In his sudden rise from obscurity to Tour de France winner, tongues used to wag, “Where did Chris Froome come from?” Just as quickly, after a bumpy few weeks in the early going of 2014, people were starting to wonder where the Sky rider had gone.
With archrival Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) ripping through the spring courtesy of big wins at Tirreno-Adriatico and Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), it was Froome who seemingly was on his heels.
Despite a stunning season debut, with a stage win and the overall at the Tour of Oman, back pain kept him out of Tirreno, and then a chest infection derailed his ambitions at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, leaving some to wonder if Froome was off the rails.
With an emphatic victory Sunday in the individual time trial, in which he beat three-time world time trial champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Froome defended his Tour de Romandie crown and reminded everyone he hadn’t gone anywhere.
“This has been a really hard period for me recently,” Froome said Sunday. “I have had a chest infection and some problems with my back this season, so it hasn’t been very easy. I have worked really hard to get back to this kind of condition. I just hope that I can continue to build toward the Tour.”
Froome’s double victory will help quell some fears about Sky, which has had some major hurdles to overcome in the opening months of the 2014 season. Health problems have taken down other riders, namely Richie Porte and his bid to fight for the pink jersey in the Giro d’Italia, while other issues, such as questions about Sergio Henao and allegations by former rider Michael Barry, have also created tensions.
Froome’s victory also serves to reconfirm his place as the favorite to defend his yellow jersey in July. Not only is he among the strongest in the mountains, putting him on par with would-be challengers such as Contador and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), but he’s also ahead of his rivals in the time trial. By taking out one second on Martin, who lost time when he unclipped his pedal to avoid crashing on the descent, Froome should be able to count on taking important gains against others come July.
“It gives a good boost for the whole team, especially for ‘Froomey’ after his injury. He’s come back and seen that he can win again,” said Sky sport director Servais Knaven. “He’s still building toward the Tour. Hopefully he’ll be a bit better next month, and then come out even better still for the Tour. That’s the plan, and I think he’s right on schedule.”
Romandie has become an interesting litmus test. The past four winners have gone on to win the Tour, with Sky winning the past three editions — Wiggins won in 2012 and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) took the 2011 title ahead his dramatic Tour win later that summer.
While the results were encouraging for Froome, question marks remain for Nibali. The Italian was 18th in the time trial, 43 seconds slower than Froome on the 18.5-kilometer course, and finished off the podium at fifth at 1:48 back.
Nibali remains winless so far in the 2014 season, and while Astana officials were not immediately available for comment, some are wondering if the Italian will be ready in time to take on Froome and Contador in July.
Other would-be yellow jersey challengers, including Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Tejay van Garderen (BMC), have all managed to win so far this season.
Nibali, in contrast, seems to be taking a slower road to the Tour. He has been aggressive and attacked in several races, including Milano-Sanremo and in the decisive climbing stage in stage 3 at Romandie, but has been unable to turn that into any notable results.
“I have faced a lot of questions about me and the team,” Nibali told La Gazzetta dello Sport after his attack at Romandie. “I think I just gave a clear answer.”
Astana officials are betting everything on having Nibali hit peak form by July and are publicly sticking to the line that the Tour is what really counts. Nibali, for example, avoided defending his Tirreno crown on more favorable terrain in favor of racing at Paris-Nice to gain more experience on French roads.
With the conclusion of Romandie, most of the top Tour GC contenders are now taking a short break following an intense, hard-fought spring season.
Contador, Froome, and Nibali are all set to face off against one another again at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June.
Like Romandie, the Dauphiné is an even more important check on pre-Tour condition. Wiggins and Froome both won, in 2012 and 2013, respectively, en route to their yellow jerseys. By then, for anyone struggling to keep up, it’s typically too late to make up for any lost ground in time to arrive to the Tour with any legitimate hopes of racing for yellow.