Less than two months after a series of crashes pole-axed his chances of a repeat win in the Tour de France, Chris Froome started the third Grand Tour, the Vuelta a Espana, yesterday as one of the favourites – but with some intriguing new question marks, compared to July, about his chances of outright victory.
There is the scale of the opposition, for one thing. Appropriately enough for an event starting here in Jerez de la Fontera, the world capital of sherry-making, the Vuelta’s line-up this August would make any race organiser’s head spin, to the point where it boasts the best participation of all the Grand Tours this year.
The 2014 Vuelta’s racers include three of the Tour de France’s last five winners – Froome, the 2011 champion Cadel Evans, and Alberto Contador, victorious in 2007 and 2009. If Evans is perhaps too long in the tooth to compete for outright victory, another top challenger is up-and-coming Colombian Nairo Quintana, already victorious in the Giro d’Italia this May. Ever-dangerous Spanish riders Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez form part of a long list of outside favourites, only slightly shortened when the 2013 Vuelta champion, Chris Horner, pulled out at the last minute on Friday.
Froome and Contador, bizarrely enough, are both present after crashing out of the Tour de France injured. Victory in the Vuelta would represent a hugely prestigious consolation prize for July’s disappointment. Historically Spain’s Grand Tour has provided a well-beaten path for stage race specialists towards restoring long-term confidence and, ultimately, building towards a repeat bid in the Tour de France in the following season.
However, Froome is playing down his chances of becoming Britain’s first ever Vuelta winner – and not because the ghost of July’s crashes came swirling back on Thursday, when he took a very minor tumble. Froome skidded on an oil patch and fell while training for yesterday’s curtain-raiser stage, a team time-trial, but was fortunately uninjured.
Rather the Briton has other issues to face. After confirming that he had completely recovered from the fractured wrist that left him out of the Tour, Froome nonetheless insisted on Friday that “I’m very light on race days this year” – this is his first race since July – and “I’m going to have to ride myself into this race and take it as it comes.
“There’s definitely more of a laidback mentality here in Spain and it’s a different kettle of fish to the Tour,” he added. “But the line-up is extremely good here, it’s a very tough race. I feel good but racing and training are very different.”
To a certain extent, Froome is following the same path as Sir Bradley Wiggins in the 2011 Vuelta. Wiggins crashed out of the Tour injured that year, then used the Vuelta as a way of rebuilding his confidence and form towards next July.
It worked perfectly, with Wiggins taking third overall in Spain en route to victory in the 2012 Tour, although for Froome, who finished second alongside his Sky team-mate in Madrid’s final podium in his breakthrough result in a Grand Tour, the 2011 Vuelta was perhaps even more important in his career.
Fast forward three years and although Froome is keen to play down the pressure, the fact remains the Sky Vuelta squad is built around a bid for overall victory by the Kenyan-born 29-year-old. The big question mark is whether, given that his pre-race training plans and build-up for the Vuelta have lasted weeks rather than months as they would prior to the Tour, Froome has the underlying condition to net the victory.
He will not have forgotten that in 2012, his last Vuelta appearance, a very promising first week ended with him trailing into Madrid in fourth place as exhaustion after a demanding Tour de France earlier that summer took its toll.
Froome’s British Sky team-mate, reigning national champion Pete Kennaugh, will also be keen to put a roller-coaster July behind him following his somewhat controversial non-selection for the Tour de France and subsequent victory the same month in the Tour of Austria.
Scottish veteran David Millar, meanwhile, will be a key support rider for his Garmin-Sharp team leaders but may yet get an opportunity for a final stage win before his career ends this autumn.
At the other end of the age spectrum, British first-year pro Adam Yates, brother of Orica-GreenEdge team-mate Simon Yates, is racing his debut Grand Tour in the Vuelta just a few weeks after Simon made a hugely impressive debut in the Tour de France. “I’ll be targeting stage wins,” Yates told The Independent on Sunday. “It’s quite hilly, so there should be a few stages that suit me.”
As Yates points out, he and the rest of the 198-strong Vuelta field face a typically mountainous route, with eight summit finishes. The most difficult is the ascent to Covadonga – in the remote Picos de Europa region and home to some of the last wolves in Europe, on stage 15 – prior to the final time trial in Santiago de Compostela on 14 September.