As if there were any doubt. Chris Froome (Sky) proved yet again on Thursday that he’s the rider to beat going into the Tour de France.
Thursday’s double in stage 5 at the Critérium du Dauphiné — winning the stage ahead of archrival Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and taking the overall lead — confirmed the Kenya-born Sky captain’s standing in his final Tour tune-up race and put him in the pole position for the June 29 start of the 100th Tour.
Just as important as Froome’s performance in the French Alps this week is the quality of support he’s seeing from his Sky teammates.
Following the flame out of Sir Bradley Wiggins, who abandoned the Giro d’Italia and last week confirmed he would not defend his Tour crown, Froome now has a free ride going into his quest for the yellow jersey. Sky is rallying the wagons around Froome. With Wiggins gone, Froome is the lone captain, and now he’s proving it to everyone that he deserves it, both on and off the bike.
“It’s a position that I’ve been adjusting to this year,” Froome said after the stage in a team release. “It still feels quite new to have a team of guys riding and sacrificing themselves for you. But so far this season the guys have done it throughout my race program, starting in [Tour of] Oman, Tirreno-Adriatico, Critérium International, [Tour de] Romandie and the Dauphiné. So naturally they must have some confidence in me. It’s a really good feeling and I feel privileged to be in this position.”
Froome admits he’s not the kind of rider to boss others around. His Boy Scout qualities are more attuned to letting his legs doing the talking, and quietly discussing things around the dinner table. No one is ever going to see Froome screaming at teammates during the heat of a race.
Froome has had most of the same key riders around him this season that helped him usher Wiggins to yellow in 2012. Riders such as Edvald Boasson Hagen, David Lopez, and Vasili Kiryienka, the latter two both newcomers to Sky this season, are creating a core unit around Froome, both in the transition stages and the climbs.
First and foremost among those helpers is Richie Porte, who paced Froome up the final Valmorel climb on Thursday, setting him up nicely to finish off the job. Porte has already enjoyed a breakout season, winning Paris-Nice in March and riding with the best all spring. Now he slips into his role as helper to Froome, a job he said he enjoys.
“Chris is my friend, and we will be riding to win the Tour this year with him,” Porte told VeloNews earlier this year. “I believe Chris can win the Tour this year. He’s been working hard since last year. He deserves it, and I am going to be there to support him.”
Just as Froome has come a long way over the past two seasons, so has Porte. After making a splash with a run in the pink jersey and a top 10 in his debut grand tour at the 2010 Giro d’Italia, Porte seemed to get lost in the shuffle.
He was immediately thrown into the job of helping Contador at Saxo Bank, and rarely had his own chances to ride. After his move to Sky last year, Porte again was on helper duty, but the team saw his improving level.
This year, Sky brass gave him a free ride during the spring, and Porte capitalized on that to the maximum. Now he’s gladly working for his training partner, friend, and neighbor, Froome.
Just as Froome is getting his chance this year, Sky has let it be known that Porte will have more freedom in 2014. He’ll likely lead the team colors at the Giro, and then return to the Tour as a second or perhaps third option behind Froome and Wiggins.
That kind of support kept him at Sky, prompting Porte to turn down possibilities of joining such teams as Orica-GreenEdge or Cannondale as a team leader.
For this year, Porte is more than ready to ride for Froome. And he’s showing that this week.
Despite taking pulls and easing up on the gas in the final kick to the line on Thursday, Porte slipped into second behind Froome in the overall, the same position they finished at the Critérium International, the two-day, three-stage race dubbed the “mini Tour de France” back in March on Corisca.
Sky was impressive Thursday, setting a high pace to stretch out and thin the peloton with big pulls from Peter Kennaugh, which allowed Porte and then Froome to execute the plan.
“It was a strong finish for Richie and Chris was unbelievable,” said Sky director Nicholas Portal. “The gaps are quite big already, but we need to keep going, control things as best we can and see how the next summit finishes play out. It’s a nice position to be in and it’s great for the confidence, especially a few weeks before the Tour. We know the likes of Chris and Richie are not hitting 100 percent yet, so there is more to come.”
Those words might put the chill into their rivals. No one who hopes to win the Tour is hitting the Dauphiné at 100 percent, but if Froome still has room to improve, then the others will only have that much ground to make up.