A hugely promising start to the season for Chris Froome misfired badly today when the British rider lost a massive 28 minutes to the race leaders in the Volta a Catalunya.
The week-long stage race had been touted as a duel between the Team Sky leader and his arch-rival Alberto Contador in their last head-to-head encounter before their showdown in July’s Tour de France.
But on the race’s toughest stage through the Pyrenees, Froome – according to the team website, setting his own pace “as he continued his return from illness” – slipped behind the main group of race favourites on the 21-kilometres Col de la Creueta, the penultimate climb of the stage.
The 2013 Tour de France winner finished 131st, 27 minutes and 48 seconds behind American stage winner Tejay van Garderen and plummeted out of contention to 67th overall.
Froome is reportedly still battling to overcome the effects of a chest infection that saw him skip his second race of the season, the Tirreno-Adriatico. In the Volta a Catalunya, his first race back, Froome had already lost around 20 seconds on the leaders in Wednesday’s hilly stage.
Famous for his tenacious racing style, it was speculated he might be able to bounce back on the trek through the mountains. Instead, the Briton’s uneven performance contrasted sharply with Contador, whose attack three kilometres from the finish line at La Molina scattered his rivals. But the Spaniard, too, has his own reasons to worry.
After Froome’s friend and team-mate Richie Porte was guided back into contention by Sky rider Vasil Kiryienka, the Australian charged past Contador for second place on the stage and second overall.
Regardless of whether Porte can overhaul the race leader, Belgium’s Bart de Clercq, between now and Sunday, his outmatching of Contador less than two months before they compete in the Giro d’Italia will have provided welcome motivation for the Tasmanian – currently leading the 2015 World Tour rankings for the best rider in the world.
Froome, too, got off to a strong start this year, with victory in his debut race, the Vuelta a Andalusia, where he narrowly defeated Contador. However, illness then intervened.
Following Sunday’s finish in Barcelona, Froome is pencilled in for a lengthy training camp in the Canaries. He is then down to defend his title in the Tour of Romandie in May where, with the Tour de France only two months away, Sky hope Froome will be fully back on track.