Christopher Froome finding his place as Team Sky's backup leader
BESANCON, France (AP) -- At this year's Tour de France, Team Sky doesn't need to worry.
After just nine stages and with two weeks remaining before the peloton reaches Paris, Bradley Wiggins already has put his stamp on the race in a bid to become the first British winner of cycling's most prestigious event on July 22.
But in cycling, accidents happen, something Wiggins knows well after crashing out of last year's Tour with a broken collarbone.
Never mind. Sky has the perfect Plan B in Christopher Froome, another Brit who would be Wiggins' main challenger if he was on another team.
The Kenyan-born Froome came to prominence last year when he finished second at the Vuelta ahead of Wiggins. He has been the perfect teammate for Wiggins so far on the Tour, working hard in the first batch of medium mountain stages to defend his leader's yellow jersey.
Doing this, he claimed his maiden Tour stage win over the weekend, finished second in Monday's time trial behind Wiggins and is third in the overall standings.
Froome conceded 35 seconds to Wiggins in the 25.8-mile leg from Arc-et-Senans to Besancon, but took 68 seconds off defending Tour champion Cadel Evans.
Wiggins leads Evans by 1 minute, 53 seconds overall, while Froome sits in third, 2:07 off the pace.
"The plan has always been to have a backup leader in the team," Sky sports director Sean Yates said. "It gives us a little bit of freedom, the freedom to use different cards when we need to. And at this moment of time, Froome is more than capable of winning this Tour if something happens to Brad."
Froome, a polite 27-year-old whose demeanor contrasts with Wiggins' off-color outbursts, is adamant he is not on the Tour to fulfill his own ambitions.
"I'm here for Brad," he said. "I'd love to be up there, the best I can be, fifth, eighth, 10th, whatever it is. If I give everything, I will be happy. The team objective is to look after Bradley and that's my job to make sure that he arrives in the best position in Paris."
After his great showing at last year's Vuelta, the lanky Froome was expected to be one of Wiggins' top lieutenants at the Tour. He is now proving to himself that he can also win the race.
"He is a very intelligent guy, he comes from a very nice family," Sky manager Dave Brailsford said. "But he is also a fun guy. He is a real character and all the guys really like him. He is still young, he has got a great future ahead of him."
Froome was born in Nairobi and moved to South Africa as a teenager with his family. Having started his career as a mountain biker, he turned professional in 2007 and competed for Kenya at the world championships. He opted for British citizenship in 2008 and joined Sky two years later.
During his first year with the British outfit, Froome made the headlines when he was disqualified from the Giro for holding onto a motorbike during a climb.
His development was hampered by bilharzia, a water-borne disease he caught in 2010.
"He showed some fantastic numbers in training and the question for us was why did he not perform like he did in the Vuelta before. But he got this disease and once he got on top of that his performances improved," Brailsford said. "What he is doing on the Tour is just a continuation of what he did at the Vuelta last year. Had he not punctured (earlier in the race) he would be right up there with Bradley, and the biggest challenger would have been within the team."
Wiggins used his favorite discipline, the time trial, to dent Evans' hopes of reaching Tuesday's first rest day with limited losses to his rival.
"That was my physical best out there," Wiggins said. "It's probably my best time trial ever."
Italy's Vincenzo Nibali is fourth overall, 2:23 behind the British rider, who won his first Tour de France stage Monday. Russia's Denis Menchov is fifth, 3:02 back, and Spain's Haimar Zubeldia is sixth, 3:19 off the pace.
Wiggins insisted the three-week race is far from over, saying a crash or illness could douse his victory hopes. He also noted that Evans has promised to fight to the finish.
"It's never over until the fat lady sings, and she hasn't entered the building yet," Wiggins said.
Evans acknowledged he faces a bigger hurdle than he did last year, when he overcame a 57-second deficit to Andy Schleck in the final time trial a day before the finish. The Tour "hasn't been optimal" so far, he said, and he is "not in the best position to be in compared to last year."
Meanwhile, confidence was rising at Sky with Yates saying Wiggins "took quite a chunk off Cadel."
"It's not going to be easy for Cadel," Yates added, saying the possibilities of the Australian regaining time are "relatively limited ... but we all know he'll keep fighting. He's an ex-world champion. ... There will never be a lack of respect."