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Chris Froome and his comeback are on track for a big 2021. That’s according to Israel Start-Up Nation, which saw the four-time Tour de France winner race in team colors for the first time since his high-profile transfer.
Froome, 35, debuted last week at the UAE Tour in his new kit, and though the individual results might not have been at the pointy end of the action — he finished 47th overall at 22 minutes back — team officials said Froome is right where he needs to be.
Speaking to VeloNews, INS sport director Dror Pekatch said the team left the UAE Tour with a sense of mission accomplished.
“We are confident Chris will be good when he needs to be good,” Pekatch told VeloNews. “He has a full tailwind from us. It’s 100-percent support, and we are sure of him.”
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That kind of vocal support reveals how committed the team is to Froome’s bid to return to the elite of the peloton following his harrowing crash in June 2019. It’s also a reflection of Froome’s decision to join Israel Start-Up Nation after racing 11 seasons in Sky/Ineos colors, and his desire to have a team fully backing him.
Expectations were sky-high when Froome raced for the first time since finishing the 2020 Vuelta a España in November. Froome certainly didn’t blow anyone away as he was blowing out the cobwebs and lost a minute in 13km to defending Tour champion Tadej Pogačar in stage 2, and then got dropped early in stage 3.
Froome admitted before the race started that he wasn’t ready to challenge for the GC, but that didn’t stop some from wondering if Froome’s time has passed. The London paper The Telegraph even suggested that Froome wouldn’t finish in the top-50 in the Tour if he doesn’t step up before July.
Israel Start-Up Nation pushed back against some of that criticism and suggested Froome will surprise people later in the season.
“When Michael Jordan retired, people thought he could never come back to win, and he did,” Pekatch said in a telephone interview. “Let’s give Chris a chance. He deserves it. He knows what he is doing.”
On track for a run at a fifth yellow jersey
So far, ISN has given Froome plenty of space to ease into the next chapter of his career. He spent most of the winter in California, where he continued his recovery and rehabilitation as well as trained with ex-teammate Cameron Wurf.
Speaking to journalists last week, Froome said he left the UAE Tour content with how things are tracking toward a return to the Tour in July.
“For me personally, I am feeling better and better,” Froome said last week. “I definitely need more of these race stages, but step by step, hopefully, things are coming together for me.”
Insiders at ISN insist Froome is heading in the right direction for success later this season, even if that means it will be a slower start to the 2021 campaign than some would have liked or expected to see.
“I think for us it was not a surprise, and we are happy with him and the way he does things,” said Pekatch. “I have to say that Froome was fairly good according to this time of the year. Of course, he needs more time, but everyone is working with him to make sure this happens.”
Along with Froome’s high-profile season debut, the team came away satisfied with its first WorldTour race in 2021. The team also worked on its sprint train, with André Greipel sprinting to sixth in the final stage, and Ben Hermans climbed into 13th overall despite losing time in the opening-day echelons.
The UAE Tour was also the first chance Froome’s had to get to know many of his new teammates. Due to travel restrictions, Froome spent more time in California than expected over the winter. And with his ongoing rehabilitation, he opted to stay in the United States and skipped a team get-together in Spain in February.
“It was a very [enjoyable] atmosphere with Chris. It was fun on the bus, and you could not tell that he is a huge star in cycling by his personality,” Pekatch said. “Not many people outside of cycling know what a great person Chris truly is. He is the first to raise his hand to help the team. In a sprint, when it’s getting messy, he was helping the team and absolutely getting into the racing.”
‘Not just about Chris Froome’
Pekatch previously worked with the Israeli national mountain bike team before returning to the team this season. He was one of the founding sport directors of the Israeli Cycling Academy team in 2015, and returned as the team steps up with even renewed ambitions for 2021.
“That fact that we are Israeli is important, but we also need to win races, and not just represent the country,” he said. “The UAE Tour was great preparation. The whole team was pulling together.
“This team stepped up again this year, with the arrival of many new top riders,” he said. “It’s a lot around Chris Froome, but it’s not only about him. We have 32 riders on the team, and they all deserve a chance.”
Back in Europe, Israel Start-Up Nation saw its first victory with Michael Woods winning a stage at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var in February. Sep Vanmarcke kicked to third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad to open the classics, and Daryl Impey was second at the Drome Classic over the weekend.
Froome is also working closely with ISN’s director of performance Paulo Saldanha to build toward his major goals. After stretching the legs at UAE Tour, Froome returned to Europe.
Up next is an altitude camp and then his next major race at Volta a Catalunya in March.