MUSCAT, Oman (VN) — It’s early in the season.
I was just here for a little test. I’m pleased with the results.
Yeah, yeah. Early season quotes, early season projections, early season sandbagging. It is young, this 2014 road racing campaign, but the simple truth remains: What happened on Saturday up Green Mountain here in Oman matters. It’s a system check, a report on who’s done his homework over the winter, and who is looking for an incomplete grade.
The obvious winner is Chris Froome (Sky). It is in no way a surprise to see that Froome won, but it does sound submarine-grade sirens for the other general classification bosses out there. Froome rode the climb in 18 minutes and 33 seconds, the fastest ascent in the race on record. Last year’s winner, Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, rode Green Mountain (5.7 kilometers at 10.5 percent average) in 19:14, with Froome in second in 19:18. Vincenzo Nibali rode the climb in 19:24 in 2012.
And while those numbers are of course dictated by the feeling of the race itself, fast is fast. And Froome is fast. It’s possible he benefited from a slight tailwind, if anything, but a very clear message exists regardless of the time gaps, and it is that for Sky this season appears business as usual in terms of winning.
But how it handles that business has apparently changed as the British team explores the potential of having a dynamic Froome as its GC man rather than the hugely talented but metronomic Bradley Wiggins. American Tejay van Garderen (who finished a very capable second place Saturday on the climb, 22 seconds down), noted that Sky has set itself up in Oman several times in the traditional ramp-up-and-drop formation, but this year sent attacks off the front. That forced other contenders to respond and close the gaps, towing Froome along for the ride.
As Froome and van Garderen caught up with the attacking Sergio Henao (Sky) on Green Mountain, last year’s Tour champ leapt free and rode on to the stage win and overall victory. This is all very different than the last-man-standing methodology Sky has employed for the past two seasons
Think of it a mirror image of Froome attacking on La Tousuire in the 2012 Tour, riding away from Wiggins in the Alps, dispatching Vincenzo Nibali in the process. The problem was that the bigger, less dynamic rider was unable to close the gap to his own man, and thus this entire play began between Froome and Wiggins. Their styles couldn’t be more different, and Sky is taking advantage of the more electric rider. None of this is a direct translation to the way a Tour de France will play out, but it’s worth considering, and will change the way a team prepares to handle Sky in the stage races to come.
It likely won’t be enough to have one general classification rider and a box of domestiques; teams will have to attack and make Sky do the chasing, and counter Froome, though that is an order as tall as the sky itself, if the Kenyan-born Brit is comfortably ticking along at his wattage threshold.
“I think winning here is always more psychological than anything else. At this point it’s still too far to say anything in terms of buildup to the Tour de France or anything, but it’s definitely good to have it in the legs,” Froome said.
For the second consecutive year, Froome established he was very good very early. Rodriguez appeared less good, finishing 38 seconds down on Froome, but still on a good time in the historical context of the climb.
Another rider from whom much is expected of this season, Astana’s Nibali, finished well down — as in not really trying at all down — so his sample from Green Mountain isn’t worth a deep examination, though it’s important to note his attacking style on stage 4, on a descent, gapping Froome and jumping in a move with Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
Nibali knows that to win he has to constantly bring the fight to the Sky machine, and he did it again on the race’s final day, jumping into a breakaway on the very first climb, though that move was too big and ultimately neutralized itself.
Uran, a constantly great climber, came in third on the stage, 33 seconds in arrears. That leaves us with runner-up van Garderen, whose ride, while one wouldn’t say it was a surprise, came as a sort of confirmation of his winter training, showing that he is back on track after the TVG effectively derailed in last year’s Tour de France. He earned a fifth-place finish and white jersey in 2012, making the juxtaposition even greater, as he finished outside the top 40 in France last summer.
In an interview earlier this week, van Garderen said he was out to prove that the 2012 Tour wasn’t a fluke. He rode within himself in Oman, a good sign for him and for BMC Racing, because his version of “within himself” can be very good. Van Garderen isn’t known as a mountain goat, but he thinks his climbing ability could be underrated. On Saturday, that was true.
In this sport, it’s knowing when not to go as much as it is actually going.
“I didn’t try to bury myself to stay with Froome — I know that can be a mistake sometimes. So I tried to stay in my tempo,” he said.
“I put in a good winter of training. I’m coming off a fair bit of jet lag. First race of the year, where some of these other guys have done two stage races, so, I mean, I was kind of playing it a little safe. Not getting too far ahead of myself. I’m definitely happy with where I’m at.”
All this raises the early season question, one that’s haunted the peloton for two seasons now — how does one beat Sky in stage races? Going back to the Wiggins campaign of 2012, the team has won 16 stage races and 59 individual stages, and this new aggression signifies a wrinkle in strategy. But it’s one that could hurt Sky, in the tried-and-true anything “could” happen sporting view.
“I think they’ve definitely been adopting more of an aggressive style of racing. It makes it interesting,” van Garderen said after the stage.
“Like, Henao was jumping in breaks today, which made some of the other GC guys want to jump too, because if he gets up the road and Sky doesn’t ride, then we have to ride. They’re following a more untraditional tactic, which makes it a bit more stressful for us but it makes the racing more exciting,”
So, how to beat it? Hope the over-aggression clips Froome’s wings.
As van Garderen noted: “Well, actually it almost didn’t play out in their favor, because Henao jumped and me and [Tinkoff-Saxo’s Roman] Kreuziger were being attentive, and we jumped with him. And next thing you knew there was a 15-man breakaway. [Rigoberto] Uran even made it in there, and Froome was back.
“So, I mean if we would have really rolled it and been organized, it might have cost them the race. So tactics are tactics. They don’t always play out exactly the way you planned. ”
We have to think it rare to see chalkboard tactics play out on a road like this. Rarer still are a team as strong as Sky and a rider as gifted as Froome. And rarer than both of these will be the rider and team that can beat Froome at his own game.
But, as Lotto-Belisol’s Andre Greipel said earlier this week: “That’s cycling. Otherwise we play chess, I always say.”