As he gears up for the Vuelta a España, his last Grand Tour with Ineos-Grenadiers, Chris Froome has recognised he is lacking clear reference points in terms of race form, but is upbeat about his ambitions.
“I feel as if I’ve been closing the gap recently, but we’ll soon see how far off I actually am,” Froome said in an early morning press conference on Monday, the day before the Vuelta a España begins in the Basque Country.
The Vuelta a España has meant a lot of different things to Froome: it was his first-ever Grand Tour podium and breakthrough race in 2011, his second-place later became a victory, after Juan Jose Cobo was stripped of the title in July 2019.
After 2011, the Vuelta then became something of Froome’s white whale. He either abandoned injured (2015) or was defeated (2014 and 2016) or was simply on his knees after riding the Tour previously (2012). That spell ended with a notable Tour-Vuelta double victory in 2017 - and then official confirmation of his 2011 Vuelta win in July 2019.
Froome has not returned to the Vuelta since his 2017 victory and successful battle to clear his name after high levels of asthma drug salbutamol were found in a urine sample. His crash at the 2019 Criterium du Dauphine means he hasn’t ridden a Grand Tour since 2018.
Although his team goal is to help Richard Carapaz, with such a tough first week, Froome expects to gain a very rapid idea of what his underlying race condition could be.
“It’s hard to tell given I haven’t raced much recently,” Froome, whose last event was a DNF at Liege-Bastogne-Liege on October 4th and 91st overall in Tirreno-Adriatico in early September said.
“But I’ve been feeling better and better on the bike so I can take a lot of confidence from that. I’ve got to keep in mind I haven’t raced a Grand Tour for two years now, so it’s very much just getting back into it again, taking it one day at a time and see how I go as we get through."
“I’ll know pretty quickly as we get into the first few days of racing, because they are pretty full-on.”
As his last race with his current team before moving to Israel Start-Up nation in 2021, Froome recognised that it would be strange pounding the roads of Spain thinking he won’t be in Ineos colours in a few months time.
At the same time, he has always had a soft spot for the Vuelta a España - as he put it “it’s a race I genuinely enjoy” - so his taking part is "a bag of mixed emotions.”
To add to the strangeness of it all, this is the latest ever Grand Tour start in cycling history. The 18-day race is due to finish in Madrid on November 8.
“This year’s going to be quite different,” Froome said, “not the typical mid-summer Vuelta in Spain. The temperatures are going to be much cooler.”
As he added a shade wryly, given the Vuelta sticks exclusively to the northern side of Spain and the autumn dates, the race will feel more like a three-week version of the traditionally rainy, cold Vuelta al País Vasco, held in April. Indeed Tuesday’s first stage is both set to finish on the Arrate, Pais Vasco’s most emblematic climb, and is forecast to be held in heavy rain.
Even so, Froome is keen to race.
“I’m looking forward to racing, looking forward to finishing my time at Ineos on a high, hopefully and we’ve got a great team here to support Richard as much as possible. Just take it one day at a time,” Froome said.
Carapaz, then, is designated leader for the Vuelta a España for Ineos Grenadiers, which in turn begs the question what role Froome expects to play.
“For me personally I’m going to take these first few days to see exactly where I am in the bunch. It’s quite hard to see exactly where I’m at, given I haven’t done many stage races recently,” he reiterated.
“The signs in training have been better and better, I’m feeling more like myself which is fantastic. It’s hard to quantify that when I haven’t been able to race and see where I’m at.”
Once he has done that, he’ll have a clearer idea of the rest of the race “and exactly what kind of job I can fulfill.”
Froome concluded by recognising he was “extremely light on racing” which has made it harder for him, as he put it, to "stay on the wheels."
“That took a lot more out of me than it usually would so a lot of this [season] has been about getting back up to speed again, getting used to that race rhythm,” he said.
“I feel as if I’ve certainly closed that gap recently and it’ll be interesting to see how far off I still am, once we get into the heart of this Vuelta.”
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