Tour de France 2012 runner up Chris Froome confirmed he has hit the ground running in what could be the most important season of his career after he captured the overall lead of the Tour of Oman today - ahead of all the other favourites for this July.
Oman is Froome’s first race of the season, when riders’ form is traditionally most uneven. But after taking on the mantle of Sky’s leader on Monday’s first stage and with Sky giving him strong team support - including Sir Bradley Wiggins - today's key mountain test was where Froome was expected personally to deliver, and he duly did so.
From the summit finish at the Green Mountain deep in central Oman’s Jabal Akhdar mountain range, Froome’s darkly clad figure could be picked out from a clear distance on the winding, steep approach road by spectators amongst the five strongest riders went clear: 2012 Tour podium figure Vincenzo Nibali, former Tour winners Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans, Froome himself and Spain’s Joaquim Rodriguez, who topped the World Individual Rider Ranking 2012.
Nicknamed Purito [‘the little cigar’] for his diiminutive form but potent climbing talents, Rodríguez proved unstoppable when he went clear in the last two kilometres. But whilst Froome could afford to let Rodríguez, no threat overall, gain the stage win, the Briton’s surging acceleration in the last kilometres saw him place second, a morale-boosting 23 seconds better than one of his biggest rivals for the Tour de France, Alberto Contador, who took fourth.
Now leading by 24 seconds over another top name, 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans, with two days racing remaining, Froome was delighted to have hit the bullseye after what he called “the first real test of my year. It’s extremely comforting to know that the winter has been a solid one, and I haven’t done a lot of high end training yet, so to get a result like this is a very good feeling.”
“Things went better today than expected. Having lost a bit of time on yesterday’s [Wednesday’s] last climb I was a bit apprehensive, but the team did a great job collectively and all that effort paid off.”
“I saw the 500-metre-to-go banner and wasn’t sure what was happening, I thought the climb continued to go up higher, but I realised I'd better get moving. After that I just tried to stay clear.”
Froome was at pains to preach caution and pointed out that Oman is very early in the season. But with his first stage race victory of his career - should he come through tomorrow’s second mountain stage unscathed - looking likely, not to mention his first race lead since the Tour of Spain in 2011, the omens in Oman for 2012 could hardly be bettered.
“The plan was for Chris to go for it, he did that and he’s took the jersey, it’s a brilliant day,” Sir Bradley Wiggins, making a more gradual buildup than Froome to top condition and who took his foot off the throttle when the main climb started, said afterwards.
“Chris is on his route towards the Tour de France and it’s a good start for him.”