The Sky captain and 2017 Vuelta champion is racing this week in the Tour of Britain, skipping the Vuelta for just the second time since his breakout 2011 performance when he rode to second overall and announced his arrival to the peloton.
The Vuelta returned to the bustling university city of Salamanca for Tuesday’s start for the first time since 2011, the same year it hosted a time trial stage that saw Froome take the Vuelta’s red jersey for his first time.
Froome came back to the Vuelta every season, except in 2013 following his first of four Tour de France victories, before finally winning last year.
Speaking at the start Tuesday, Vuelta boss Javier Guillén hailed Froome’s long association with the Spanish grand tour.
“La Vuelta has been grateful to Chris Froome because he’s one of the riders who’s been the most involved with the race,” Guillén said. “It’s really hard to finish the Tour and come to La Vuelta, he’s done it several times up to the point that he won both last year.”
After racing four consecutive grand tours — with victories in the 2017 Tour de France, 2017 Vuelta, and 2018 Giro d’Italia — Froome skipped this year’s Vuelta.
“Froome has a lot of racing in his legs this year. We hope that we can convince [Froome] to come back next year,” Guillén told VeloNews in Málaga. “If riders like Froome or [Tom] Dumoulin don’t come, it’s natural if they’ve both raced the Giro and Tour.”
Froome posted a message on Twitter last weekend that read, “Feels strange to not be starting [the Vuelta] today, one of my favorite races on the calendar. Making the most of it.” He followed that up with “emojis” showing a TV, beer, and a slice of pizza.
All joking aside, it took Froome several tries before finally knocking off the Vuelta. His clashes with Alberto Contador and his tactical miscue on the Formigal stage in 2016 created some of the most memorable Vuelta moments over the past half-decade.
Froome’s rise during the 2011 Vuelta began on the stages leading up to the Salamanca time trial. Froome was under pressure to perform and prove his worth to the team. Sky brought Wiggins, who had crashed out of the Tour de France, as its man for the GC. In the opening climbing stages, the unproven Froome was loyally playing domestique to Wiggins and the pair was well-placed going into the 40km time trial around Salamanca.
Tony Martin won the stage 9, but Froome was second ahead of Wiggins, who still enjoyed designated GC captaincy. Froome took the race leader’s red jersey only to let it slip to Wiggins the following day in a climbing stage to Manzaneda. Sky made the fateful decision to back Wiggins when it appeared Froome was the stronger rider.
Spanish rider Juan José Cobo attacked Sky and put Wiggins under pressure at Lagos de Somiedo on stage 13. Cobo won the next day up the Anglirú and Wiggins faltered. Froome was finally cut loose, but Cobo took the lead by 20 seconds to Froome and 46 seconds to Wiggins. Froome would later win up Peña Cabarga, but Cobo held on to a slender lead and eventually won the Vuelta by 13 seconds over Froome.
Last year en route to finally winning the Vuelta, Froome spoke about the significance of the 2011 edition.
“That Vuelta was very important to me. I showed I could race grand tours,” Froome said last year. “What has come after that all started there. It was in 2011 that I was given the freedom to go for it.”
Froome’s later grand tour dominance has provoked doubts and controversy, but it all started in the 2011 Vuelta.
Whether Froome comes back to the Vuelta remains to be seen. Froome’s annual return to the Vuelta bolstered the race’s reputation and prestige. Sky officials say they still have not plotted out the 2019 calendar. After racing two grand tours in each of the past five seasons, it’s likely the Vuelta will be back on Froome’s program. Race organizers are certainly hoping so.