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Chris Froome begins Ruta del Sol: A high-profile return in a low-key race

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    I don’t see why I shouldn’t race – Froome

    Winning four Tour de France titles, the Vuelta a Espana and two Olympic bronze medals does not necessarily make you famous on the Costa del Sol.

    After Chris Froome led out the peloton on Wednesday at the start of the Ruta del Sol, his first race since his adverse drugs test was made public, the crowd quickly dispersed.

    Outside an Irish pub near the start line, one woman returned with a photo of Froome, only for her friend to ask: “Who’s that? Is that Bradley Wiggins?”

    Even the highest profile riders in cycling can be mistaken for someone else in a low-key Mediterranean coastal village.

    That confusion aside, Froome’s presence has undoubtedly raised the profile of this edition of the Ruta del Sol – a five-stage race in Andalucia, which the Team Sky rider won in 2015.

    Organisers said they have supplied around 150 media accreditations for the event, six times more than usual.

    About 30 of us were duly gathered outside the Team Sky bus in a car park on the outskirts of La Cala de Mijas on Wednesday morning, joined by fans and recreational cyclists.

    After leaving the bus, Froome signed a few autographs and posed for photos with fans, thanking them for their support.

    Most were offering unconditional support, calling the name “Froomey” as he emerged. Others I spoke to were more guarded, saying they wanted to believe the Briton had done nothing wrong and could clear his name.

    When speaking to the media, Froome’s answers were concise and confident, often referring to “the process” as he tries to explain to the UCI how he returned double the permitted level of legal asthma drug salbutamol in a urine test during his Vuelta victory in September.

    Chris Froome and former teammate Mikel Landa, of Movistar, before the first stage of the race in Andalucia

    Any sense of frustration only became apparent when he said there was “a lot of misinformation out there”, dismissing the “opinions of people who don’t quite fully understand the process”.

    The questions will keep coming, likely even after that process is done, but Froome appears determined to shut off the scrutiny when he is on the bike.

    He relaxed once he was on the saddle and able to focus on the race ahead, chatting with team-mates as he warmed up on his turbo before proceeding to the start line.

    There, the 2015 winner spoke to former team-mate and now Grand Tour rival Mikel Landa – the Spaniard said before the race that Froome was welcome, while others like Tony Martin have criticised his decision to compete.

    The talking done, the flag dropped and the peloton and media circus left town, allowing the expats and tourists to return to their coffees or beers and the race itself to become the focus, if only briefly.

    France’s Thomas Boudat won the first stage to take the leader’s jersey, beating Italian Sascha Modolo in a dramatic sprint finish in Granada.

    Modolo raised his arms after crossing the line, but the photo showed Boudat had edged it.

    Do not celebrate too early. If Froome continues to race and wins while his case is unresolved, many cycling fans could be left wondering whether they should salute those victories.

    And what if that includes a first Giro d’Italia or fifth Tour win this year? Froome told BBC Sport he hopes his case does not drag out that far, but that he is prepared to ride them because he is allowed to race.

    For now, Froome had a solid day on the bike, rolling in with the main peloton in 57th place in the same time as Boudat.

    A low-key end to an unusually high-profile day at the Ruta del Sol.

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