Chris Froome kicks off his season at the Tour of Oman on Tuesday and is hungry for more success after a monumental 2013 campaign.
The 28-year-old has been working hard in South Africa since the start of the year to create a platform from which he can continue his relentless run of race wins.
This winter has seen Froome deal with the increased attention that comes from winning the Tour de France, but in training he has been able to focus fully, troubled only by the searing African sun and - on one occasion - a pack of resourceful primates.
Speaking to TeamSky.com ahead of his Tour of Oman title defence, Froome feels happy with the work he has been able to get through.
“It’s been going really well,” he confirmed. “It’s been quite a busy winter with lots going on behind the scenes, but I’m really happy to have been able to concentrate on what I’m supposed to be doing, which is riding my bike. That’s what I love, and that hasn’t been compromised, which is great.
“We’ve mainly been training in and around Johannesburg but we’ve also done a week up in the mountains at a place called Crystal Springs. That’s up at altitude at 1800 metres with big climbs every day - so it definitely provided some decent riding.”
That training saw Froome battle intense heat. “It’s like Australia here in that the sun is really powerful,” he explained. “It’s something that’s very different to the European summer. In Europe the sun isn’t quite as strong, whereas here it burns you properly.
“People talked about that photo of my back, but I’d actually covered myself in SPF 30 that day. And okay, I’d done a seven-hour ride, but that was the end result.”
Froome has had the benefit of support from the team in training, with driver/carer Claudio Lucchini and team-mate Kanstantsin Siutsou both helping to make the experience a pleasant and productive one.
“It’s been really nice having that backing from the team, and having someone like Kosta come out here too. He’s always someone who pushes you quite a bit in training and we did some really good rides together out there.”
One obstacle Froome hadn’t expected to encounter was from the local wildlife, with baboons making their presence felt in the form of a mini home invasion.
He picks up the story: “There was one day when we’d just stepped out of our chalet. We left a front grill open for two seconds but they still managed to pull the handle down, open the door, get straight into the kitchen and open all the cupboards – everything was wide open. They also somehow managed to knock the ‘on’ button on the dishwasher. I’m sure that wasn’t intentional. I think they then went for the biggest item that was in the kitchen which was a tub of pro-peptide. They hauled it straight out of the door and sat there on the lawn eating it by the mouthful looking at us.”
Froome’s season starts in Oman, a race he won in style last year. Returning with the number one on his back, the Brit is taking a more relaxed approach this time around.
“I wouldn’t say I have the same kind of pressure that I had last year for Oman,” he admitted. “I’m a lot more relaxed coming into this season, but at the same time I feel just as eager and just as motivated to get stuck into the racing. I’m really looking forward to getting back into it.
“Oman is always a place where you don’t quite have the same kind of pressure as in Europe in terms of the press and thousands of spectators. But it’s certainly going to be a high level of racing and from the competitors who are lining up there it’s shaping up to be a pretty tough race.
“I’ve felt good in training and I’m certainly hoping to have a good first outing.”
The race will be a first step in a year which Froome hopes to consolidate his standing as the most feared stage racer in cycling. With 13 wins to his name last season, including the biggest prize in cycling, he is looking to show he is here to stay.
“I want to back up everything I achieved last season and prove to people that I am a legitimate champion. Especially in this era of cycling, there’s so much doubt around what we’re doing and I sincerely want to prove to people they can believe in this sport again, believe in me, and believe in Team Sky. I hope last year’s not going to be a one-off for me because that would raise doubts.
“I want to back up my results for the next five years at least to prove that nothing was a fluke. My results will stand the test of time and I want to erase any doubt about them – that’s a massive motivation.”