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Sky’s Elissonde facing uphill battle for Tour spot

The 25-year-old has the potential to be one of Sky's big climbers down the road, but he would be fine with missing the Tour this year.

Kenny Elissonde is facing an uphill battle to earn a spot on Team Sky’s Tour de France squad, and that’s just fine with the French climber.

As one of Sky’s newest arrivals, the 25-year-old harbors no illusions about his chances of riding in support of Chris Froome this summer as Sky goes for its fifth yellow jersey in six years.

“Racing the Tour? Well, that is the hope!” Elissonde said. “Team Sky is the best team in the world for the Tour de France, so to make the selection is not so easy. There are many riders trying to ride on the Tour team, because everyone knows they have a very good chance to win.”

There is room at the top, but it won’t be easy for Elissonde, winner of a stage at the 2013 Vuelta a España, to make the Tour squad. Nicholas Roche and Leopold Konig both left Sky, while David Zandio retired. Diego Rosa was the only other major new rider for 2017, along with some younger, less-experienced talent.

Everyone knows how deep Team Sky’s roster is. All eight of the riders who made up “Fortress Froome” last July remain with Sky for 2017, and all will be fighting for a return ticket as Froome races for his fourth Tour win.

Sky is so deep that even its “B Team” that was sent packing to the Tour of Poland last summer included Nicholas Roche, Michal Kwiatkowski, Beñat Intxausti, and Konig, enough to be the envy of other Tour squads.

The featherweight Frenchman — he’s 5-foot-6 and 115 pounds — might be in with a chance. Elissonde already spent a lot of quality time with Froome and joined him as his training partner in Australia. Earning Froome’s trust is key to getting in on Sky’s Tour selection.

“Chris Froome is very helpful and friendly to the rest of us. He gives us advice, and that can help us later in our career. He is a big worker, and he sets the example for everyone,” Elissonde said. “I want to gain more experience and take it step by step, so maybe not this year at the Tour, perhaps the next year, why not?”

This year’s Tour course isn’t heavy on big climbs, and Sky will likely want to bring some of its brawnier riders to help usher Froome through several classics-style stages packed in the front half of the race.

Elissonde has one more handicap: he’s never raced the Tour. He’s started the Vuelta four times, including in 2013 in what was his grand tour debut when he won the Angliru stage out of a breakaway. He also raced the Giro d’Italia in 2015, posting steady results to get on Sky’s radar.

Whether he makes the Tour selection or not, Elissonde is making his presence known. He is Sky’s first French rider since Sylvain Calzati and Nicolas Portal (now Froome’s favored sport director) were part of Sky’s inaugural 2010 team, and is one of the team’s first pure climbers.

“I had already had some contact with the team, and we began to speak, and we decided to go for it. I am the first French rider in a long time,” Elissonde said. “It is an interesting learning curve, and every day I learn something new. This is a special team. Every team has its own style and training methods. I am seeing something different every day, so as an athlete, I think those changes are good ones.”

That Team Sky, the team at the height of its powers and dominance, would sign a French rider speaks volumes about France’s revival inside the peloton.

Many French riders stick to French teams, where they can earn big salaries, and rarely venture beyond the comfortable confines of the French orbit. Elissonde, who raced for FDJ from 2012-2016, said he couldn’t pass up on the chance to join one of the peloton’s heavy hitters.

“The French are at the top level now, because French cycling has changed a lot. I was not there 10 years ago, but now French cycling has some very good trainers and we have some great riders,” Elissonde said. “We hope the sport is in a good way and in a good direction. The French riders are now competitive in the sprints, in the climbs, in the GC. We are seeing the French riders have results again.”

Sky boss Dave Brailsford hasn’t been shy about his interest in developing a French rider. While Froome still has a few good years left in him, Sky could be nurturing Elissonde for a long-term project to chase mountain stages and jerseys (he was second in the Vuelta’s King of the Mountains competition last year). Right now, he’s content with trying to fit in at his new home as he dreams about July.

“Everything is going very nice with the team. It is a nice change for me, to try something different,” said Elissonde, who is racing this week at the Abu Dhabi Tour. “Change is good for any athlete.”