In the team bus parking beneath the Zoncolan, Dave Brailsford was a smiling team boss, a happier man at the end of this fourteenth stage of the Giro d’Italia than he was at the start of it.
Thirty minutes after watching Chris Froome win a dramatic stage just six seconds ahead of race leader Simon Yates, Sky’s head honcho was beaming, chatty.
In hindsight it wasn’t so much the stage win that pleased Brailsford, but rather the fact that the Team Sky plan – for Froome to come good from the Zoncolan stage onwards – appeared to be back on track. That and the fact that Froome’s Israel crash injury no longer appeared to be bothering him.
“Just before we started the race, we looked at Chris’ numbers and he was miles away from where we thought he needed to be,” admitted Brailsford. “When we looked at them and calculated where we needed to be, we thought it was right on the limit, you know?”
Rather embarrassed, I suggest that Froome looked to be carrying more weight than usual. That he almost looked ‘fat’.
“He was!” admitted Brailsford. “If we had started the race with Chris where he needed to be and everything went according to plan, then we might [have been] OK. Then he crashed before the prologue and we thought we were screwed, that was it,” concluded the Sky boss.
The Sky plan – for Froome to start the race a little short of form and a little above optimum weight – looked like it was derailed before a pedal had been pushed in anger.
“It was a worse injury than we let on,” admitted sport director Nico Portal, “but what could we do? If we came out and said he was really hurting, we would have been attacked and had a lot of media interest in the injury, drawing attention to it.
“And if we had talked up the injury and started making excuses we would have been called a bunch of cry-babies.”
Brailsford tried to illustrate the magnitude of the issue: “On a scale of one to 10, if 10 was unbearable agony, there were days when Chris said he was at nine.
“He was really suffering; suffering to the point at which there was talk of abandoning. We had to sit down and talk it through because under the circumstances, nobody would have been sympathetic, nobody would have understood.”
To further complicate matters, Froome slammed his injured right hand side into the Tarmac on stage eight when his rear wheel slid out on a wet climb.
“It was my fault,” Froome told Portal later, “I was just trying to accelerate out of the corner hard.”
Froome didn’t have his troubles to seek. “The hardest stage, psychologically? It was one of the flat stages about a week before the Zoncolan, it was meant to be an easy one, but I was really suffering,” confessed Froome.
Then came the Zoncolan. That morning before the stage start, the whole Giro knew there would be a sort out and that the partially unpaved 11km climb offered no hiding place.
“We’ll have a chat tonight, to see what we are going to do, but I think Froomey is… OK,” mused Portal that morning, sounding like he was trying to convince himself.
Six hours later, in another car park, Brailsford was beaming while Portal was relieved and encouraged. Game on.
Post-stage Froome was bullish, refuting Brailsford’s line that he had required persuasion to stay on the race when Rouleur asked him if he had ever come close to quitting.
“It never crossed my mind to retire from the race, I mean, that’s bike racing, things happen, things aren’t always in your control, especially at the Giro,” insisted Froome. “If you’re asking me if I’m going to stop trying now, the answer is no, I’m still going to keep racing as hard as I can all the way to Rome. It’s was always my goal to build into the last period of the race and I think today is proof of that.”
But if the Zoncolan had suggested everything was hunky dory, the next day, on the road to Sappada, Froome lost time to stage winner Yates. Had his Zoncolan showing been a blip? Accompanied by Wout Poels, both looked flat, like a pair of diesels stuck in low revs, chugging along as Yates and Dumoulin powered ahead.
Inside the Sky camp, unswerving belief in the plan was wobbling and there were mutterings of dissent. “I think Chris should have raced a few more days [beforehand], he needed more racing,” said one team insider. “There’s nothing like racing to give you that ability to roll a big gear on an undulating day. Maybe training behind a scooter, I think that’s very similar, but Tim (Kerrison) doesn’t agree. He doesn’t like training with scooters and he’s the trainer, so…”
For his part, Portal’s assessment was that Froome suited the Zoncolan, with its steep pitches to attack on and flatter sections to recover: “We had planned that stage to be a big one, Froomey was really focused and psychologically up for it and he went really deep.
“Next day, at Sappada, he just didn’t have the ‘fond’, the base, I think, to follow. I mean, it wasn’t like they attacked him, they just couldn’t keep up. People were saying it was a nutrition problem, but it wasn’t that at all. There’s a detailed plan to help Chris lose weight as the race goes on, he was fine.”
After the post rest-day time trial, Froome was fourth overall, 3-50 down on maglia rosa Yates, but signs of fatigue among those who had been racing at the top of the classification since the Israel start were starting to show. There were three race days left – and then came the Bardonecchia demonstration.
Team Sky set a ridiculous tempo on the lower slopes of the Colle delle Finestre and executed a plan that was all or nothing. It turned out to be ‘all’ as Froome won the stage and took the race lead after an 80km solo break.
“My team made a strong pace on the Finestre to set up the situation for me. It’s great to ride like this. That’s what bike racing is all about. If I was just gonna wait for the final climb, I would not have put three minutes on the maglia rosa. I knew the Finestre really well since I had a training camp in the area last year. I knew how to pace myself correctly.
“It was also a calculated risk. If there was not a big group behind me and other teams didn’t have domestiques, the GC riders had to make the same efforts as me.”
The timing of taking the race lead was almost perfect, with only one more tough day to go and Team Sky pumped up, on the verge of history.
“I had always planned to build into the race and finishing stronger than I started,” explained Froome, who, with coach Kerrison gambled on beginning the Giro ‘short’ of form and above weight, starting the race with just enough form to stay in touch and ‘improving’ (in truth it was the others who dipped rather than any outrageous gains by Froome) towards a ‘peak’ in the final week. Against all expectations and criticism, they pulled it off, but to howls of online outrage.
How had he managed it? That’s another story. For the time being, all that matters is that Chris Froome won the 2018 Giro with a show of audacity that few imagined him – or Sky – capable of.