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Froome on domestique duty as he searches for Tour de France form

Bernal takes control as speculation ramps up about Froome's Tour prospects.

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Chris Froome (Team Ineos) was on domestique duty Monday as teammates Egan Bernal and Pavel Sivakov rode to one-two across the finish line high in the French Pyrénées in the third stage at the Route d’Occitanie.

All eyes were on Froome, who raced in what was his first major mountain summit since crashing during last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné nearly one year ago. As Bernal won the stage to claim the leader’s jersey, Sivakov rode to second at 10 seconds back. And Froome? He was 34th at 5:11 in arrears.

Froome played it graciously, insisting that the team’s plan was to help Bernal secure the overall lead in the grinding finale up the Col de Beyrède summit.

“I am impressed by the team. They are amazing,” Froome told reporters after the stage. “Everyone did as they did exactly as we planned today, and we can be very happy with that as a team today.”

Monday’s stage — unfortunately not broadcast live on TV — was the first major showdown between some of the Tour de France favorites since coming out of the COVID-19 race stoppage. Ineos took control of the stage, putting their would-be rivals on the defensive. Others could not answer when Bernal, racing for the first time since the Colombia Tour in February, turned the screws to win the stage.

Sivakov, who is expected to make his Tour debut later this summer with Ineos, also said that Froome was playing the helper role Monday as the two younger riders dominated the stage.

“It was a super job from Froome,” Sivakov said. “Everything happened just as we had discussed in the team meeting.”

Seeing Froome working for Egan, however, only raised questions about his Tour status, and guarantees that the four-time Tour winner Froome will be at the center of intrigue in the coming weeks.

There has been plenty of speculation about whether or not he will be selected to race the Tour with Team Ineos later this month. So far, the team will only say that Froome is part of the group of riders who will be selected to race the Tour. A final selection will come after the Critérium du Dauphiné (August 12-16).

While Froome’s power numbers will be well-known within the Team Ineos management, Froome will be under some pressure to be able to show something on the road in the next few weeks to confirm that he’s fully recovered from his crash from a year ago.

So far, Froome has publicly stated his intention is to race the Tour, which starts August 29 in Nice, France. Another question is what role Froome would play in the Tour if he makes the cut. On Monday, he proved he’s willing to play the team role.

“Egan and Pavel are in fantastic shape at the moment, so to be able to help them to do that, I was very happy how I felt on that climb,” Froome said. “I am going to take it one week at a time. At the moment and keep improving my level. When we get to the Tour, things can change by then. The Tour is still a month away, and a lot can happen.”

2020 Route d'Occitanie stage 3
Egan Bernal won stage 3 of the 2020 Route d’Occitanie and moved into the overall lead. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Of course, with Froome set to move to Israel Start-Up Nation in a high-profile move next season, there is some speculation that Froome might be left off the Tour roster by team management hoping to avoid any possible conflict of interests that could complicate things out on the road in France.

“We had a plan with Egan. We didn’t want to take too many risks,” Ineos sport director Gabriel Rasch said. “This is our first race with part of our Tour team, and our first real test against some of the best climbers in the world, so it was clearly a good day.”

After this race, Froome is slated to race the Tour de l’Ain (August 7-9) and the Dauphiné over the next few weeks. Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour winner who has not raced since the Volta ao Algarve in February, will also race l’Ain and Dauphiné.

Defending Tour champion Bernal was ecstatic after the racing, thanking the work of his teammates, signaling out Sivakov for his top ride.

“I’m honored with this victory,” Bernal said. “Pavel was impressive. He’s improved a lot from last year, and he will be a key rider in the Tour. This is good practice for the Tour. We haven’t raced a lot together so we need this now. I won’t have too much stress going into the Tour. I’m in good shape, and I need to save my legs for the Tour.”

Whether Froome is riding alongside Bernal and the others remains to be seen.

Froome pays tribute to Portal

Froome also took a moment to remember Nicolas Portal, the team’s former sport director who died at 40 in March.

Froome and Portal were close, and the Frenchman helped guide Froome to all four of his Tour de France victories.

“It’s a really special day to remember Nicolas Portal,” Froome said. “For me personally, I had so many memories on the road today. These are the roads we spent hours and hours reconning together around this region before the Tour de France. It brought back a lot of memories, that’s for sure.”

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