Chris Froome pledges to back Bradley Wiggins in battle for Tour title


LA PLANCHE DES BELLES FILLES, France (VN) — Chris Froome vows to play the role of loyal lieutenant to new race leader Bradley Wiggins during the 2012 Tour de France.

The Team Sky pair hugged each other in joy at the summit in a clear demonstration of their mutual loyalty after their dramatic double-whammy in the first important mountain stage of the Tour.

The Kenyan-born Froome powered to the stage victory and Wiggins took yellow in what was a sublime performance for the British-backed Team Sky, confirming their dominance in the race so far.

“We have a plan to look after Bradley,” Froome said. “Maybe one day in the future in another race (I can be the team leader), but now is the time to look after Bradley.”

Froome’s dramatic performance on Saturday, when he helped drive the pace in the final 2km before out-kicking defending champion Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) to win the stage, has some wondering if Froome might be stronger than Wiggins.

Last year, Team Sky went to the Vuelta a España backing Wiggins in the first half of the race despite the strong legs of the Kenya-born Froome.

By the time Wiggins cracked in the mountains in Asturias and the team rallied around Froome, Juanjo Cobo had taken the Vuelta race leader’s jersey for good and Froome finished second.

But both Wiggins and Froome say this year’s Tour has nothing to do with last year’s Vuelta.

“The entire team comes to the Tour to help Bradley,” Froome told VeloNews earlier this week. “I want to be there to help him. He is the leader of the team and we are all working for him.”

A healthy Wiggins has dominated the stage-race calendar this year, with victories at Paris-Nice, Romandie and Dauphiné in a near-perfect approach to the Tour.

In contrast, it was Froome who has been struggling with health problems — a bout with the flu early in the season followed by another flareup of a long-running problem with bilharzia, a water-borne tropical disease he’s struggled with since 2010.

Froome hit his form just in time to make the Tour team and he’s committed to riding for Wiggins all the way to Paris.

Team Sky’s plan Saturday was to put Wiggins into the yellow jersey and control Evans. The chance to win the stage came as a surprise.

Wiggins said he was calling the shots up the final kilometers to the Belle Filles summit and gave Froome the green light to go for the stage win.

“I was shouting to (Froome) with 1.5km to go to save his legs so he could try to win the stage,” Wiggins said. “We knew we couldn’t get rid of Cadel today, but we could win the stage.”

Froome countered when Evans punched with 400 meters to go. Wiggins marked Evans’ wheel and Froome rolled to his first Tour stage win.

“It really wasn’t the plan to go for the stage win, but we saw that Bradley was in good position and he opened the door for me to make one attack to go for the stage,” Froome explained.

“The stage was governed by Bradley. He would say, ‘Ease off,’ then he would say, ‘Pick it up.’ That kept it an ideal pace. He was riding within himself all day. It was perfect for both of us.”

Froome shot clear to coast across the line two seconds faster than Evans, who was quickly left to fend for himself, alone against the Team Sky onslaught.

Froome said it’s hard to draw too many conclusions from Saturday’s stage, but suggested that Evans didn’t have the legs to do any damage to Wiggins.

“He didn’t have the legs to go,” Froome said of Evans. “That’s why he didn’t get on my wheel. It really wasn’t a big acceleration I put in. I dug for 50 meters and coasted across the line.”

With the stage win, Froome also snagged the King of the Mountains jersey.

Froome came to the Tour as Sky’s “Plan B,” but his GC hopes took a hit on just the first stage as a puncture cost him 1:25 on GC.

Despite the setback, he climbed into the top 10 on Saturday, settling into ninth at 1:32 back. Take away that puncture, and Froome could have been sitting second at just seven seconds back.

Despite being so well positioned, Froome has pledged his all to help Wiggins.

And the new yellow jersey is expecting as much.

Said Wiggins: “Chris had a misfortune during the week (the puncture), but he’s going to be a big ally for me over the next two weeks.”

At least that’s what Wiggins is counting on.