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Froome dodges bullet, confidence building day by day at Sky

ALHENDÍN, Spain (VN) — Chris Froome (Sky) dodged a bullet Friday, avoiding serious injury in an early-stage crash. He later sprinted, with his right knee and elbow covered in bandages, to take a couple seconds on his GC rivals.

Temperatures and tempers were on the rise during Friday’s transition stage over rough, bumpy roads across Andalucía’s barren olive grove country. Froome couldn’t avoid other riders crashing in front of him, and went skittering to the ground, giving everyone inside the Team Sky bus a scare.

“I’m OK, but you definitely get the feeling that when bad luck comes, it comes more than once,” said Froome, who also crashed in a pre-race warm-up last week in Jerez de la Frontera. “All things considered, I’m feeling alright, and I think I got off relatively unscathed. It’s good to have another day behind us.”

When Froome went down, there was confusion in the bunch because the day’s main breakaway was just forming prior to the third-category Alto de Illora. Some teams kept pulling, trying to control the break or place a rider into the group, while others were urging the pack to slow down.

“I narrowly avoided the crash,” said Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo). “Froome lost a minute because he had a mechanical, but no one was pulling at the front. Everyone was expecting it to regroup, and to get through the rest of the day ‘tranquilo.’”

Froome initially struggled to regain contact, but Team Sky pulled back into formation and paced him back into the front pack after a quick visit to the medical car.

“When the crash happened, a Giant-Shimano rider went down in front of me. I swerved to try to avoid that, and went down,” Froome explained on the team’s website. “The guys paced me back. It took us a good 15km before we got back into the peloton.”

Froome then had a parting shot in the finish, darting clear out of the GC group, enough to take two seconds on Contador and the others.

Despite the scare, Froome is now in fourth place overall, just 20 seconds behind race leader Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).

Friday’s transition stage across the olive groves of Andalucía was hardly a walk in the park. The demanding parcours and rough, dust-and-oil-covered roads made for a tension-packed day of racing.

“Easy? Just ask Froome, he crashed,” Contador said after Friday’s stage. “The roads were super-slippery, and you had to be very careful. It took more than 40km before the break got away, so we were really going fast behind.”

The first week of the Vuelta closed out Friday with Froome looking a lot more credible than he did when the season’s third grand tour started in Jerez de la Frontera.

Though he may be one of the best contemporary grand tour riders, Froome came to the Vuelta with more question marks than confidence. Froome missed weeks of training to recover from his injuries that provoked his early exit from the Tour de France, preventing him from defending his yellow jersey.

Even Sky’s team boss Dave Brailsford said Froome wouldn’t know how he was going until the race hit the mountains. Froome answered those doubts Thursday in the short but steep climb up La Zubia.

Froome’s determination and aggressive racing in the first week have served as a spark within the Team Sky bus. When Froome was confirmed for the Vuelta, the team left home such riders as Ian Boswell to bring a stronger core group of experienced riders to protect Froome for a podium campaign.

One of those riders is Peter Kennaugh, who will be one of the key men for Froome in the mountains in the final week.

“The vibe has been pretty good from the start. Everyone is having a laugh. Everyone is working together, the spirit is really good,” Kennaugh told VeloNews. “Everyone knows their job. We’re all motivated to see Chris racing well.”

Kennaugh said he cannot understand speculation about Froome’s condition coming into the Vuelta.

“Maybe he wasn’t as good for the Tour de France, but Froomey in January is still better than 95 percent of the peloton,” Kennaugh continued. “I was always confident that he could do what he did [Thursday]. He’ll just keep getting stronger as the race goes on.”

Froome gave a hint that he was taking the Vuelta very serious when he sprinted to win a two-second time bonus at an intermediate sprint midway through stage 5.

“Why not take those bonus seconds when you can? Chris doesn’t forget that he lost the Vuelta [in 2011] by 13 seconds,” Sky sport director Dario Cioni told VeloNews. “It’s not easy to take two seconds in the race. It shows Chris is serious about this Vuelta.”

And if there was any doubt about Sky’s leader, he erased them in Thursday’s summit finale, riding to second in the stage, and erasing uncertainty about his form.

Without overlooking the potential dangers of crosswinds in Saturday’s sprinter’s stage to Albacete, the next major test comes in Sunday’s climbing stage to Valdelinares. The finale will be much better suited to Froome’s climbing style, with a second-category climb quickly followed by the 8km, first-category summit finish.

And following Monday’s rest day, Froome’s ace in the hole is waiting with the 36.5km individual time trial at Borja in stage 10. If Froome is anywhere near the same level the peloton’s seen over the past few years, he should be able to take important, if not decisive, gains on the Spanish mountain goats.

“The time trial will be very important for Chris,” Sky’s Dario Cataldo told VeloNews. “We have to keep Chris out of trouble, and protect him leading to the climbs. We are confident after what we are seeing so far.”

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