Vuelta a Espana

Commentary: This Vuelta is Froome’s to lose

Anyone hoping that this year’s Vuelta will live up to the unpredictability and drama could be in a for a shock. My prediction is that Chris Froome (Sky) will dominate the race.

NIMES, France (VN) — Ah, the Vuelta a España. The way grand tour racing should be. Unpredictable. Exciting. Disparate fitness, desperate foes. For many, it’s their favorite grand tour of the season.

Anyone hoping that this year’s Vuelta will live up to the unpredictability and drama could be in a for a shock. My prediction is that Chris Froome (Sky) will dominate the race.

Froome arrives to this Vuelta with a stronger team than ever, more motivated and fresher than ever, and intent on finally winning the Spanish grand tour.

Sorry, kids, this could be a Froome show start to finish.

Three times second overall, the Kenyan-born, South African-schooled, British passport-holding rider wants to get that Vuelta win on his palmares once and for all. And that means that Team Sky will be racing as intensely and as dominantly as it does during the Tour de France.

That’s great news if you’re a Froome fan. Not so great if you’re hoping for one of those knock-down, drag-out Vuelta brawls that are so fun to watch.

Here’s why Froome could take the suspense out of this Vuelta:

Fresh Froome

The Chris Froome that is rolling into Nimes on Saturday will be the “freshest” since he started the 2011 edition. Froome came into this year’s Tour with fewer race days and less pressure to post early season wins for one reason — he wants to win the Vuelta.

Last year, Froome was over-cooked coming into the Vuelta. After winning the Tour and racing at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and he still almost won.

This year, despite a few post-Tour criterium appearances, Froome has been focused on his preparation for the Vuelta. Of the seven photos posted after Froome’s Instagram account after the Tour, five of them feature him training. He’s either serious, or is mounting a sophisticated disinformation campaign.

In earlier attempts at the Vuelta, Froome came into the Spanish tour with the tank half full. He’d almost run out of gas in the third week of the Tour. This year, he tweaked his training schedule with one eye on being strong in the final week of the Tour, and a second on the Vuelta. He’ll be burning high-grade octane well into week three of this Vuelta that gets harder with each progressing week.

Sky have brought a strong squad to help Froome win the Vuelta. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

La Fortaleza de Froome

He likely would have already won the Vuelta last year had it not been for his infamous collapse on the road to Formigal in the Pyrénées. Froome had kept Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and others on a short enough leash that he knew he was going to be able to take back the differences in the final-week time trial. Froome got caught out in the stunning “Froomigal” trap set by Alberto Contador and others.

This year, Froome brings a Tour-level squad to the Vuelta to prevent history from repeating itself. “Fortress Froome” is packed with a strong mix of climbers — Wout Poels, Mikel Nieve, David Lopez and Diego Rosa — and rouleurs — Ian Stannard, Christian Knees, Gianni Moscon and Salvatore Puccio — to keep Froome protected in the hills and on the flats.

Team Sky’s pride was stung last year at the Vuelta collapse. The team doesn’t want that to happen again. Fully expect Team Sky to tamp down any aggression to keep Froome in pole position (or very close) going into the third-week time trial. This Vuelta could look very much like the Tour from the team aspect this year.

Pas de rivaux

Granted, the start list for this year’s Vuelta is impressive by any measure. There are more big names here than the Tour.

But when you look deeper at the names, quite of few of them have already downplayed their GC chances. Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Bob Jungels (Quick-Step), George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Warren Barguil (Sunweb) have already said they’re in stage-hunting mode.

Defending champion Nairo Quintana (Movistar) isn’t here, and neither is Giro d’Italia champ Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb). And the one rider who had singled out the Vuelta as a top goal — Alejandro Valverde — is at home recovering from his crash at the Tour.

Of course, that’s not to say there won’t be a battle. Froome has singled out Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) as his top rival. The Orica-Scott trio of Esteban Chaves, and Adam and Simon Yates could prove troubling. Former winner Fabio Aru (Astana) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) are both podium threats and full of youthful exuberance that could disrupt the Sky game plan.

Surprises? There are always a few. Watch for Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing), Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) or Marc Soler (Movistar) to step up.

And then there’s Alberto Contador, the lone rider in the field who’s beaten Froome straight up in a grand tour. In the final race of his career, Contador will throw caution to the wind.

But there’s one thing about this Vuelta that tilts strongly in Froome’s favor, which brings us to our next point.

Froome struggled on the climb to Formigal in 2016. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Stage 16 40km time trial

Time trials are life-suckers in grand tours, especially if you’re not a Chris Froome fan.

This year’s rolling course across Spain’s Rioja wine region features a few spiky climbs mid-stage, but nothing that should slow down Froome too much. Froome should be able to take about two minutes against nearly all of his major rivals, meaning that even if slips back in a few mountain stages early, he will be able to recoup any lost ground. Even with a tough final week, including a return of the Anglirú on the penultimate stage, Froome would need to crack big-time to cede his time trial gains.

And then there’s the opening stage team time trial. Sky should do ride well there as well. When there’s a time trial in the mix, Froome is a proven expert at twisting the knife.

Unfinished business

And then there’s the question of motivation. Froome deserves credit for coming back to the Vuelta year after year. He could easily hang up the cleats after winning the yellow jersey, and no one would criticize him for it.

So why does he keep coming back? A few reasons. First, racing the Vuelta sets him up nicely for the following season. Though there are dangers of racing — Froome broke his toe in the 2015 Vuelta — but it’s always better to race hard for three weeks than to try to replicate that in training, especially at the tail-end of a hard season. Second, Froome wants to win the Vuelta. It’s the race that announced his arrival as a grand tour rider, and his 13-second loss to Juan José Cobo (remember him?) in 2011 still smarts. And finally, Froome doesn’t want to be remembered as a one-trick pony. He’s won four yellow jerseys, a haul that already puts him in elite company. Add a Vuelta crown (and maybe a Giro title as well — a Giro attempt is gonna happen, sooner or later), and Froome would be considered one of the best grand tour riders in cycling history.

Froome wrongly catches flack from some fans for being too boring, too predictable and too dominant, but the man knows how to win races. Despite winning nearly every race he’s started at some point, the Vuelta has proven elusive. Froome wants to win it once and for all, and this year — barring disaster — he’s hell-bent on doing it.

So if you’re a Froome fan, the next three weeks should be a fun ride. If you’re hoping for one of those wild and wooly Vuelta’s, where things can change in a flash, well, this race might have a very different plotline.

Expect this Vuelta to be Tour de France-style domination, with Froome firmly in the driver’s seat.