MADRID (VN) — Fourth overall at the Vuelta a España might be taken as a disappointment by some, but for Chris Froome, the British rider that burst onto the scene with second last year, that’s far from the case. The Kenya-born Sky rider says he takes nothing but positive lessons out of the Vuelta, despite being unable to challenge the Spaniards on home roads for overall victory.
“There are a huge amount of positives I can take away from this experience,” Froome told VeloNews. “Leading the team, that’s something I’ve never done before. It will make it easier next time around.”
For a rider like Froome, the here and now is just as important as the future. Many are tipping him as a future Tour de France winner, but he’s obviously racing to win every chance he gets.
Froome backed his surprise second-place ride in the 2011 Vuelta with second at the Tour de France behind teammate Bradley Wiggins and bronze in the Olympic time trial. Most riders would have hung up the cleats, but Froome jumped at the chance to race the Vuelta and lead Sky outright for the first time in a grand tour.
Many expected Froome to barnstorm through the Vuelta, but he quickly discovered that he didn’t have the same punch in his legs that he did when he twice distanced Wiggins — albeit briefly — in the mountains at the Tour. It shouldn’t come as a complete surprise for a rider who hit peak form in July to support Wiggins’ yellow-jersey bid.
“I always wanted to do two grand tours back-to-back,” he said. “I didn’t know I would be doing both of them up on GC. Now I’ve done it. I’ve learned my where I limits are on good form before I need to go back to the drawing board and start training all over again.”
In Spain, Froome found himself a target of an ambush. The three Spanish captains — Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) — each eventually got rid of Froome with attacks directly singling him out.
Froome admits it wasn’t the result he was hoping for, especially after missing out on what would have been his third consecutive grand tour podium, but he says he’s taking some important experiences out of the Vuelta that he hopes will pay off big in the coming seasons.
“I would rather have won the race, for sure,” he said. “These have been some really hard lessons I am learning. Through these lessons, I am really learning a lot. It’s the first time I’ve had to be really choosy and picky as to where I can use my energy, because I know it’s not there in endless supply like it was before.
“It means I need to be a lot more calculated. I need to be a lot more tactical, to use it in the right places and make it count,” he continued. “Things like trying to conserve as much as possible during the stage until that critical moment, whereas I wouldn’t have to think about it so much when I know I am in excellent form and I feel like I am cruising. I don’t have that extra gear when it comes to crunch time in the race. That’s quite normal. The last time I had a proper block of training was over two months ago; it’s only natural that it’s drifting off now.”
Bobby Julich, the ex-pro that works directly with Froome as a personal coach for Sky, says what Froome endured during this Vuelta proves how tough he truly is and how far he can still go.
“I am prouder of Chris in how he’s raced in this Vuelta than anything he did at the Tour or the Vuelta last year,” Julich told VeloNews. “It hasn’t been easy. He wanted to win, but Chris has kept fighting every inch of the way. He’s learned how hard this sport can be and this will give him more of a boost in many more ways than if he were winning.”
Froome says he relished the chance to be team leader and said it’s a role he quickly felt comfortable in. He laughed when it was suggested he would be dictatorial. Reputed as one of the nicest riders in the peloton, some even suggest the ever-polite Froome is too nice. Froome said he tried to play it straight with his teammates during the Vuelta.
“I am pretty straightforward with the guys. I ask for what’s needed, yet at the same time, I am not going to put a world of stress on my colleagues,” Froome said. “What they’ve shown here is that we can all be relaxed and enjoy each other’s company; we can get on with it and do what’s needed to be done. I think it’s worked out quite well.”
This year’s Vuelta also marked the first major showdown between Contador and Froome. Perhaps neither was in top form — Contador was coming off his backdated ban and had only raced a week since February, while Froome was coming off an intense period of racing dating back to June — but it offered a preview of what could be the exciting GC battle at the Tour next year.
Froome admits he was impressed with Contador, who grew stronger as the race unfolded. Even as things were going sideways in the GC battle, Froome says he was taking careful notes.
“He’s a big grand tour rider. He’s got that explosive, aggressive nature on the bike. It makes him a very tough competitor,” Froome said. “Actually being on Contador’s wheel, he kicks. To feel what that’s like and then having to bridge to his wheel and knowing what that’s like. It’s something I would never be able to learn by watching on a screen or reading online. It’s something I had to feel for myself and it’s something that I would be able to use to prepare for the future.
Froome described the sensations when Contador attacks as “pretty intense. There are short bursts. It’s not like he will do it for 20 minutes. It’s like he can do it 20-to-30 seconds, and then he has to back off again. I think I can take that forward and learn how to deal with it, and maybe even be able to use the team to help me deal with it. We’re talking a long way in the future and these are just first feelings.”
Froome’s future with Sky is secure, with two more seasons remaining on the three-year deal he penned during last year’s Vuelta. How tranquil that future will be remains to be seen. Froome ruffled some feathers with some of the comments he made during this year’s Tour, suggesting that he could have won the Tour had Sky not held him back in the mountains to help Wiggins.
In the end, Wiggins proved stronger in the time trials, so the discussion ended on the road. It will be interesting to watch how Sky will handle having Wiggins as defending champion and Froome as the prince in waiting.
Much of that internal debate will likely be determined by what kind of course ASO unveils for the Tour’s 100th edition.
Many have suggested that the Tour offered up a “light” route in 2012 because organizers want to have an epic course for the centenary in 2013. No matter what the case, the Tour of 2013 is almost certain to include more mountains and less individual time trials, something that will tip the balance toward Froome’s natural strengths.
Froome is discreet about making comments about what lies in store next season.
“We have to wait and see what the Tour route looks like and see what the team wants to do. If they want to go for stages, if they want to go for GC, who they want to go for GC with. I’d love to go there as team leader and target the GC at the Tour,” he said. “Those discussions are still to come. It has to be team management to decide what they want to do. I am just a bike rider. I just pedal. I don’t get paid to make those decisions.”