Before the racing can begin, a game of pass the parcel breaks out among the contenders for the Vuelta a España. Bookmakers’ fancy Nairo Quintana has claimed that the onus is on other teams to control the peloton. Alberto Contador, meanwhile, insists that Chris Froome is the outstanding favourite for victory. At the team presentation in Jerez de la Frontera on Friday evening, however, Froome was quick to deflect the pressure
“I definitely don’t consider myself as the main favourite,” Froome told reporters. “I’d say someone like Nairo Quintana, probably Alberto himself, Purito [Joaquim Rodriguez]… These are guys who I think will definitely be up there.”
The contenders for this Vuelta divide broadly into two schools – riders like Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Fabio Aru have planned all season for the Giro-Vuelta double, while others such as Froome and Contador are in Spain to make amends for truncated Tours de France. Each camp seems to feel the other has the advantage.
For Froome, the Vuelta is his first race in over six weeks, since he crashed out of the Tour on stage five, fracturing his wrist and hand in the process. The Sky leader reports no lingering effects from those injuries but he was cautious about his prospects over the coming three weeks.
“I’m coming into the Vuelta without many race days so I think the first objective will be to get the race feeling and the intensity back into the legs before we hit the really big mountains,” Froome said.
More relaxed than the Tour
Froome’s build-up to the defence of his Tour was a fraught one. On the bike, he crashed heavily and later cracked at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Off the bike, he was dogged by the controversy that surrounded his therapeutic use exemption for the corticosteroid prednisolone at the Tour de Romandie and the debate that developed around Bradley Wiggins’ exclusion from Sky's Tour team.
Lest Froome weren’t already aware, defending the maillot jaune meant living in a hot house. Backstage at the Vuelta presentation in Jerez, he told admitted that the atmosphere in Spain was far calmer than it had been in July.
“Physically I’m in decent condition, I’ve done a lot of hard work to get here after crashing out of the Tour de France,” he said. “Mentally I feel a lot more relaxed than I was at the Tour de France, I don’t have any of the same pressure that I had. I’m here with a lot more modest expectations.”
Three years ago, of course, Froome arrived at the Vuelta with the modest expectation of securing a contract for the following season and ended the race on the second step of the podium in Madrid. He said that the race held a special place in his affections after his very surprising break-out performance in 2011.
“I really do enjoy the Vuelta, it’s where I got my first professional win back in 2011,” he said. “I think if you’re motivated, it’s a race where you can do well, and generally it’s a climate that suits me very well.”
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Froome has suffered one brief scare since arriving in Spain, when he fell while en route to reconnoitre the course of the opening team time trial on Thursday afternoon, but he shrugged off the idea that he has been affected psychologically by his crashes at the Dauphiné and Tour.
“No, not at all,” he said. “Crashing is part of what we do. It’s part of the sport, you’re never going to be a professional cyclist and always stay upright. Hopefully it’s not going to affect my racing going forward.”
The eve of the Vuelta also brought news that Froome will have one rival less in the battle for the red jersey. Defending champion Chris Horner was withdrawn from the race by his Lampre-Merida team after additional testing from the Movement for Credible Cycling showed low levels of cortisol – a result, the American said, of his certified use of a corticoid to treat bronchitis.
Only 15 of the Vuelta’s 22 teams are part of the MPCC and adhere to its more stringent regulations on the use of cortisone. Were Froome’s Sky team a member of the MPCC, for example, he would not have been permitted to use prednisolone in competition at the Tour de Romandie.
“I don’t really know his medical history so I don’t really think it’s my place to comment,” Froome said of the Horner case. “Obviously he’s part of the MPCC and it’s their decision to take him from the race and that’s the decision.”