Froome last rode the Giro d’Italia in 2018, winning it outright after a very challenging first fortnight of racing, but then rebounding with a spectacular series of mountain attacks in the third week.
Although certain to be their star rider in the Tour de France, neither Froome nor the other top names likely to lead Israel Start-Up Nation in other events have yet decided the rest of their Grand Tour race programme, Carlström told Cyclingnews earlier this week. And although two Grand Tours in the same season for any of them are not ruled in, yet, neither are they ruled out.
Asked about who could be leading Israel Start-Up Nation in the Giro and Vuelta, Carlström said, “We haven’t wanted to officialize that yet, because there are several different things. One is of course COVID and how that could work out, which will affect races and preparation and so on.”
“Secondly there are the routes of the Giro and Vuelta” – neither public as yet – and “thirdly how everything works together for the big objective of the year, the Tour.
“We have those three Grand Tours and we have several riders who have been up there in the past, and should be able to perform [well] in them. I would say we can count Chris, Dan Martin, and Mike Woods among those, also Carl Fredrik Hagen, who took a top ten in the Vuelta in the past.”
“We can’t draw too many conclusions from how the 2020 season went in terms of predicting 2021. But it was a great indication that Dan” – fourth in the Vuelta a España – “can be up there fighting for the podium and for sure it would be great to see if he could replicate that in 2021.”
“I think it would be very possible for Dan to do a double, with two Grand Tours, and that could be the potential case for any of the other guys I’ve mentioned.”
Asked if that meant he was not ruling out a double Grand Tour for Woods and Froome, too, Carlstrom answered “exactly.”
“We need to figure out, and it’s a process actually, what is the best path to the Tour for Chris, Dan, and Mike and it could be that some of them it’s the Giro. But it could be a completely different one, a more traditional approach, with preparation races and altitude camps.”
Asked how far advanced Froome’s race program was – since this interview, it’s emerged he’ll start the racing year at the UAE Tour – Carlström said “we have a pretty good idea of how we want to structure it. It’s also something we are constantly monitoring, how his rehab has gone and everything is proceeding well. I don’t expect to take too long until we pronounce what he’s doing, but nothing is 100 per cent set in stone.”
As Froome has himself said, Carlström was directly involved in opening up negotiations with the Briton from the team. The two had first crossed paths in a squad back in Team Sky in 2010 and 2011.
“I explained the basic function of the team, what we’re about, and how we’re doing things, with an open, transparent culture,” Carlström said. “Of course it was easier because we raced in the same team for a couple of years, sometimes even sharing rooms.”
“It was a simple discussion. In general, he was curious about our ideas for the future, and what we are aiming to do, short-term and long-term, and how the team’s come to a point where we are trying to build something for Grand Tour objectives.”
Carlström was at pains to emphasise that winning the Tour in 2021 “is not something we absolutely have to get,” describing it as a “process that takes time:”
“If it comes in 2021, that would be perfect. We just need to see how ready we are and what we can actually achieve. But we’re also conscious of how difficult it is, and how many teams have the same goal. if it happens sooner rather than later – then great.”
Carlström agreed that, as has been the case in the past in cycling’s Grand Tours, even a team with little GC battle experience can step up its collective game when the yellow jersey is at stake. But he pointed out that Froome’s role in the squad is not just about “getting Chris to Grand Tours and trying to win.”
While the learning process between veterans and younger riders in a squad is always a two-way street, with Froome as a role model “maybe somebody can step into his shoes in one, two, or three years time.”
The team itself has come a long way since Carlström first joined it, from IAM Cycling, in 2017, when it had a roster of 16 riders. The addition of Ben Hermans in 2018, along with Spain’s Ruben Plaza, brought the team a different dimension when it came to stage racing for overalls and climbing. On top of that, taking part in the Giro d’Italia with its start in Isreal was another major moment for the team in that year.
Then in 2019, the team stepped up its game again, taking 29 wins and considerably increasing their options on getting places in the WorldTour races via wildcard invitations or through a top place in the European segment of the Pro Continental division.
“There was always talk about a potential merger, and a lot of interest from other teams then suddenly we were there with Katusha so that stress about getting first or second in the European Tour didn’t exist anymore. So we didn’t get that many great results right at the end but we’d had a very good season before that,” Carlström recalled.
“2020 was a different story, COVID happened but already in one sense, we were not really a full WorldTour team, more of a mix between the two divisions just because of how the merger happened. We’d been thinking we’d stay as ProConti but in 2020 we ended up in the World Tour and we were not really prepared for that. That’s why we have a very different strategy for 2021, trying to get the riders we needed to raise our level some more.”
On the plus side, too, Carlström said, their baptism of fire in the WorldTour last year means Israel Start-Up Nation are better placed to play the top game in cycling. And as he says, the team’s recruitment of heavyweight, experienced racers, for the cobbled Classics as well as the Grand Tours, has considerably strengthened their roster.
Going for more battle-hardened racers does mean that the average age of the team, 28.8 years, is, Carlström recognised, “quite high.”
“But in the end, two things counted. We weren’t obsessed about riders’ ages, we certainly don’t think that if you’re 35 that’s automatically the end of your career.
“Secondly our attitude is to try to look at what a rider has been doing, how he got results, and what his training performances are and then try to figure out if we can have an impact on that. If we can, we don’t see being 35 as being any kind of obstacle.”
When it comes to that last comment, Froome, of course, is very much a case in point of Israel Start-Up Nation’s full faith in older riders. When it comes to how he will exactly approach the Tour this spring, though, the last pieces of the jigsaw have yet to fall into place.