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Chris Froome was the center of attention at Ruta...

Froome discreet in season debut both on and off bike

Chris Froome was discreet both on and off the bike in his high-profile return to racing at the Ruta del Sol in Spain.

Chris Froome (Sky) was discreet both on and off the bike in his high-profile return to racing at the Ruta del Sol.

In his first race since his Salbutamol case was leaked in December, Froome played it straight in his comments to a media swarm around the Team Sky bus. And on the bike, Froome was equally under the radar. Froome finished 10th overall and rode uncharacteristically flat in Sunday’s final time trial.

“I was probably expecting a little bit better,” Froome told reporters Sunday. “I was coming here for my first race of the season and didn’t know where the form was at all. This is all part of my build-up now toward the Giro d’Italia.”

Despite a heavy training program coming into the Ruta del Sol, Froome could not deliver in the key stages of the otherwise laid-back five-day race across southern Spain.

In stage 2, on the same climb where he gapped Alberto Contador en route to overall victory in 2015, he was unable to follow the fastest on the explosive summit, finishing seventh at 27 seconds behind teammate and stage-winner Wout Poels. In another punchy finale in stage 4, Froome punctured within 4km to go and finished well back at 1:19 behind stage-winner Wellens. And despite promising to “empty the tank” in Sunday’s 14.2km time trial at Barbate (with a long sector of dirt road), Froome could only muster 11th at 27 seconds behind stage-winner and teammate David de la Cruz.

Time to hit the panic button? Not yet. Froome flew into Spain on Tuesday evening before the race, and that came on a long trip back to Europe from a training camp in South Africa. Despite talking to race organizers more than two weeks prior, the team committed Froome to racing the Ruta del Sol only days before the start.

“He has had a lot of scrutiny, and we all know that, and he did come in tired,” Sky sport director Brett Lancaster told The Guardian. “At the end of the day, he’s only a human being. If it’s Chris Froome or another big sports star, it’s going to take a toll on anyone.”

Compared to other recent season debuts, the Ruta result is Froome’s worst since 2012, when he was 78th at the Volta ao Algarve.

In four of the last five years, Froome won his debut stage race. He won the overall at Tour of Oman in 2013 and 2014, at Ruta in 2015, and at Herald Sun Tour in 2016. Last year, he debuted in the pack at 49th in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and then rode to sixth at the Sun Tour.

Last year, Froome came into the season off his peak form with the idea of winning the Vuelta a España in September, the same race where he eventually would test for high levels of Salbutamol. In fact, Froome’s first win in 2017 came on the final day in Paris when he won the overall of the 2017 Tour de France.

It’s hard to read into Froome’s performance. When asked if people should view the result in the context of his Salbutamol case, Froome shrugged it off, saying, “No, I knew coming in that this would be my first race of the season. I didn’t expect to be flying.”

This year, Froome is targeting the Giro d’Italia for the first time since 2010. Team officials confirmed to VeloNews that Tirreno-Adriatico will be his next race. Results there will reveal much more about his condition going into the Giro, which starts May 4 in Israel.

As much as the team tried to portray the race as “business as usual,” the weight of Froome’s ongoing Salbutamol case must have taken a toll. Froome admitted as much, saying, “For sure it’s been tough. It’s been tough on everyone. I’ve been putting in big hours over the winter. Obviously, I have quite ambitious goals to go to the Giro, to go to the Tour.”

Whether Froome reaches the Giro remains to be seen, and that uncertainty must have played a factor on Froome at the Ruta. Not everyone was thrilled with Froome’s presence, and that tension will likely only increase until the case is concluded.

“It’s great to be racing — it’s not about tension or relief. I am starting my season,” Froome said. “It’s been hyped up in the media, anyone can see that.”

As his case continues to play out behind closed doors — and there is no official confirmation of how long it might take — Froome will continue training. Officials said Froome will head to a training camp before racing again, most likely at Tirreno-Adriatico.