For the second time in six months, Team Sky and Chris Froome have been caught out in an early stage ambush, costing Froome a chance to win the race.
The first time was late last summer in the 2016 Vuelta a España, when Alberto Contador and Movistar ganged up on Froome on the road to Formigal in what was one of the wildest stages of the entire season. The time losses proved decisive, and after Froome was unable to make up the differences in a subsequent time trial against Nairo Quintana, the mishap cost him an all but assured victory in the Vuelta.
Evidently, Sky didn’t learn its lesson.
Something similar happened in Saturday’s lumpy transition stage at the Volta a Catalunya. Just a day after Froome pedaled into second place at 21 seconds behind Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in the race-making summit finale, Froome was ambushed early on a first-category climb in the opening 25km of the 189.7km stage from Tortosa to Reus, and sunk out of contention.
“We made a big mistake,” admitted Team Sky sport director Nico Portal. “I’m not going to try to make an excuse; there is no excuse.”
And who was shooting for Sky? Just like last summer’s raid at Formigal, Movistar and Contador’s Trek-Segafredo were on the front line. They also got help from Orica-Scott and Quick-Step Floors.
“We went down very fast, and when we got down, the peloton was broken into a thousand pieces,” Contador said. “There were many teams interested in driving the split, and that benefitted us.”
Riders attacked early, stringing out the weary pack on the climb to open the stage. Froome and his Team Sky cohorts were caught out on the wrong side of the split, and never managed to come back following a harrowing, high-speed charge down the descent of the Alt de Bot. The cut was made, and the chasing group never made it back.
Daryl Impey (Orica-Scott) caught two breakaway riders at the line to win the stage, while Froome eventually finished 74th at 26:38 back, sinking from second to 31st. Another 40+ riders were eliminated after finishing beyond the time limit. Sky’s Mikel Landa abandoned, and Peter Kennaugh was among those riders outside the time limit.
“These guys have been brilliant until today,” Portal said. “It looks like it was a positioning issue. The guys weren’t in the top positions in the first descent, and this is what can happen.”
Although it is unlikely that race leader Valverde would be dislodged in Sunday’s circuit race around the Montjuic hill in downtown Barcelona, Froome lost the podium. It’s another reminder of what happened last year at the Vuelta, which cost Froome a chance to win the Spanish ground tour.
“The day started off very hard, and everything split up, not only on the first climb, but also on the descent,” said Valverde, who dashed to second in the stage. “We caught out Froome in the back, and there were other teams interested in maintaining the gap, and those left behind didn’t have the form to regain contact.”
Is Sky worried that it could be left open to other similar ambushes, especially with such an atypical Tour de France on tap this July?
Catalunya is one of the few European stage races that Froome’s started and not won, and this marked his European debut for 2017. After riding strong up Friday’s summit finale, finishing second to Valverde, Team Sky cannot be too worried about his form so early in the season. Up next is a possible start at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and returns to the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné, two races he’s won emphatically.
Still, Saturday’s misfire reminds Team Sky just how important it is to remain on guard in every moment of each race, and proved more costly than Movistar’s one-minute penalty in the controversial team time trial in stage 2.
“It’s a good reminder for us that it can happen to anyone,” Portal said. “It’s always bad when it happens, but maybe it’s better to happen here, and we can learn from it, than in some of the bigger races later this season.”
While March is still a long way from July, Froome and Team Sky know they cannot afford a similar moment’s lapse of concentration. With Froome being all but untouchable in the climbs and the time trials, teams will be ready to Sky’s weak spots. Perhaps they’ve finally found one.