Was it the thick legal brief in his back jersey pocket that was weighing him down?
That’s one theory concerning Chris Froome’s underwhelming performance in the second stage of the Ruta del Sol. He rolled in 27 seconds behind his Plan B teammate Wout Poels, who won the stage and took the leaders jersey.
Journalists were quick to wonder whether the intense pressure and media scrutiny surrounding his adverse analytical finding for the asthma medication salbutamol was wearing Froome out out mentally and physically.
His response fell in the category of absolutely not. “This is my first race. I wasn’t necessarily coming here expecting to smash the whole race. I think we’ve got the leader’s jersey now with Wout so we’ll do absolutely everything to keep that jersey on his shoulders.”
Froome insisted it was just an off-day — smash-free — even thought three years ago in this same race he’d beaten Alberto Contador up the hill — and in far worse weather conditions. Let’s also not forget this was the Froome who has been training like a fiend in South Africa, uploading monstrous rides to his Strava account for all to see.
However on the 140k stage from Otura to Jaén, Froome wasn’t nearly at his Strava best. The grades hit up to 17% and hit Froome pretty hard, as he began to fade and then crack on the climb up Alto de las Allanadas.
While he bridged up to the main group of favorites, when Poels attacked, the Briton remaining firmly in his seat. He didn’t have the legs and perhaps he felt the extra psychological kilos of his legal case with the UCI tribunal, an outcome that may lead to a suspension and the derailment of his Giro and Tour plans.
Poels inherited the captain’s role very early on the stage, as Sky and Froome did a quick strategic pivot. “I called it pretty early. I told the team I wasn’t feeling at my absolute best, and I said to the guys, ‘Let’s put everything behind Wout and give it everything we’ve got,’” said Froome.
The Dutch rider is not encumbered by a difficult, expensive and high-profile case of evaluated salbutamol levels, so he was free to fly. He punched it hard, got his gap and took home a nice win that also removes some pressure from Froome.
“I wasn’t feeling super but I think for my first race of the season, I’m happy with at least being up there or thereabouts and there’s definitely a lot more to come,” said Froome, giving events a positive spin.
Yes, that “more to come” part — was he speaking about bike racing or the next dramatic turn in his efforts to rescue his reputation?