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Israel Start-Up Nation remains bullish on Chris Froome with eye on future in 2022

Lead sport director Rik Verbrugghe promises the team is also betting on developing talent: 'Everyone wants to find the next Tadej Pogačar.'

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Rik Verbrugghe packs big ambitions for Israel Start-Up Nation going into 2022.

The Belgian ex-pro, who is the lead sport director for the Israeli-backed team, wants to see the squad finish safely within the top-5 in world rankings and win more races next year.

And what about Chris Froome, the four-time Tour de France winner who seems stalled in his comeback from injury in 2019?

Verbrugghe has a plan for that as well.

“We have our strategy for next year.  And hopefully, he can come back to a new level,” Verbrugghe told VeloNews. “I have my vision on it, and I will explain it first to Chris. We will do it step by step.”

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Froome, 36, hasn’t won a race since his 2018 Giro d’Italia victory, and while some have been quick to write him off, Verbrugghe said the team still backs Froome and his ambitions to return to a top level.

Verbrugghe, however, cautioned there is no guarantee that Froome will race the Tour in 2022.

“That’s something we need to discuss,” Verbrugghe told VeloNews in a team camp earlier this month. “That’s a difficult question. We have a good idea of what went wrong, and then we will set the goals, and how we are going to do it.”

Those comments echo an even stronger opinion Verbrugghe expressed to Cycling Weekly, when he told the British magazine that Froome will have to earn his spot on the Tour selection.

Also read: Chris Froome will have to earn Tour de France spot

Froome struggled to recapture his winning form since his horrific 2019 crash, and confirmed to VeloNews that he suffered from a flare-up of bilharzia in 2021, something that further stymied his return.

Froome is expected to debut his 2022 season at the Tour de San Juan and race the Tour de Rwanda in February before making a European debut at Paris-Nice in March.

Despite the continuing struggles for Froome, Verbrugghe said the team and Froome can learn from the 2021 season that saw the four-time Tour winner often ride in the gruppetto.

“Chris saw a different Tour de France,” Verbrugghe said. “Even if wasn’t the best experience of his career, but he became a completely different type of rider at the Tour.

“But this year, the fans were cheering him in ways he had never seen before. He was in the gruppetto, and that was completely different than in the past, and before he was the guy that everyone wanted to beat. He was loved by his fans, and now it was completely different. You can enjoy that kind of situation, too.”

Verbrugghe: ‘Everyone wants to find the next Tadej Pogačar’

Verbrugghe, 47, joined Israel Start-Up Nation this season as lead sport director. The team won 17 times and nudged in the top-10 in the end-of-season rankings.

Verbrugghe said the arrival of such riders as Giacomo Nizzolo and Jakob Fuglsang should help see the team get more victories and push higher up the peloton.

“We are seeing the team getting stronger and stronger every year. It is an ambitious team, but we need to do it the right way,” he said. “We are at the average among the WorldTour teams. Now it’s up to us. We finished in the top-10 in the team rankings, and it’s nice to be there in the mix. Our goal is to continue our evolution. Let’s see what it will bring, but that’s what we are working on.”

The team bumped up to the WorldTour in 2020 following the exit of Katusha, a move that might have come a year or two earlier than team owner Sylvan Adams might have imagined, but the opportunity to acquire the Russian team’s license was too good to miss.

Verbrugghe, who retired in 2008 and worked at such teams as BMC Racing and Bahrain-Victorious as sport director, is focused on trying to develop younger riders into the team’s veteran-heavy fold.

Verbrugghe also must balance a strong Israeli presence, with four riders on the WorldTour team, as well as a heavy Canadian contingent, also with five riders. The team is also investing heavily in its development squad, Israel Cycling Academy with 15 riders.

“The main goal is to make the team younger even if we have older riders. We want these experienced riders to share with the young athletes, and achieve our goals in that way,” he said. “We have the chance to look to the long term. With Sylvan, he says we will do this until the end of his life. With someone who is so passionate that support is very important.”

Verbrugghe acknowledged that teams across the WorldTour peloton are recruiting and developing ever-younger riders, making it highly competitive for teams to attract the most talented prospects, but adding experienced riders like Froome and Fuglsang can be a recruitment bonus.

“Everyone wants to find the next Tadej Pogačar,” he said. “It’s also important to show the ambition of the team and where we want to go. Even if you want these youngsters, that doesn’t mean we will get them on our team.

“We want to show that we want to work with young riders, and have them develop alongside a rider like Chris Froome or Jakob Fuglsang,” he said. “Imagine a 20-year-old that he has a rider like Froome or Fuglsang who will share their experience. That’s amazing for them, that’s the best way to progress and learn. We want to build a team coming up from continental and coming up to the WorldTour in the right way of working.”