How Sky’s brutal climbing tactics work

Wout Poels explains what it's like to lead-out Sky teammate Chris Froome on the Tour's toughest mountain stages.

Photo: TDW

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FINHAUT-EMOSSON, Switzerland (VN) — “Fortress Froome” feels just as impenetrable on the inside as it does to Tour rivals, according to one of Sky’s top climbing domestiques. Wout Poels has emerged as one of Chris Froome’s key teammates during the Tour’s decisive climbs and said he wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of Sky’s drubbing in the mountains. “I would not like to race against our team,” Poels told VeloNews. “The team is riding really well. You saw today we have all the guys there to help Chris.”

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The 28-year-old Dutchman is a key component of Froome’s support train in the Tour’s climbing stages. A winner in his own right, including this year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Poels joined Sky in 2015 to slot into a helper’s role. Since then, he’s emerged as Froome’s go-to man in the most decisive climbs of the Tour.

Sky has been drilling the climbs so hard that no one dares attack over the top. Poels is often the last man, with Sergio Henao, Geraint Thomas, Mikel Landa, and Mikel Nieve taking pulls. The riders rotate through the front, depending on who is feeling fresh. On Wednesday’s decisive climbing stage high into the French Alps, the entire team was pulling hard at the limit, leaving Froome’s rivals isolated or with only one teammate.

There is almost no hope for anyone to make a run at Froome. Arch-rival Nairo Quintana (Movistar) has been limp so far in this Tour, unable to challenge Froome. In fact, almost no one can attack Froome until the closing one or two kilometers.

That intensity is by design. Sky wants to go so hard at the front that Froome’s rivals don’t dare attack from far away. And if they do, they pay the price, unable to maintain the pace. Then, Froome can counter, and take big gains. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Dan Martin (Etixx – Quick-Step) both made long-distance surges Wednesday, and both ended up losing time to Froome.

That’s the fear that Sky is trying to instill into their rivals.

“You do a pace, so if they attack, you can still react also,” Poels said. “You put it high enough so that they others are on their limit, and make it difficult for them to attack, but you also save just a little bit.”

So how do they do it? Poels explained they set a rhythm just below their threshold, leaving a bit in the tank to grind down any would-be aggressors. Poels will often be the one chasing down the attacks, like when Quintana went early on Mont Ventoux. He can cover one or two hard accelerations, and then it’s game over.

“I am close to the limit. I always keep in mind that if they attack, that I can speed up again, and I can follow,” Poels said. “I can do it once [to cover a move], and then it’s like the last bullet for me. And then Chris has to do it alone. If you are in the last 1 or 2km, then Chris can do it OK.”

That’s the tactic that Sky has deployed so far during this Tour. Keep a brutal pace so that Froome’s rivals are nearly in the red. If Poels can’t do it, then it’s Henao or Landa or Thomas or Nieve. And when someone goes — like Richie Porte (BMC) did in the final 2km — Froome has plenty in the tank to cover the move and limit the losses.

And if no one dares attack, Froome can punch the accelerator, and open up gains his rivals already on their limits.

From a spectator’s point of view, it might seem a bit formulaic or even boring. Poels says when he’s in the front row, it’s balls-to-the-wall.

“I think on TV is a little bit [boring] to watch,” he said with a laugh. “Maybe if I was at home, watching the race, I might say that, but it’s not boring to us!”

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