World Road Championships: Chris Froome and Co chase down the gap to Greg LeMond
Tour de France winner backed by Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish as he attempts elusive double in Italian road race
Sunday 29 September 2013
Greg LeMond has done his bit for Britain, offering significant backing to Brian Cookson as the Lancastrian takes over as the president of the International Cycling Union (UCI), the sport's governing body, so it might seem impolite for Britain to erase one of the American's hard-earned places in the history books.
This morning Chris Froome will lead the most decorated British team ever assembled for the World Championships out of Piazza Napoleone in the town of Lucca, huddled in the shadow of the Apuan Alps, and across the Tuscan countryside in pursuit of one of sport's rarest doubles. Not since LeMond crossed the line in Chambéry in France 24 years ago has anyone managed to add the rainbow jersey to the yellow one in the same year. LeMond became only the fifth man to achieve the feat, and it helped him become the first cyclist to be named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated magazine. This is the rarefied company Froome is seeking to join, and for all the supportive presence of fellow Tour winner Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, winner of this race two years ago, and the likes of Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas, who helped him to his Tour triumph, it is company he may struggle to keep.
Doing the double has become a bigger ask in the years since LeMond managed it, the changing demands of the cycling calendar added to the human demands of coping with the aftermath, both physical and mental, of a Tour victory placing it beyond reach for nearly quarter of a century. "Nowadays you can't be a one-day rider and a GC [general classification] rider, you have to specialise," said Cavendish. "It's probably even more difficult nowadays."
Cavendish's victory in Copenhagen two years ago marked the fruition of a plan, carefully laid and lovingly nurtured, by Rod Ellingworth, who switches between coaching roles with Team Sky and Great Britain. Project Rainbow began in 2009 when Ellingworth gathered together a group of riders in a hotel in South Wales and showed them Tom Simpson's rainbow jersey, won in Spain in 1965. We, Ellingworth's message went, are overdue another one.
Cavendish, not surprisingly, rates the performance of the British team in Denmark as without parallel as they made the absolute best of a course that suited the sport's deadliest finisher to a T. Today's route does not tick Froome's boxes. He arrived at the team's hotel in Pistoia, midway between Florence, where the race finishes, and Lucca, on Friday, leaving limited time for the team to prepare together. That is the way it is – national service, the Olympics apart, is a fleeting annual get-together – and that is where Ellingworth's expertise comes in. Project Rainbow is now into its second incarnation, the ultimate aim being the pot of gold that comes with the road race at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. That will have a course that does suit Froome.
"I think it's hard to come together maybe once a year as a national team with this sort of group," said Ellingworth. "So every time you've got to make the most of it and always think about the future.
"Every time we get together as a national team we've got to grasp it and use it as either 'This is the big one' or progression. I sort of see this as an opportunity for Chris but also as a progression. There's always the next step, isn't there? That's the way I see it in my mind."
Ahead of the Championships, talk was of the tough course that awaits the riders. First comes a 106km slog to Florence, featuring a couple of climbs, one modest, the other, San Baronto, more challenging. Then it is 10 laps round and about the city, and that means 10 times up the Category Three Fiesole climb.
But on the evidence of the junior and Under-23 races the course may not be quite as demanding as billed, which is bad news for the likes of Froome, the brilliant young Colombian Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali, the home favourite, and good news for Peter Sagan and the defending champion, Philippe Gilbert. If the Slovak and the Belgian are still there at the end, then the race will be theirs for the taking.
"Chris is certainly going to be competitive," said Ellingworth. "He'll be in the mix for sure if everything goes his way. He'd have to win it on his own. He'd have to break them one by one."
The plan has been fleshed out over the past couple of nights. Ellingworth's take, one echoed by Froome, is that the World Championships can throw up odd results, with riders weary after a long season. With the end of the road in sight, iron wills can wobble.
"Taking on the race, trying to make it the hardest race possible, [trying to] isolate the sprinters and make it more of a climbers' race – that's the way we should push for it," said Froome. "I think there will be a few other racers in a similar position, thinking along the same lines as us.
"I'd imagine the Spanish would want a very hard race. The Colombians, the Italians, basically anyone who doesn't have a punchy sprinter like Sagan or Gilbert. The objective for other countries becomes to try and get rid of those guys."
If Froome has enough left in his legs to do that – and with heavy rain forecast, conditions could give the course extra bite and unpredictability – then the double might, just might, be on. "It is going to be difficult," said Cavendish. "But with a strong team, if he keeps his cool he should be in with a great shout, and it would be beautiful to see."
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