Chris Froome has described the Vuelta a España as 'unfinished business' as he tries to transform his run of second places into a first victory and become only the third rider to complete the Tour de France-Vuelta double. Froome has purposely built his season around going for the double but admits that completing the job after winning a fourth Tour is the hardest part of the challenge. Yet he insists it is also that is the most motivating part.
"I've got a good feeling about this year's Vuelta," Froome said in a video interview shot at a recent training camp and released by Team Sky.
"I think we've got a lot more purpose and it feels like we're on much more of a mission this year. I don't think we've been to the Vuelta a España with a team as strong and as focused on the Vuelta as we are this year, and I'm certainly going into the race with a lot of confidence in the team around me.
"It's been a huge motivation for me, given that no one in the modern era has done the Tour-Vuelta double. It's an even bigger challenge for me than just targeting the Tour de France, so my motivation couldn't be higher at this point."
Froome has raced for 48 days so far this season, plus a few post-Tour de France criteriums and trip to Kazakhstan during the weekend to ride a criterium in the capital, Astana.
He again quietly started his season in Australia but skipped Liège-Bastogne-Liège and was not as competitive in the spring, finishing 18th overall at the Tour de Romandie and fourth at the Critérium du Dauphiné. He and Team Sky carefully planned the season so that he could extend his peak of form into late summer for the Vuelta. He is walking a tightrope between fitness and fatigue, knowing that some of his rivals are in similar condition after also racing hard in July, while others are fresh after riding the Giro d'Italia in May and preparing specifically for the Vuelta.
"One thing that really sets the Vuelta apart from other races is where it is in the season - after the Giro, after the Tour, towards the tail end of the season," Froome pointed out.
"You have this mixture of riders who have targeted the Vuelta specifically, and they are in fantastic shape. Then you have other riders who are coming off a big season already, and potentially hanging onto whatever condition they've got in the race, and people who possibly have missed their goals earlier in the season and the Vuelta is their chance to salvage what could have been a tough year for them. Typically, it makes it a very aggressive race, a very punchy style of racing, and always makes for great viewing for the fans.
"It's not easy to go straight from the Tour and shift the mindset to suddenly getting ready for another Grand Tour, another three-week race, just a few weeks on from the Tour de France. I think this year in particular it's been extremely hard, given the pressure in those last few days of the Tour. I think it was only natural to get Paris to and let go a little bit and switch off after such an intense period, so it's been quite hard to refocus again. Coming up to altitude with my teammates, a group of us who are focused on being at our best for the Vuelta, has made it a lot easier."
Many of Froome's rivals are also in a similar position to the Briton, looking for another big result in their second Grand Tour of the season. Froome and Team Sky got the better of their rivals in July, beating Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) by 54 seconds and Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) by 2:20 but face many of the same and other, fresh opposition at the Vuelta.
"As with every other race we all start on zero, and everyone has to be given the respect of being a potential race winner. Only once we get in the race and someone actually loses time, then you can start to discount them slightly from being an overall contender. You've got to take everyone as a threat, as a rival."
Froome will ride the Vuelta a España for a sixth time in his career and it will be the 15th Grand Tour of his career. He is known for winning the Tour de France four times but it is the Spanish Grand Tour that proved he could be competitive over three weeks. In 2011 he came from virtually being unknown to finishing only 13 seconds behind Juan Jose Cobo, with teammate Bradley Wiggins third. Froome could have arguably won that Vuelta if he had been team leader but he was also happy to have kick-started his Grand Tour career and negotiated a good contract and protected role at Team Sky for the future.
He returned to finish fourth in 2012, second in 2014 and second again in 2016. He was forced to quit the Vuelta in 2015 but only after fracturing his ankle.
"It certainly feels as if I've got unfinished business at the Vuelta a España. I've finished second three times now, so it would just be incredible to win," he said, acknowledging that the 40km individual time trial gives him a great chance to gain time on gain rivals and equal out any time he might lose to his fresher rivals on the mountain finishes.
"The Vuelta is a race I love doing but it's relentless. The course is always a lot more mountainous than the Tour de France and the conditions are tougher. Being mid-August in Spain, it's quite common to have temperatures up in the mid 40s… it's brutal. Absolutely brutal.
"I think this year's Vuelta has certainly got a good balance between time trialling and mountain top finishes. With nine mountain top finishes it's heavily weighted for the climbers but, with an individual time trial of over 40 kilometres, there could be minutes won or lost there as well. It's a great balance between the pure climbers, and the rouleurs who can time trial. I think it's going to be a really exciting and well-balanced race."