Blazin' Saddles

Is Sky decision down to who makes the best Froome-mate?

Blazin' Saddles

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Forgetting the "Wiggogate" team selection distraction currently blowing through the UK, Chris Froome is seemingly hell bent on leading the Criterium du Dauphine from start to finish.

To say that things were going swimmingly for Froome in France would be doing disservice to the reigning Tour champion's new doggy paddle-inspired rampaging out-of-the-saddle action that he unveiled on the Dauphine's opening summit finish on Monday.

Attacking with his best strokes no less than five times in the final three kilometres, yellow jersey Froome repeatedly shed all his rivals bar Alberto Contador on the Col du Beal to secure his second scalp of the race following Sunday's emphatic opening time trial win in blustery Lyon (won, once again, ahead of closest opponent Contador).

Clearly ecstatic, Froome put in a rare appearance on Twitter after his latest display of unparalleled pedalling: "Hot day, new bike, summit finish, tough competition & another stage win. Perfect day out! Thanks to my team for setting it up #lovemyjob".

(Rumour has it that Froome would have added a ".com" to his cheesy hashtag had he not already used up all 140 characters.)

Your faithful cycling blogger Blazin' Saddles actually had to watch the chain of events on a deliberately delayed live feed because of an impertinently placed late lunchtime meeting (with a genuine person, not simply a very large baguette of the jambon/fromage variety).

Earlier in the day - and en route to his rendez-vous with a Netherlands-based fruit importer (it's a long story) - Saddles had read an interesting Q&A with Froome's team-mate Richie Porte: the negatively hirsute rider Bradley Wiggins has pointedly (and in no way connivingly) led us all to believe is Sky's preferred Plan B should something happen to their top dog between now and the Grand Depart in Yorkshire.

Speaking to Saddles' old Aussie mucker, the venerable Alex Hinds of SBS, Porte did his best to stress that the illness that has plagued his season to date is very much behind him.

"I'm better now," the Giro-less Porte said on the phone ahead of his ITT in Lyon, in which he placed 23rd, 19 seconds shy of his winning room-mate. "But I'll be going into the Tour much fresher this year than I was last year […] and I'm feeling good. I'm ready to go."

How ready still remains a mystery. After all, a day later Porte rolled over the finish line at the Col du Beal some 11 minutes in arrears after being spat out by the Sky-led peloton with around 8km remaining of the Dauphine's second stage.

Of course, 'jours sans' are hardly an anomaly with Porte: in last year's Tour he was sitting pretty in second place on GC when he popped - as spectacularly as mysteriously - on the stage to Bagneres-de-Bigorre, coming home 18 minutes in arrears to drop to 33rd place. It was his only bad day in an otherwise excellent Tour, the 29-year-old recovering to make the top 20 come Paris.

But to have such an off-day so early in the Dauphine - particularly when, as Dave Brailsford keeps on reminding us (and contrary to Wiggo's graceful hoisting of the white flag on the BBC), Sky's Tour team has yet to be decided - is rather worrying. Especially when you don't have a Tour of California title, a Paris-Roubaix top 10 and millions of expectant British fans to fall back on...

"Richie didn't have a good day today with the heat," Froome said of his AWOL wingman ahead of the expected clement French weather of July.

"It just wasn't his day. But I have a lot of confidence in him for the Tour."

Grabs for the shovel.

"He's definitely coming back up."

Continues to dig.

"He's been giving me a hard time in training."

Deeper now.

"I know he's on his way up."

Poor Froome. He's doing his job perfectly - some might say, too perfectly - and here he finds himself in a situation where, all of a sudden, the spectre of those taught days sharing a room with Bradley in Spain back in 2011 is coming back to haunt him.

For when it comes down to it, we all know that the decision - or non-decision, as we're now being led to believe - to omit Wiggins from Sky's team is not so much a sporting one (his form is as unquestionably good as Porte's is undeniably woeful) but one of team harmony.

As Porte said to Monsieur Hinds, while Wiggins boasts "one of the biggest engines in world cycling [who] has won the Tour before" he's still not part of "our little group", referring to the 2013 Sky team that helped Froome to the summit of world cycling and has since, give or take a few tweaks (Porte being one of those outstanding tweaks), ridden together for most of the current campaign.

Porte himself has refused to be drawn on the Wiggins v Froome debate, claiming diplomatically that he "gets along well with both of them" and that he's "just happy […] to not be the one making those calls".

So he might be - for anyone making the calls on current form would be crazy to include Porte in Sky's nine-man squad for the Grande Boucle. As it is, Porte seems to be there on his merits as a good gel-procurer and friendly room-mate to Froome rather than his ability set a blistering pace up a succession of Alpine cols.

Say what you like about Porte, but his best Grand Tour performance still came back in the 2010 Giro while practically riding as a neo-pro for Bjarne Riis's Saxo Bank outfit. Sure, the goalposts of Porte's career have changed since joining Team Sky - and he did win Paris-Nice last year, let us not forget - but to have not posted another top 10 in almost four years (and from five Grand Tours) is disappointing.

It's all very well going on zany but Wurf-less 400km burger-fuelled training rides from dusk 'til dawn in Tasmania; but if you can't manage 160km in France - run through Sky's fabled Watts Ap - then that doesn't cut the mustard when there's a man in a sailor's outfit knocking on Sir Dave's door and the baying crowds of white roses.

But given Porte's metronomic track record, perhaps we should wait until we've seen how he fares in the next two summit finishes on the Dauphine - including the finale to Courcheval next Saturday - before making any snap decisions.

And then let's also see how Wiggins fares in Switzerland.

It would be dangerous to read too much into one stage on the Tour's warm-up race. After all, in 2012 Vincenzo Nibali shipped nine minutes to Nairo Quintana at Morzine one month before finishing behind Wiggins and Froome on the podium in Paris.

Porte, should he prove his worth between here and Courcheval, can still clearly play a massive role for Froome - bigger, arguably, than a fully fit Wiggins. But he cannot be included in the team merely because he gets on with the defending champion.

If his calming presence is more important to Froome than his ability to ride a bike at his previous high level, then by all means include him. But not at the expense of a man who seems a more viable Plan B right now.

Here's the thing: having nine men in a team means someone doesn't have to share a room with anyone.

If Wiggins is such a cohabiting misery guts then let him be that someone.

And then if Froome crashes out on the cobbles - as everyone seems to be over-concernedly fretting about - then he can shack up with Porte. After all, they get on well, don't they?

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