ALBI, France (Reuters) - Team Sky locked up the mountain stages last year to help Bradley Wiggins win his maiden Tour de France title yet all the signs point to a different strategy this year with Chris Froome in charge.
This year’s first mountain test comes on Saturday when the eighth stage takes the peloton from Castres to an uphill finish at Ax-3-Domaines with an out-of-category ascent to the Col de Pailheres in between.
Images of the men in black-and-blue setting a lung-burning pace in the climbs to prevent attacks in 2012 are still fresh, but things have changed since then.
Froome is a naturally aggressive rider and in Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde he will face a bunch of rival climbers who were not on the race last year.
Team Sky have anticipated that.
“When we were at the Vuelta last year, we thought with Chris that we would use the race to learn a lot of things,” sports director Nicolas Portal said on Friday.
“It was not the same kind of route but we knew we’d see the same riders - Rodriguez, (Colombian Nairo) Quintana, Valverde - and we thought we’d have to be punchy, which is Chris and Richie’s style.
“You always need to adjust your strategy in the final climbs. It depends on the route but also on your rivals. So it will not be like last year.”
First, double Tour champion Contador of Spain is back after a one-year hiatus because of a doping suspension.
He suffered a crash in the opening week but seems to be fully fit as the Pyrenees loom.
“You don’t know how the others are right now because there has been no tough finish yet,” said Contador.
“We will see tomorrow. Tomorrow is the day when there could be some changes in the overall standings.”
With all the climbers likely to lose ground on Froome in the time trials, aggression on the climbs is the only option for his rivals.
Froome, however, showed in the second stage that he was unlikely to stay on the wheels of his team mates when he briefly attacked the field in awe-inspiring fashion.
“I’m quite sure everyone’s going to be attacking but I’m quite confident in the team I have. I feel in really good form at the moment,” said Froome, runner-up behind Wiggins last year.
“It’s going to be a fight being the first mountain-top finish, it’s something.”
Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford added: “I would imagine that for the first mountain-top finish, everyone’s going to see where everyone else is.
“It will be aggressive, some of the racing this year has been much more aggressive than other seasons, and we’ve got some plans this year and I’m sure we’ll be as aggressive as most,” the Welshman warned.
“I think the time difference are more likely to be up Ax-3 Domaines, whereas there will be a downhill finish to Bagneres de Bigorre (on Sunday),” said Australian Cadel Evans, possibly the least attacking rider of all the top contenders.
There is a small question mark hanging over Andy Schleck’s form in this Tour after the Luxembourg rider struggled for a year with a hip problem.
“Tomorrow I will know if I can aim at the GC (general classification). If I can’t follow the best riders, I’ll concentrate on a stage win or two,” the 2010 Tour winner said.
Garmin-Sharp will see who fares best between American Andrew Talansky, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal and Irishman Dan Martin as they enter the mountains with an “open strategy”, according to team manager Jonathan Vaughters.
Editing by Clare Fallon