Team Sky‘s star, even if not at his best, still managed to ride to seventh on the summit finish stage in the Ruta del Sol yesterday in Andalusia, Spain. In addition, team-mate Wout Poels won and took the race lead.
In Portugal a few hours later at the Volta ao Algarve, Sky’s Michal Kwiatkowski won stage two and Geraint Thomas, finishing third, donned the leader’s jersey.
Attention, however, was on four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome’s season debut in Spain, his first race since news of the UCI anti-doping investigation into his test at the Vuelta a España broke in December. He won this five-day stage race in 2015, launching a season that included his second Tour title.
“I called it pretty early,” Froome explained. “I said to the guys, ‘We need to get behind Wout here.’ I’m not feeling my absolute best and obviously it’s my first race.”
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Hundreds of journalists descended on the small Spanish tour to see Froome off for his season debut Wednesday. Froome still aims at racing to win both the Giro d’Italia in May and the Tour de France in July. Questions about whether the ongoing salbutamol case could be “a distraction” circle around the Sky camp.
“Not at all,” Froome said about any possible distractions. “I wasn’t necessarily expecting to come here and smash the whole race. We’ve got the leader’s jersey now for Wout and we’ll do everything we can to keep that leader’s jersey on his shoulders.”
The race continues through the weekend, with a time trial closing the stage race in Barbate. A reshuffle could happen over the coming days with Dutchman Wout Poels in the lead and Froome at 27 seconds back.
The last time Froome was here in 2015, he won the mountain stage and the overall by two seconds ahead of Alberto Contador.
“It was just as hard as I remember it was last time round, a really tough stage but an amazing result for Wout, and an amazing result for the team,” Froome said.
“I wasn’t feeling super but I think for my first race this season I’m pretty happy with being up there or thereabouts and definitely there’s a lot more to come. It’s an amazing atmosphere, the crowds out here are great and I love racing here.”