On the fast track to bigger things
Romandie victory confirms Chris Froome as rider to beat at the Tour de France
LEON, Spain -- Chris Froome made it look easy, again.
With his victory at the Tour de Romandie, the 27-year-old Kenyan-born all-arounder continued his impressive steamroll through the first part of the 2013 season, and he reconfirmed that he's the man to beat come July.
"It has been a really good week for us, and I am really happy with my condition now in the buildup for the Tour," Froome said Sunday. "It is definitely a good omen, but the Tour is still two months away, and I need to do a lot of hard training before then."
Much like teammate Bradley Wiggins last year, Froome has been impeccable on his road toward the Tour. He scored three major victories in four stage races, and he has knocked back all of the major rivals he expects to see on the roads of France in two months.
Froome's tremendous spring is hugely important for him and his team. With his impressive dominance, he has more than proven that he's ready to take the mantel of leadership in the Tour for the mighty Team Sky.
First, it's a huge boost to Froome's self-confidence. Reserved and quiet, Froome is not a natural leader who is going to boss around his teammates. Instead, he prefers to lead by example, and barnstorming through the spring is just the signal Sky needed to see.
With Wiggins chasing the Giro, Froome has had time to patiently build his own confidence and allies within Sky.
First among them is Richie Porte, the Tasmanian fourth-year pro who has also been on a tear, winning Paris-Nice and finishing second to Froome at Criterium International and second at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country).
Porte said Froome's steady consistency and impressive racing is paying dividends within the team.
"I think Chris is going to win the Tour," Porte told VeloNews. "He's racing great right now. He will be even stronger for the Tour. The team is ready to support him."
With defending Tour champ Wiggins taking on the unconventional challenge of racing the Giro d'Italia, a move that helps defuse what would have been major tension between he and Froome if he hadn't, Froome was handed a clear ride toward the Tour.
Wiggins hasn't completely discounted the Tour, but his decision to take on the Giro opens the door for Froome to prepare exclusively for the Tour without having the distraction of sharing the leadership role until July.
In fact, the pair hasn't raced together since the Tour of Oman in February, which Froome won; Wiggins was a distant 74th.
Froome has clearly upped his game and is making it loud and clear within Sky that he's ready to handle the responsibility of leading the team at the Tour.
Wiggins remains enigmatic about his Tour goals and has even suggested he'd race the Vuelta a Espana this year, so there's a sense that Wiggins will play the role of joker at Sky this year.
If Wiggins wins the Giro, he could well be content to ride without pressure and support Froome. There's no love lost between the two, and Wiggins will still admit he was peeved at how Froome raced in a few moments in last year's Tour.
If Wiggins falls short of victory at the Giro, however, he may well change his mind and ride with more personal ambition at the Tour. That could set the stage for an intense internal power struggle within Sky.
So far publicly, Froome and Wiggins have been saying they'll ride for the strongest man, with the ultimate goal of helping the team defend the yellow jersey.
Based on early-season results, Froome is clearly the stronger of the two. While Froome has racked up seven wins, including three overall titles, Wiggins has been discreet to the point of raising doubts about his form ahead of the Giro.
He was fifth at both the Volta a Catalunya and Giro del Trentino, two major races before the Giro. Neither race, however, featured individual time trials, the discipline where Wiggins can turn the screws on his rivals. His climbing has been steady, but not spectacular, but it's hard to read too much into his form. With Wiggins, it's all about riding to win the Giro this year, and he has a strong team to support his bid for the pink jersey.
Froome's confidence has been bolstered after scoring important bragging rights on key rivals.
Unlike the more calculating Wiggins, Froome is never afraid to attack, and this year he's taken it to rivals such as Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and others he'll face in July.
In his season debut at the Tour of Oman, Froome manhandled Contador, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), three major Tour-bound rivals.
At Tirreno, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) proved he has the tactical acumen and guts to take on Sky, but Froome, second to Nibali in the GC, was once again a step ahead of Contador and Rodriguez.
In Criterium International, he sent a clear signal by beating Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Bauke Mollema (Blanco) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), three rising stars who will be making their presence known in future Tours.
At Romandie, Froome took down the ever-ambitious Movistar unit with Alejandro Valverde and Rui Costa as well as Belgian podium challenger Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol).
Froome's early-season dominance will inevitably raise questions about whether he's peaked too early. Last year, Wiggins proved that wasn't the case, and he won the Tour before striking gold at the London Olympics.
Sky can count on that road map that Wiggins plotted so successfully last year. Froome will now take a short break before focusing on intense training camps at Tenerife before a start at the Criterium du Dauphine ahead of the Tour.
Froome's spring has been successful in more ways than one. Now it's up to him to cash in the chips and ride to win the Tour.
With a mountainous course and nearly a dozen rivals all starting with the belief they can win the Tour, Froome should have a real battle on his hands. So far, he's proving he's more than up to the challenge.
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