Chris Froome’s return to racing
One of the ongoing mysteries of the 2017 season has been the state of Chris Froome’s form.
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The three-time Tour de France winner has not raced much this season, instead favouring the more controlled environment of his own personalised training program, and last took his place in the competitive peloton back in March.
When he has raced, his performances have been mixed. He was solid but unspectacular at the Herald Sun Tour, finishing sixth, and started very well at the Volta a Catalunya by finishing second on the queen stage, only to fall out of contention altogether after being caught out on the penultimate stage and losing nearly half an hour.
The Tour de Romandie (April 25-30) is a race that is always a key landmark in Froome’s build-up to the Tour, and one in which he tends to perform very well in – he won in 2013 and 2014, came third in 2015, and bounced back from falling out of overall contention to win a stage last year.
We should therefore expect him to be back firing on all cylinders following his lengthy hiatus.
Richie Porte seeks to solidify Tour credentials
Froome’s main rival or overall victory will be his ex-teammate, good friend and now serious adversary Richie Porte.
Since parting with his former Sky colleague, Porte has sort to establish himself as a Tour de France contender in his own right, and has made positive steps towards that aim.
Fifth at last year’s Tour de France was his highest Grand Tour finish, and he won his first stage race in nearly two years at the Tour Down Under earlier this season.
In recent years, a victory in the Tour de Romandie has been an indication of future, higher-profile success. Previous winners over the past six editions include Froome, Nairo Quintana, Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins, who all went on to win a Grand Tour in the same season.
If Porte can win this year – particularly at the expense of Froome – it will be a convincing indication that he is indeed ready to challenge at the Tour come July.
GC action from the start
Defying conventionality, the Tour de Romandie organisers have planned stage one to be the race’s first day in the mountains.
Held in south western Romandie, surrounded by the Swiss Alps, the riders take on four climbs prior to the fifth and final summit into Champery, a testing category one climb that will be sure to shape the GC for the rest of the race.
Prior to that will be a prologue, which, at just 4.8km in length, won’t see as big time gaps, but will still set the tone and form an early hierarchy to the GC.
British interest in sprints
There is a distinct absence of any top-ranked sprinters at this year’s Tour de Romandie, but those who are lining up have a chance on stage two (from Champery to Bulle) and potentially stage three (a circuit in Payerne) to go for victory.
Ben Swift could start for UAE Team Emirates, seeking to bounce back from an underwhelming showing at Milan-San Remo, his first major goal of the season and a recent ankle injury which kept him out of Amstel Gold Race. And, as well as looking after Froome, Team Sky have Elia Viviani to target these stages.
Both look among the strongest potential sprinters in the race, but will face competition from Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) and Michael Albasini (Orica-Scott), although the latter (who has won six stages across the past three editions) – is more likely to target the punchier stage three, which includes some short climbs with maximum gradients of over 20 per cent.
A climactic weekend
The two most important stages of the Tour de Romandie take place across the final weekend.
Saturday’s stage four is the queen stage, with three mountain passes followed by a summit finish to Leyson in the Vaudoises Alps. Then follows a final showdown against the clock, as riders set out one-by-one to take on a 18km time trial course in Lausanne, overlooking Lake Geneva.
Several recent Tour de Romandie editions have come down to the final time trial, with Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) using it to extend his lead over Chris Froome in 2015, and Simon Spilak (Katusha) being dethroned by Froome in 2014.
Both Spilak and Zakarin – as well as time traillists of similar quality like Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors), Ion Izaguirre (Bahrain Merida) and Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) – are again riding this year, and could pull off overall victory if close enough to the top of GC prior to the final stage.