There won’t be any tears from Chris Froome, at least not this week.
After 11 years with the Sky/Ineos franchise, the seven-time grand tour champion races his final race in team colors at the Vuelta a España starting Tuesday in Spain.
“It is a sort of bag of mixed emotions,” Froome said. “It certainly strange thinking that I won’t be in Ineos colors in a few months’ time. I’m looking forward to racing, and looking for finishing my time at Ineos on a high, hopefully.”
For Froome, it’s all business as usual for the next three weeks before he heads into a new chapter of his career in 2021 with a high-profile move to Israel Start-Up Nation.
The 35-year-old isn’t completely putting aside his personal ambitions, but he vows to help GC captain Richard Carapaz fight for overall victory.
“We’ve got a great team here to support Richard as much as possible. I’m going to take it one day at a time, and hopefully finish it on a high note,” Froome said in a press call Monday. “For me personally, I am going to take these first few days to see where I am in the bunch.
“I think it’s quite hard to say where I am at the moment given that I haven’t done many stage races recently,” he said. “Signs in training have gotten better and better, and I am feeling more like myself again, which is fantastic. It’s hard to quantify that when I haven’t been able to race against rivals. After the first few stages, I will be able to have a more clear plan for the rest of the race, and know what kind of job I can fulfill at that point.”
This Vuelta marks an end of an era for Froome, but also a career crossroads.
Once a perennial favorite in any grand tour he started, Froome is still struggling to return to top form following his horrific crash in June 2019. After not being selected to race the 2020 Tour, that means he hasn’t completed a grand tour since finishing third in the 2018 Tour de France.
Froome admits he’s entering the Vuelta short on racing, but high on ambitions.
“It’s hard to tell, given that I haven’t raced much recently. I’ve been feeling better and better on the bike, so I can take a lot of confidence from that,” Froome said. “I’ve got to keep in mind that I haven’t raced a grand tour in two years now, so I am looking at taking it one day at a time.”
Froome’s comeback hasn’t gone to script. The injury and later the coronavirus pandemic meant his approach to 2020 was thrown into turmoil. Even he admitted that his return to competition in August was harder than expected.
“Given the amount of time after my injury last year and with the time off with COVID earlier this season, I was extremely light on racing, and I really missed the race speed and missed being in the peloton and staying on the wheels,” Froome said. “That took a lot more out of me than I thought it would. A big part of this process is just getting back up to speed, and getting used to that race rhythm, and getting back to the top-end. I’ve closed that gap recently, and it will be interesting to see how far off I am when we get into the guts of this race.”
This Vuelta has immediate and long-term implications for Froome.
For the larger picture, putting a full three weeks of racing into his legs, even if he’s not in the GC frame, would be a huge step going into 2021. And with a very challenging opening week that is book-ended by hard stages to open the race in Spain’s hilly Basque Country and the Col du Tourmalet next weekend, Froome will quickly know where his form stacks up for this race.
“The sensations are better and better. The first three stages are very hard, and we’ll see pretty fast how I am feeling,” Froome said. “I’ll know pretty quickly, as the first few days of racing are pretty full-on.”
In many ways, Froome’s presence in the Vuelta represents that closing chapters of the team’s glory days. The Spanish grand tour marked Froome’s arrival as a GC contender, when he rode to second in the 2011 edition, which was later awarded as victory following a biological passport violation from Juan José Cobo.
The team’s Vuelta squad is stacked with new arrivals who feature a heavy Spanish accent. Carapaz, Ivan Sosa, Brandon Rivera and André Amador all speak Spanish, and represent the team’s new Latin American focus. Except for Michal Golaś, who joined in 2016, Froome is the only rider from Sky’s glory days in the mid-2010s on the Vuelta roster.
“After 11 years, it’s all coming down to the Vuelta again,” Froome said. “It is a race I genuinely enjoy racing. This year will be a bit different. It feels a bit not like the typical Vuelta, in the mid-summer heat in August in Spain. We’re at much cooler temperatures. It’s going to feel a lot more like Pays Basque for three weeks.”
Froome will be racing this Vuelta with one foot in the present, and another one in the future. In cycling, looking back never wins any races.