Marginal gains: Extra climber pays off for Sky in France

Chris Froome pedals his own bike up the mountains of the Tour, but a strong team of climbers is certainly helping.

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THUR, Switzerland (VN) — Team Sky is smothering the competition in the mountains. Why? An extra climber in the rotation is paying off dividends.

Yellow jersey holder Chris Froome has five riders capable of going deep with him in the mountains. That’s more than any Sky team has ever brought to the Tour, and certainly more than any of his competitors. Only Luke Rowe, Vasil Kiryienka, and Ian Stannard are Sky’s true rouleurs for the flats.

“The big difference this year is having that extra climber here,” Sky’s Geraint Thomas said on Tuesday’s rest day. “In the past, we’ve never had five guys who can stay there in the end on their day. It’s just unbelievable, really, the strength we have.”

Froome pedals into the final decisive phase of the 2016 Tour with a lead of 1:47 over second place Bauke Mollema (Trek – Segafredo) and 2:59 ahead of archrival Nairo Quintana (Movistar), who sits in fourth. To even get to Froome, his rivals will have to break through his impressive defenses.

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Take a look at who Sky has to help Froome in the final four climbing stages. Mikel Nieve won a stage and the climber’s jersey at the Giro d’Italia. Mikel Landa won two stages and finished third in last year’s Giro. Wout Poels won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Volta a Valenciana this year, and Sergio Henao, making his Tour debut, is one of Colombia’s fleetest climbers. Thomas is a budding GC rider who won Paris-Nice this spring and who can follow wheels deep into the mountains.

They’re all leaders in their own right, riding at the service of Froome. No wonder Froome is untouchable in the mountains.

“I said before the race that I have a strong team around me,” Froome said Tuesday. “It has to be discouraging for the other guys, with the guys riding around me and setting the tempo.”

In a Tour packed with mountains, it seems many teams were looking the wrong way.

Other teams came obsessed at avoiding losses in the first week, and packed their Tour squads with classics-style riders to keep their GC captains out of trouble. Perhaps scarred by previous early losses, including echelons in the second stage last year that handicapped Quintana, Movistar brought some big brawlers to keep its small Colombian out of the wind. Once in the mountains, Quintana is only left with help from Alejandro Valverde.

The problem facing many of Froome’s GC rivals is that they do not have anyone to help them once the true selection is made. In Sunday’s stage over the Colombier, the elite group of 15 included two Sky riders — Poels and Henao — to help Froome. Nearly every other GC rider was isolated. Quintana can count on Valverde, while BMC Racing has Tejay van Garderen and Richie Porte, but neither of those teams has had domestiques consistently helping their leaders on the final climbs. Even Mollema is often left to his own.

With five climbers in its quiver, Sky has so much depth it can rotate riders through to assure someone is always there for Froome.

“I had a mechanical [Sunday] and lost the group, we still had Wout and Sergio,” Thomas said. “Landa was on a bad day, Nieve had a bad day, but that’s why we brought so many climbers. Froome still has to ride his bike and get up the hills by himself, but he’s got some great guys around him.”

Sky’s depth and consistency in the mountains has some even comparing them to Lance Armstrong’s “Blue Train” in the bad, old days of the U.S. Postal Service during the EPO era.

Sky bristles at that suggestion. Sky revealed that Froome has had 13 extra doping controls during this Tour in addition to the pre-race tests and controls that come with the yellow jersey.

“Last year, after the Tour, he went and did an independent test,” said Sky manager Dave Brailsford, referring to off-season testing in London. “People aren’t asking the same questions.”

Perhaps an even more important factor is Sky’s budget. L’Equipe published a list of team budgets. Considering the exchange rate with the English pound, Sky’s budget is upward of $30 million to $35 million per year, more than double than some of the lower-rung WorldTour teams. That gives them the financial firepower to sign the peloton’s top riders.

“It’s not just money,” Brailsford said. “We spend less than we could on salaries, and more than we could on support.”

Although Sky certainly has the purse-strings to hire top riders, Brailsford said the team’s success is founded on its investment in coaching, training, nutrition, and support systems, but objected to the notion that the team is buying its success by simply opening the checkbook.

“We spend more on supporting the athlete than other teams. That’s part of the investment we’ve made on coaching, training, and other support for the athletes,” Brailsford said. “Proportionally, we spend less on salaries, and we try to get more out of it. Every team decides how they want to spend their money. We believe in coaching, in support services.”

Even Sky’s B-team that it sent to the Tour of Poland last week reveals how deep Sky is. That Polish lineup was loaded with top riders, including Leopold Konig, Peter Kennaugh, Nicolas Roche, and Michal Kwiatkowski, who all could have raced the Tour.

Sky’s rivals are noticing, and admitting that they’re outgunned in the high mountains.

“They have a great team here, and I think for them it would be disappointing with a team like that and the budget they have if they didn’t win the Tour,” Mollema said. “They have the pressure.”

All this could change as the Tour moves into the final, decisive climbs in the Alps, with three hard mountain stages and a climbing time trial on tap before the parade down the Champs–Élysées on Sunday.

To get to Froome, his rivals will have to go through Thomas, Landa, Nieve, Henao, and Poels. Quintana managed to crack open the walls last year at Alpe d’Huez. The coming days will tell, but Froome said he’s stronger than ever going into the third week.

“I wouldn’t say the best is yet to come, but I wouldn’t say I am just hanging on like in the last Tours,” Froome said. “I feel that I’m more ready for this third week than I have been in the last editions.”

That’s music to the ears of Froome fans. For everyone else, maybe it’s time to get used to it.

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