Former double Vuelta a España winner Chris Froome (Israel-Premier Tech) has tipped Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl) as a possible contender for victory in this year’s race, even while confirming that his own preparation for Spain's Grand Tour was disrupted by the fallout from COVID-19.
The Vuelta was where Froome had breakthrough success in the 2011 race, winning it outright ahead of teammate Bradley Wiggins and Holland’s Bauke Mollema, before taking four editions of the Tour de France.
However, Froome had to quit this year’s Tour in the third week after catching COVID-19 and he said in a press conference Thursday that he had consequently struggled to get some of the hard training done for the Vuelta.
Even so, after a Tour de France in which the Israel-Premier Tech squad took two stage wins, Froome expressed optimism that he could have an impact in the second half of the Vuelta, as well as helping Mike Woods in a GC bid.
“The Tour went very well for us and I was unfortunate not to make it to Paris,” Froome said. “I was one of many who got COVID, and it did affect me pretty heavily. I was symptomatic for 10 days and even after that I was struggling to get the hard training done.”
Froome said he did not want “to push it” because he had seen people with COVID try to get back into racing too quickly, and that his illness “really did disrupt” his plans for the Vuelta.
“Unfortunately, with COVID, I’m a bit unsure of where I’m at, so I’m hoping to get into the racing and get into the pointy end of the stages in the second and third week,” Froome said.
“Certainly, in the bigger mountain stages, I will be looking to try and target them and be more present. But everything depends on how the first part goes.”
While Froome’s 21st Grand Tour and eighth Vuelta will therefore be something of a voyage in the dark, he said he had high expectations of what a certain Belgian rider 15 years his junior could achieve on his Vuelta debut.
“He’s certainly shown he’s got the level to be up there fighting for the victory, I don’t think anyone doubts that,” Froome said when asked about Evenepoel.
“The challenge for him is similar to Mike [Woods], it’s about managing the peaks and troughs over three weeks. Whoever can do best will be the winner.
“But there’s a very strong list of contenders, guys who have won the race multiple times. It should be an exciting race.”
Froome himself has had an enduring relationship with the Vuelta and he spoke enthusiastically about what he sees as the nature of the race and its attractions, as well as what it will challenge in Evenepoel, too.
“I love what the Vuelta tests in people,” he argued. “The GC battle in the Vuelta is brutal, with so many more mountain stages. It’s real hand-to-hand fighting, dealing with really hot conditions… I’ve always enjoyed it, and I’m happy to be here.”
Froome is also happy to be back in Utrecht, where the Tour de France started in 2015 and where despite a relatively lowkey first TT, finishing 39th, he went on to crush the opposition in his second overall victory.
“I have only good memories of here,” he said. “Certainly, I remember how much the fans got involved and I hope we have a similar experience with the Vuelta. I think it does Grand Tours good to travel around a bit and give a bit more to countries other than Spain, France and so on.”
If good memories are one element at the back of Froome’s mind, another in Israel Premier Tech’s collective consciousness is the World Tour relegation battle and how the last Grand Tour of the year can affect that.
But Froome argued that while nobody was unaware of it, the relegation battle had little impact on their strategy when the goal was to fight for victories in any case. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said. “For now, we’re just making the most of races the best we can.
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