Chris Froome finished third in today’s closing time trial of the Tour de Romandie to clinch his third stage race overall victory of 2013, and is now being widely tipped as the man to beat in the Tour de France. His victory comes as Team Sky’s head of performance support, Tim Kerrison, reveals his belief that cycling’s doping past has created the opportunity for Sky to steal a march on rivals by modernising coaching methods in the sport.
It’s the third stage race overall victory for Froome this season, and his first at WorldTour level, and it came in a race he led from start to finish after setting the quickest time in Tuesday’s Prologue.
An attack yesterday with stage winner Simon Spilak of Katusha consolidated his lead, and his third place today behind Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tony Martin resulted in a margin of victory in the GC over Spilak of nearly a minute.
“It has been a really good week for us I am really happy with my condition now in the build-up to the Tour de France,” said Froome afterwards, runner-up to Wiggins in last year's edition.
“This week I couldn’t have done it without the help of a really strong team around me. Every day since the prologue, they have protected me and kept me at the front of the race. I owe it to them this week.”
Coming after wins at the Tour of Oman and the Critérium International, Froome is following a similar path to the one successfully taken by Wiggins last year, who also had a series of stage race wins ahead of his successful challenge for the maillot jaune, including the Tour de Romandie.
It’s part of a deliberate strategy on Sky’s part – the more days a rider spends leading races earlier in the season and getting used to the associated protocols such as doping controls, podium presentations and press conferences, the less disruptive they will be when the Tour comes around.
Besides that, it’s also of course an opportunity for Froome to gauge his form.
“Every race I do now is a good test for me, to see exactly where my condition is and what I need to work on. It has been a really good experience for me this week,” he reflected.
“It is definitely a good omen, but the Tour is still two months away and I need to do a lot of hard training before then.”
Much of that training will be done under the supervision of Kerrison, one of the key architects of Wiggins’ Tour de France victory last summer, where Froome was runner-up.
It’s fair to say that for all their success, Team Sky’s tactics in stage races, last year and again this season, haven’t proved universally popular, and have drawn comparisons with the way US Postal used to set tempo on climbs working on behalf of Lance Armstrong.
Many view Sky as squeezing the spontaneity and unpredictability out of races; some see darker parallels between the two teams, not helped by the British team's past employment of former Rabobank doctor, Geert Leinders.
In an interview with the Observer, Kerrison acknowledged that widespread doping within cycling was a factor in Sky’s success, but in a surprising way; the investment some teams made in doping programmes at the expense of coaching gave Sky an opportunity to steal a march on its rivals by bringing modern coaching methods to the sport.
Speaking about the revelations regarding doping that continue to emerge in the wake of Lance Armstrong’s ban and subsequent confession, he said: "I believe that we know a lot more than we did even 12 months ago.
"In the previous era of cycling, I guess the teams did a cost-benefit analysis and the best way to invest their limited amount of resource for some teams was to invest in doctors and doping programmes, and coaching suffered.
“That's left a window of opportunity for us. Quite uniquely, in this sport the development of coaching systems has been retarded by the effects of the last decade."
Previously a swimming coach with the Queensland Academy of Sport, Kerrison expressed surprise at his discovery of how far behind cycling was when it came to coaching.
"It's still a shock how unstructured a lot of other riders and teams are. Swimmers very rarely do anything without a coach, rowing a bit more, but in cycling a huge amount of training is done without a coach.
“The concept of coaching seems to be hit and miss: some teams have a coach; some teams leave their riders to their own devices; in some the directeurs sportifs oversee what they do between races but we know it's hard for them."
According to Kerrison, Sky is the only team whose riders all benefit from one-on-one sessions with their coaches, but he says that other teams are now looking to copy its approach.
"Everyone is now following our lead in things like warm-downs; more and more teams have coaching staff. I genuinely hope it's the start of a new era in cycling," he added.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.