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Froome has quiet start to season in Australia

FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Chris Froome (Sky) is returning from Australia after the quietest start to one of his seasons since 2012.

Froome won his season debut race every year for 2013-2016. He went on to win the Tour de France in July in three of those seasons, except for 2014 when he crashed in the opening stages and watched as Italian Vincenzo Nibali was crowned the winner.

This year would have been hard for Froome to continue that trend, given that he began his season with the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, which suited the sprinters in the peloton. In the Herald Sun Tour last week near Melbourne, Damien Howson of Orica – Scott attacked free on the summit finish stage with Froome’s teammate Kenny Elissonde and gained enough time to win the overall.

Froome, who won the Sun Tour in 2016, placed sixth overall at 1:12 back. His teammates Danny Van Poppel, Luke Rowe, and Ian Stannard each won stages.

“It’s been a really solid block, a great week of racing for us and it’s been really aggressive every day,” Froome said. “We’ve tried to have someone in the break or really tried to take the race on, and that’s exactly what we wanted from this race.”

Froome did not let Howson ride home without a fight. On Friday, they kept the pace high when Howson punctured at the base of a climb while his teammates, including grand tour star Esteban Chaves, pulled him back into the race.

“We’re here to race, of course we’re trying to win as well,” he said. “We hit them with everything we had today and they defended it really well.”

Froome boarded a flight for South Africa to visit home and to train at altitude before returning to his European base in Monaco. His next race should be the Volta a Catalunya in Spain, March 20. Last year, on the heels of his Sun Tour victory, he placed eighth in the race behind Movistar’s Nairo Quintana.

Some of the other grand tour stars began their season recently, too. Quintana, who is taking on the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France this year, opened his with a bang. After the Challenge Mallorca, he won the summit finish stage and the overall at the Volta a Valenciana. Steven Kruijswijk of LottoNL – Jumbo placed eighth.

Dutchman Bauke Mollema of Trek – Segafredo won the Tour de San Luis in Argentina with a mix of time trialling and climbing. His Giro d’Italia rival Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain – Merida placed eighth.

Other Giro hopefuls have yet to begin their seasons. Astana’s Fabio Aru will start in the Tour of Oman February 14 and American Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing will face Quintana and others in the Abu Dhabi Tour on February 23.

A fourth Tour de France title this July remains Froome’s focus. After Sunday’s podium ceremonies in Australia, he trained for another two hours by riding to the hotel from the stage finish with Stannard and Elissonde. He flew to South Africa on Monday.

In South Africa, Froome will likely train in the Mpumalanga region, near a small town called Pilgrim’s Rest. There, he can sleep at 1,700 meters above sea level.

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