Blazin' Saddles

Weekly round-up: Froome draws first blood in Tour countdown

Blazin' Saddles

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Both Chris Froome and Alberto Contador recorded their first wins of the season within a matter of hours - but it was the Team Sky man who made more of a splash in a busy week of racing.

It's hard to read too much in these early season stage races, with many riders still trying to shed winter weight, find their footing within new teams or adapt to new tactics within existing teams.

Just look at Carlos Betancur. The podgy Colombian is apparently riding six kilos over his optimum weight - that's the weight of a pro bike - and still managed to outsprint an in-form John Degenkolb to take Saturday's opening stage of the Tour du Haut-Var.

Astonishingly, it was Betancur's first victory in the brown shorts of Ag2R-La Mondiale after a debut season that saw him finish runner-up with Poulidorian relish.

Betancur was back to business on Sunday's second and final stage, taking second place behind the Amael Moinard of BMC - the man voted best-looking in the 2012 Tour de France according to an obscure survey carried out last summer.

Elsewhere, fans had the chance to run the rule over the prospects of the big GC favourites for this year's Grand Tours.

Putting his recent sunburn woes aside, Froome saw his campaign to win a second successive Tour de France title get off to a fiery start by winning the same race that kicked off his 2012 winning streak - the Tour of Oman.

A huge dig on Green Mountain - as big a misnomer as Greenland - saw Froome blow away his opponents to secure victory in Saturday's stage five and with it the overall Oman title.

Interestingly, Froome's attack on the final climb came from an out-of-the-saddle surge as opposed to one of his trademark high-cadence sitting spins - a sign, perhaps, that the Kenyan-born Brit has been working on making his effortless riding seem more believable in the off-season.

In fact, Team Sky were an entirely different preposition in Oman than 12 months previously. Gone were the tactics of riding a metronomic high tempo en bloc in a bid to strangle the opposition.

Instead we saw a series of unpredictable individual attacks - most notably from Froome in stage four and Sergio Henao on the initial slopes of Green Mountain.

Henao's role this season will be very different than last, the Colombian elevated to Richie Porte status now that the Tasmanian will target the Giro d'Italia as Sky's main man.

Porte rode a solid if unspectacular ride in the Ruta del Sol in Andalucia to finish runner-up to Alejandro Valverde by 31 seconds on Sunday.

Like Froome in Oman, this was Valverde's second successive overall victory in Andalucia and it came after an extremely convincing performance, the Spaniard winning the 7.3km prologue and two hilly stages en route to topping the GC.

Valverde's strong showing may silence the critics who believe Movistar are wrong to take Nairo Quintana out of the Tour firing line and give the Spanish all-rounder one last throw of the dice in France this July.

Last year's surprise Milan-San Remo winner Gerald Ciolek continued his nation's collective early season success: with German youngster Marcel Kittel and Giant-Shimano team-mate Degenkolb in commanding form, Ciolek's narrow sprint win in stage four came as Andre Greipel roared to three stage wins in Oman.

Having been snubbed by the Giro and the Tour, surely a wildcard entry for the Vuelta is in store for MTN-Qhubeka.

The big disappointment in the Ruta del Sol was bearded Bradley Wiggins, who despite bullish early season talk finished a whole 17 minutes down on GC, losing four minutes alone in the last few kilometres of a hilly stage two, as well as conceding an uncharacteristic 14 seconds to Valverde in the prologue.

When Wiggins won the Tour in 2012 these were the kind of warm-up stage races the Sky rider was winning for fun. That said, the Wiggins of 2014 is an entirely different kettle of fish, the ever-so-slightly heftier former track star looking to condition himself for Paris-Roubaix and the spring classics before his bid to make Sky's selection for July's Tour.

The Tour is Alberto Contador's big target. Unlike Wiggo, the Spaniard will hope to compete against Froome and not help him. Just hours after Froome won atop Green Mountain, Contador opened up his own season account with victory on the Alto do Malhao in Portugal - a timely reminder of his enduring class.

But despite taking the queen stage of the race, Contador was unable to dislodge Poland's Michal Kwiatkowski from the top of the standings. The Omega Pharma-Quick Step all-rounder beat team-mate Tony Martin by 13 seconds in a 13.6km time trial, one day after soloing to victory in stage two.

The final stage of the race saw Kwiatkowski's British team-mate Mark Cavendish record his first win of the season after an expert set up by new team-mates Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Renshaw. Given the dominating early season form of Messrs Kittel and Greipel - not to mention the lack of prior cohesion in the OPQS train - victory came to Cavendish at just the right time.

The five-day stage race in Portugal was a great chance to see the new-look Lampre-Merida roster in action, too. Sprinter Sacha Modolo won the opening stage while world champion Rui Costa was as aggressive as he was consistent, narrowly missing out on taking an inaugural victory in the rainbow stripes. We even witnessed a stinging attack by Chris Horner on the first ascent of the Malhao.

Like Porte and Quintana, Horner is another big-name rider who is targeting the Giro over the Tour this year. Joining this group is Colombia's Rigoberto Uran, now of Omega Pharma-Quick Step.

Uran rode an aggressive race in Oman to take third on GC but did little to upset former team-mate Froome on Green Mountain. With OPQS having very little pedigree on focusing on the GC in Grand Tours, this may be a season of transition for Uran.

A solid top five in Oman also included Tejay van Garderen, Joaquim Rodriguez and Robert Gesink. But there was no place for Italian Vincenzo Nibali, who despite a little dig in stage four, kept a low profile to finish in 12th place, 1:51 down on the man he hopes to challenge for the yellow jersey in July.

Undoubtedly, the move of the week from a hectic programme of races came from Nibali's former Cannondale team-mate Peter Sagan. Anticipating a round-about in the closing moments of stage four, Sagan bunny-hopped over a central reservation to take a more favourable line than fellow escapees Uran and Nibali.

The audacious manoeuvre meant Sagan had the momentum heading into the finishing straight and the victory was all but routine for the Slovak sensation.

So, a busy week of racing brought belated maiden wins for Cavendish and Sagan as well as seeing GC heavyweights Froome, Contador and Valverde open up their season accounts.

As an individual, Froome still looks very much the man to beat in the Tour de France. It's too early to make a judgement about Nibali, but both Contador and Valverde look very strong.

With Porte's focus this year moving beyond picking up energy gels for his team leader, it remains to be seen if Froome will have - in Henao and Wiggins - the kind of support he enjoyed last year. One suspects he will not.

But as long as Froome rides the way he did on Green Mountain in Oman, it seems sensible to believe that the only yellow Contador will be wearing this season is the extra bright yellow bands of the new Tinkoff-Saxo kit.

Indeed, the best bet for Spanish glory from the Contador-Valverde-Rodriguez triumvirate certainly seems to be the Vuelta a Espana.

Felix Lowe | Follow on Twitter

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