Four-time champion Chris Froome feels like ‘neo-pro’ at Tour comeback

2020 Tour de France kicks off on August 29.
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As the finest Grand Tour rider of his generation, Chris Froome is used to honors, awards and accolades.

One thing he is not used to at the Tour de France – the race he dominated over the past decade and made him famous – is carrying water bottles for others.

In cycling jargon, it’s called being a “domestique,” and the sight of a former four-time champion in that role will be something quite unusual at cycling’s biggest event.

But a bit more than two years after a horrific, career-threatening crash that left him on the side of a road with multiple serious injuries, Froome is ready to play the sideman part. With the mindset of a rookie.

“I’m really excited for this year’s upcoming start,” the 36-year-old Froome said ahead of Saturday’s opening stage in the western port city of Brest.

“Brest was where I first discovered the Tour de France back in 2008 as a neo pro. I’m heading to the Tour de France this year with a very similar mindset as back in 2008. I’m looking to gain something through racing the Tour de France.”

For the first time since 2013, the year he won his first Tour, Froome won’t be on the starting line with personal ambitions. He has been tasked with a role of road captain at his new Israel Start-Up Nation team and will work in support of leader Michael Woods.

“Typically, going into the Tour de France I obviously got a lot of pressure on my shoulders, as a (top) contender,” Froome said. “That’s not the case this time around. This time around, I’m only (…) trying to do the best job possible to support the guys around me. For almost the last decade I had been going to the Tour de France with a team that was doing a similar job for me. It feels great to be on the other side now, and give back a little bit.”

So much has changed for Froome since that training crash during the 2019 Criterium du Dauphine, an event he had been using to fine-tune his bid for a record-equaling fifth Tour title. The accident not only left him with a fractured right femur, a fractured elbow and fractured ribs, it also cost him his spot in the Team Ineos’ Tour de France squad the year after.

After getting back to competitive racing, Froome did not return to his previous best level and lost his status as the leader of the mighty British outfit. After it was announced his contract could not be renewed and that he would be joining the fast-growing Israel Start-Up Nation team, Froome was left out of the Ineos roster for the 2020 Tour due to poor form.

The Kenyan-born cyclist is still very far from the level that helped him secure the Spanish Vuelta (in 2011 and 2017) and the Giro d’Italia (2018) in addition to his four Tour crowns. He was 47th at the Criterium du Dauphine earlier this month and has not produced a Top 10 result during the entire season.

“I would have hoped that the process would have been faster,” Froome said. “It’s an ongoing process. I’m very happy with where I’m at in terms of left-right leg balance. I think from that side of things I can certainly say that’s behind me. At the moment I’m a lot more focused on the work on the bike and to get back to my former level, having missed so much racing from obviously the downtime of the accident and then straight into the COVID lockdown last year as well.”

For now, he hopes this Tour will serve as a “stepping stone” on the road leading to his past luster.

So, returning to cycling’s biggest race for the first time in three years, would a stage win be enough?

“If you had asked me that question three years ago, I probably would not have said it really ranks anywhere on my list of priorities,” Froome said. “Of course it’s nice to have, but when (the general classification) is your sole focus, it’s not really going to change, it’s not defining in terms of your career. Now, obviously, it’s a very different scenario. For Team Israel Start-Up Nation, a stage win would be massive.”

And for him, too.

Australia’s Jay Vine wins Tour Down Under

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Australia’s Jay Vine defended his overnight lead to win the Tour Down Under, the first event of the 2023 World Tour.

Simon Yates of Britain won the final stage and moved up from third to second place on overall standings. Vine came in second on the stage to secure the biggest win of his career in a stage race.

The UAE Team Emirates rider took the overall tour lead when he finished second in Stage 2 and third in Stage 3. He came into the final stage with a 15-second lead on general classification.

The 70-mile stage involved four laps of a 15.5 mile-circuit through the Adelaide Hills before finishing just beyond the summit of Mount Lofty.

Yates led the crucial attack on the ascent less than 1.2 miles from the finish, but Vine jumped onto his wheel and Australian Ben O’Connor also joined in.

O’Connor led out close to the finish line, Vine briefly passed him but Yates came over the top to claim the stage win. Vine retained his overall advantage and claimed the title in his debut appearance in the Tour Down Under.

The 27-year-old made his name in e-Sports before being signed by the UAE team after winning the academy program on the Zwift online platform. He won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana last year and the Australian Time Trial title.

“It’s pretty incredible to be standing here and wearing this jersey,” Vine said. “The way we drove that was first class. My guys were incredible.”

The final stage featured a breakaway of 13 riders but Vine’s UAE teammates led the chase by the peloton and put their rider in a position to contest the win.

Yates again rode an aggressive race but had to be happy with the stage win.

“We came Down Under with a lot of ambition. We put a lot into it and we didn’t come away with the overall but we can walk away pretty happy,” Yates said. “Obviously Jay Vine is a massive talent and the crowd will be happy with a local winner.”

France’s Coquard wins Tour Down Under Stage 4; Vine leads

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ADELAIDE, Australia — French cyclist Bryan Coquard won Stage 4 of the Tour Down Under for his first-ever World Tour win, while Australia’s Jay Vine retained the overall tour lead by 15 seconds with one stage remaining.

Coquard is a lightweight sprinter who has had 49 wins in a decade-long career but had never won on the World Tour until he cleared out near the finish to claim the 82-mile stage by a margin of about just over 100 feet.

Vine was among the leading group that shared Coquard’s winning time and who retained his lead on general classification over Britain’s Simon Yates and Germany’s Phil Bauhaus. The race concludes with Stage 5, which ends atop 2,329-foot Mount Lofty.

“It’s a long time that I’ve waited for this win, 10 years,” said Coquard, who rides for the French Cofidis team. “I never really expected and I’m very happy and relieved with this win.”

While the stage was flat and suited sprinters, it had its challenges. Cross-winds and occasional gradients made the stage difficult and confounded some riders.

After an early breakaway by Jonas Rutsch and former tour winner Daryl Impey of South Africa, the peloton broke into two groups with Vine and other tour leaders among the leading group.

The leading group stayed together around the last, sharp bend towards the finish and Coquard bided his time until his late sprint left other riders flat-footed.

“It was pretty stressful,” Vine said. “There was one point there, I thought we were going to have an easy day and I was happy, smiling, waving to families on the side of the road.

“Then, 45 kilometers in it was on and it was on until the end so it was a very hard day. There was a lot more calorie expenditure than I was planning.”