The Critérium du Dauphiné is a curtain-raiser to the Tour de France and so provides Sky with an opportunity to intimidate key rivals at the race and before the main draw.
Speaking to Cycling Central this week, Portal explained that Froome in his first year as a Sky leader in 2013 entered and won almost every race, partly with intent to build a formidable reputation holding considerable weight and influencing outcomes since.
Contrarily, the 32-year-old has competed in just a single one-day and three stage races across Australia and Europe this season and is yet to score a victory. On paper, Froome doesn’t have much to crow about, at least not when you compare his 2017 to that of Richie Porte (BMC Racing), who has won two of the three WorldTour contests he has started, or Giro d’Italia runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
But Froome arguably no longer must prove himself outside of select events, such is the image he and Sky have cultivated, the dry spell not considered news.
The running results sheet also doesn’t convey the hard graft behind the scenes. The three-time Dauphine and Tour champion has undergone altitude training camps in-between every stage race he has started (Herald Sun Tour, Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie), the last perhaps the most pertinent to his immediate goals.
“It’s the one where you can see the guys totally switch on for summer races, so Dauphine, Tour and Vuelta, you can see already they’re on a different mindset,” Portal said.
Mindset is a central theme in a 30-minute phone interview with Portal, the former French professional, who as a sports director has overseen Froome’s transformation from 2IC to leader, and all his maillot jaune triumphs.
Froome’s busy 2016, which included a third Tour title victory, bronze in the Rio Olympic Games time trial and second at the Vuelta, is partly to do with his reduced race load in the first half of this season.
“That is a busy summer so we tried to rest him a little bit mentally, don’t do that much racing at the beginning of the year,” Portal said.
“Sometimes when you do a long, long, long season the body can still race well, but it’s all about the mind. The mind is the main computer commanding everything on the body. If your mind is tired you can become irritated with all the small things and want to go home to somebody who is waiting for you.
“But he’s got the volume, he’s got the base and … I think mentally he is ready to really make sacrifices from now until August.”
Portal believes the success of the training over racing approach, which across the board has become more fashionable in recent years, is specific to the individual.
“Some bike riders don’t like training that much because for them it’s hard mentally without the competition. In general, a bike rider is born to compete, he likes to put the numbers on his back and fight against other ones. That is why competition is nice,” Portal said.
“Because the season is long now and all the teams ask the riders to be competitive from the beginning to the end, it’s hard to race without a good block of training. You need to switch off a little bit – still ride your bike, do the quality, sleep, eat, but not in race mode.”
Froome in his Dauphiné defence is set to be flanked by most men that will support him at the Tour, save for Geraint Thomas as well as Mikel Landa and Vasil Kiryienka, who are on a long-list.
— Team Sky 🚲 (@TeamSky) June 2, 2017
Portal takes pride in his team’s record at the prelude, which may prove less repetitious for Sky with Porte, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), Dan Martin (Quick-Step) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on the start line. Valverde is due to support Quintana at the Tour, but Portal has said the Spaniard himself could challenge for overall honours on a course he believes will provide less miles for the pure climbers and so make for a more open race.
“We try to polish, and it’s also a test for us to see if the training camp worked well. We’re looking between the riders, how they fit, how they are – not only physically,” Portal said of the Dauphiné .
“Also for Team Sky, for me, it’s like Paris-Nice, we have this history with the Dauphiné . But this year it’s true, I personally feel it will be nice if Chris can win it. He wants to and the team also wants to.”
The Critérium du Dauphiné kicks off with stage 1, LIVE on SBS Viceland and online from 9:45pm AEST, Sunday 4 June.
Team Sky at Critérium du Dauphiné:
— Team Sky 🚲 (@TeamSky) June 3, 2017