"It's a whole 'nother thing, that mental side of things. But Chris will just crack on with it, as much as he can, and we'll go into this race and we’ll treat it like any other race."
Froome returned an adverse analytical finding for salbutamol in the final week of last year's Vuelta, but as salbutamol is a specified substance, he remains free to race until the case has been resolved. Last month, Froome denied reports in the Italian press that he was considering a plea bargain in return for a reduced ban, and last week confirmed that he would start his 2018 season at the Ruta del Sol.
"You've got to start somewhere. Everyone knows if they've been looking online at Strava and his recent training that he's done 5,000 kilometres so far," Lancaster said. "Of course he's got the goal of the Giro coming up so he wants to be in a lot better shape than he usually is [at this point in the season] if he wants to attack that race fully and this is a good place to start.
"It's got some nice climbs, stage 4 also has got that little uphill climb at the end, 17 per cent and cobblestones, so it's technical as well. And if you're looking at the Giro long-term, that is typical Giro, a finish like that, to throw in those sorts of obstacles. Then there's a nice little time trial to finish off."
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Lancaster identified former Sky rider Mikel Landa (Movistar) as a key rival to add to the challenges and interest of the event. "It'll be interesting to see how Mikel Landa races this year. He usually carries a little timber at the start of the season, but from all the reports I've heard from some people I know, he's going well this year," Lancaster said. "He's come out pretty good because he knows where he stands, he knows how Chris rides, but he's got other things to prove, he's a great guy and it'll be a good competition."
Lancaster believes that the final 15-kilometre time trial in Barbate will have some extra challenges, such as the strong winds on the area's exposed terrain, and the off-road sections.
"It's not that technical, looking at it, although the roads are quite small so if it's windy that could throw a few spanners in the works. Then look at those six kilometres uphill so it'll be a good test for the legs. For Chris the more time trials the better. We won't know, obviously, if Chris has the lead, but if it's in arm's reach, he can try and win it and take the race," Lancaster said.
"Obviously, though, it's his first race, we don't know exactly where he's at. I was with him in Sun Tour last year, and he wasn't going 100 per cent there, and obviously we've got riders who can do well, but we'll be riding for Chris."
Wout Poels could, given his traditionally strong form in the early season, be a plan B, but Lancaster said that for now Froome is the team's top name. "Wout's always good, he's improved a bit since Valencia, where he wasn't quite peaking, and can be in the mix if needed. But with the Giro coming up, I guess Chris will be the leader at every race until then," he said.
The Ruta del Sol is usually a fairly low-key event, and the race headquarters in Mijas were as calm as ever in the final countdown to Froome’s first race. But it is symptomatic of the extra interest that over 150 media are accredited for the Ruta del Sol this year, more than six times the usual total and nearly all of them registering after Froome's announcement that he was taking part. Race organisers have described it as "an avalanche."
Froome was not expected to attend the traditional pre-race press conference for the team leaders, arriving too late to participate, and he has instead opted to talk to media at Wednesday morning's start in Mijas, prior to the hilly opening stage to Granada.
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