Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s director, has warned it will be impossible to be sure that his team do not suffer a repeat of Sunday’s collective collapse in the Pyrenees over the next two weeks – although Chris Froome continues in the lead – before the Tour de France reaches Paris on 21 July.
Speaking at a press conference on the Tour’s first rest day with Froome and the Sky squad, Brailsford said: “I can’t guarantee it won’t happen. There is strong opposition out there, there are mountain stages and time trials to come, a real war, and we’ll try and adapt to how it comes.”
After a crushing defeat of the opposition on Saturday at Ax 3 Domaines, with Froome taking the lead on the race’s first summit finish, on Sunday it was a very different story for Sky. Froome was isolated from his team after Spanish rivals Movistar went on the attack on the first of five climbs, with team-mate Richie Porte dropping out of second place overall and losing over 18 minutes, climber Vasil Kiryienka forced to abandon the race after he finished outside the time limit and the entire squad slumping from second to 12th in the team classification.
“On the first day we went on the offensive and on the second everybody else did,” Brailsford said of the two Pyrenean stages. “We were on the back foot, but only as a team. To use boxing terminology, Chris took a right hook on that day, but he didn’t flinch.”
“An angry peloton threw everything they had at us,” added Porte, before explaining his disastrous stage on Sunday. “Anybody who’s been a bike racer knows that you have good and bad days, and a lot of it [racing] is about minimising those days.”
Brailsford recognised that Sky’s slump in performance and need to raise their game again represented “a test of our competitive spirit”. Continuing with his sporting analogies, he added: “In football a top side wins a lot of games but you sometimes get a thrashing. You can’t expect us to win it all easily, the whole idea of sport is about how you react to a challenging situation.”
Brailsford said that the team had “discussed strategies, learnt some lessons – you always learn more from defeats than victories – to take forward into the rest of the race.” He refused, however, to spell out what those strategies might be.
Brailsford highlighted Froome’s mental resilience when handling the pressure of being isolated on a mountain stage with 60 rivals as one plus for Sky from Sunday’s stage. But another element of leading the Tour is handling questions in the light of cycling’s murky doping past – and here also Brailsford said he was impressed by Froome.
“It’s only fair he’s asked challenging questions, that’s part of his job,” he said. “He’s very concerned people understand his career won’t be looked at [in the future] as something that may have to have its results rubbed out from the record books.”
Yesterday the French former trainer Antoine Vayer claimed in Le Monde that the Briton’s climb up Ax 3 Domaines was almost equal in power output to that of the disgraced Tour winner Lance Armstrong in 2003. Froome, responding to more general questions about doping in the press conference, said, as he had done on Saturday: “Some great performances in the past have been linked to doping but I know I will never be stripped of my results.” That was Armstrong’s fate last winter.
Looking at the positive benefits of the weekend’s racing, Brailsford claimed that Froome’s position overall, with an advantage of one minute 25 seconds over Alejandro Valverde in second place was a good one, particularly with a time trial finishing at Mont Saint-Michel coming up tomorrow that favours the Briton over the Spaniard.
Two floors above, in a parallel press conference, Alberto Contador, the double Tour de France winner and named by Froome as his key rival, said that despite a stinging defeat on Saturday he planned to fight on.
“Up until now, Froome has been very strong but I will try and do something,” Contador said. “Everyone’s legs are hurting, but if you don’t think you can succeed you never will. I’m also always strongest in the third week in a major Tour. I will have to take a few risks.”