With a Twitter message Monday afternoon, Chris Froome (Sky) not only confirmed he will race the Vuelta a España, but he also signaled just what type of rider he is, and wants to become.
Hot off his second Tour de France victory in three years, it would have been very easy for Froome to kick up his cleats, hit the chat-show circuit, and soak up the accolades that come with the yellow jersey.
Instead, he’s going to put his reputation, and his 2016 season, on the line by jumping back into the turbulent waters of the Vuelta. One crash could put his Tour defense into jeopardy next season, and one lapse would raise questions about why even he even bothered to show up.
Understandably, Vuelta officials are ecstatic at the news of Froome’s confirmation. Speaking to the Spanish sports daily AS, Vuelta director Javier Guillén said the presence of all three riders from the Tour podium reaffirms the Vuelta’s growing importance in the peloton.
“If you had told me at the beginning of the year, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Guillén told AS. “Froome’s decision is fantastic for the Vuelta, but also for cycling.”
Ambitions keep growing
By signing up for the Vuelta, Froome reinforced his image as a racer who loves his craft, and one who has larger ambitions to carve his name in the history books.
Sky has yet to outline Froome’s goals for the Vuelta, but with a rider of his class, it’s obvious he only races to win. So it’s obvious that the Sky brain trust believes that Froome can leave Spain with what would be his third career grand tour victory.
If he does, he would become only the third rider in cycling history to win the Vuelta and the Tour in the same season. The only others who did — Jacques Anquetil (1963) and Bernard Hinault (1978) — pulled off the double when the Vuelta was held in the spring. Since the Vuelta was moved to the end of summer/early fall in 1995, Carlos Sastre in 2008 is the only rider who’s come close, winning the Tour and finishing third in the Vuelta.
That’s just the kind of company Froome wants to join.
The Vuelta clearly has a strong pull for Froome. It was in 2011 when he rode to second by just 13 seconds behind Juanjo Cobo (anyone remember him?) that the Kenyan-born rider confirmed to himself he had the skillset to truly challenge for grand tours.
“It was during that 2011 Vuelta that I realized I could actually race GC,” Froome said during the Tour. “When I went to the Vuelta, it was to support Bradley [Wiggins]. I had the job to be the last man. I was doing all the pulling, and there were only five guys left, and I was still feeling OK.”
And last year, Froome showed up to the Vuelta short of form. Starting without any specific goals, other than putting a full, three-week race into his legs before the off-season, Froome and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) were soon locked in a bitter struggle all the way to Madrid. According to Sky principal Dave Brailsford, it was last year’s Vuelta that earned Froome the eternal respect of his teammates.
“The team has massive respect for Chris,” Brailsford said. “The lads saw him hanging on by his fingernails last year at the Vuelta, and he fought all the way to the end. That goes a long way toward building that respect.”
Froome is clearly hoping a third time’s a charm at the Spanish grand tour.
Among his peers, Froome is also looking to bolster his palmares. Contador is the most successful grand tour rider among active racers, with seven official victories (two more were disqualified), while Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has won all three grand tours for a total of three.
Vuelta route is ideal for Froome
In many ways, the 2015 Vuelta course is better-suited for him than even this year’s climb-heavy Tour. He’s clearly up to the task of climbing with the best, and the inclusion of a relatively long, 39-kilometer individual time trial at Burgos in stage 17 could tip Froome over the top against a fleet of Spanish climbers.
With most of the heavy climbing packed into the opening two weeks of the Vuelta, Froome should be able to go the distance. During his two Tour de France victories, Froome has shown a few wobbles late in each race — particularly on Alpe d’Huez, where he suffered a minor bonk in 2013, and almost lost the race to Nairo Quintana (Movistar) this July.
The opening team time trial and a flurry of early climbs should quickly put some order on the GC, allowing Froome’s strong Sky support to control the race going into Andorra and Asturias.
The shorter, more explosive climbs of the Vuelta are not necessarily contrary to Froome’s skillset. He’s proven he can handle the brief, intense efforts just as well as the longer, Tour-like climbs of the Alps and Pyrénées.
Who can beat him?
Froome’s imminent arrival is welcomed by the Vuelta organizers, but that enthusiasm is not shared among his GC rivals.
With Contador skipping his Vuelta defense after racing three consecutive grand tours dating back to the 2014 Vuelta, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was hoping for a clear shot at the red leader’s jersey. Quintana is also coming to the Vuelta, but the general plan was to ride for Valverde in the GC, with Quintana playing a low-pressure role as the joker. Froome’s presence could foil those plans, and perhaps put more pressure on Quintana to try to take on Froome yet again.
Others, such as Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing), and even riders like Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing), will see their podium ambitions complicated by Froome.
Froome certainly will not have it easy, and the main challenge could come from Astana. Not only will Giro podium finishers Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa come fresh without having raced the Tour, Vincenzo Nibali will be bent on taking revenge after stuttering through the Tour.
With such a deep GC field, the Vuelta could deliver the most exciting race of the season. Unlike the Tour, where everyone comes to the start line in absolute peak fitness, form is all over the map. Most of the peloton will be weary from a long season of racing. Some will be coming in fresher after skipping the Tour, while others will be hoping to squeeze out the last of their reserves before pulling the plug on the season.
That adds up to a highly explosive, unpredictable race. And Froome’s presence will only magnify those differences.
The 70th Vuelta starts August 22 in Puerto Banus.