Chris Froome’s performance on the Vuelta a Espana first mountaintop finish at the Alto de Capileira on stage 7 raised more questions than it answered. The Sky man’s loss of half a minute to his overall rivals constituted a setback, certainly, but it was unclear as to whether it was a simple bad day or the first indication of a more lasting malaise.
Speaking to reporters after signing on for the start of stage 8 in Puebla Don Fadrique, a small outpost on Andalusia’s eastern fringe, Froome offered no mitigating circumstances for his showing at La Apuljarra, which saw him drop to 12th overall, 1:22 down on red jersey Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge).
“I suffered a lot yesterday, I just felt pretty empty,” Froome said simply.
The temperatures have soared over the past few days in southern Spain, with Friday’s stage played out beneath baking sunshine, but Froome dismissed the idea that the heat had affected his performance. Instead, scarcely five weeks on from the Tour de France, he hinted that he was still feeling the effects of his winning effort.
“No, I’m pretty good with the heat, it’s not really an issue for me. It’s just the legs,” Froome said. “I think especially after the Tour, it’s tough at this stage, but I’m just going to keep pushing on and hope that in the second and third week I start feeling a bit better.”
Froome was surprisingly dropped from the reduced peloton of favourites with 1500 metres of Friday’s stage remaining, shortly after Fabio Aru (Astana) had launched a stinging attack that splintered the group on the final approach to the summit.
After those initial struggles, Froome recovered sufficiently to summon up a sprint as he crossed the line, albeit some 34 seconds down on Aru and 27 behind the other favourites. On Saturday morning, he was non-committal when asked what significance his performance held for the Vuelta as a whole.
“It’s up to you to say, but I feel good, morale is still high and the team is in a fantastic position. We’ve got Nicolas Roche in 4th place on GC, Mikel Nieve just a little behind that, we’re leading the team classification and I think we’re in a great place,” Froome said, before soft-pedalling off towards the start line.
Three years ago, on the last occasion he rode an entire Tour and the Vuelta in the same season, Froome’s tenacity was unable to mask a discernible drop in performance as the race progressed. Despite that precedent – and, it ought to be noted, the London 2012 Olympics were shoehorned between the two events that year – the line from the Sky camp is that Froome arrived at this Vuelta hoping to ride his way back into form during the opening week.
“I think there is a lot of uncertainty about all the riders who are doing the Vuelta after the Tour,” Sky directeur sportif Dario Cioni told Cyclingnews. “You can’t do much in between to get here at 100 percent. It’s more about getting back into racing and improving in the second week.”
Cioni suggested that Froome had expected to lose some ground on the succession of short finishing climbs in the Vuelta’s opening ten days, and reiterated his belief that the race’s decisive days are likely to come between the mammoth Andorran mountain stage on Wednesday and the Burgos time trial at the beginning of the third week.
“Chris prefers longer climbs to short ones. Yesterday was a long one but the finish was explosive because up until there it had been quite controlled. He would have expected anyway to lose a bit of time in the first week because the finishes are perfect for [Joaquim] Rodriguez, [Alejandro] Valverde and now [Esteban] Chaves,” Cioni said.
“The only outstanding performances we’ve seen so far have been from Chaves and [Tom] Dumoulin, they’ve probably been a bit of a surprise. Valverde has done what you’d expect him to do in these stages, maybe you’d expect Rodriguez might have been more in the mix on stages like this. I think Aru has the best approach to the Vuelta of all of this group [of favourites]. A lot of it will be about who can keep going and be consistent especially from Andorra to Burgos.”