The most successful grand tour rider in the peloton was dropped with less than 20km to go on a third-category climb in Tuesday’s explosive first stage. And though he almost regained contact at the foot of the final climb, Froome later lagged across the line in 72nd place, at 11:12 back.
Whatever slim hopes he held out of having a strong GC ended on the first day of racing.
Considering where he is now, and how hard this Vuelta will be, there won’t be any miracle, final-hour comebacks like he pulled off on the Colle delle Finestre to win the 2018 Giro d’Italia.
In fact, the way Froome looks now, he might never be in the running again to win another grand tour.
That’s why this Vuelta a España could well be the most important grand tour of his career.
Why? More than thinking about winning this Vuelta, Froome simply needs to finish this Vuelta. He has not completed a grand tour since riding to third in the 2018 Tour de France. By the time the 2021 Tour starts, that would be nearly three full years — assuming the Tour is contested in July next summer — since he’s put three full weeks into his legs.
For Froome, this Vuelta isn’t simply about making it to Madrid. It’s about the future viability of his grand tour career.
That’s not to say if he doesn’t finish the Vuelta he’ll never win another grand tour, but that mountain to a record-tying fifth yellow jersey would be that much higher.
If Froome can ride to Madrid on November 8, and come out of the race stronger than when he started, he might have a fighting chance at the yellow jersey next summer. If he doesn’t — if coronavirus forces the cancelation or he crashes out or falls ill — his chances for 2021 will take a huge blow.
Everyone who’s raced a grand tour agrees that the brutality of three weeks of racing makes you stronger. After nearly 16 months of recovery from his horrific crash in June 2019, Froome needs to finish this Vuelta.
Sure, with today’s highly calibrated training programs coupled with a disciplined mind and body, riders can mimic and duplicate the physical demands of competing in a grand tour. What’s harder to replicate in training, however, is the dynamics of racing in a bunch. The accelerations out of corners, the jostling for position, and everything else that comes part and parcel of racing a bike.
Speaking to journalists on Monday, Froome admitted as much. He said his power numbers are near some of his best and that his physical recovery is nearly complete, but he’s lacking that leg speed, agility, and mental sharpness that comes with racing. On Tuesday, that became painfully obvious for Froome, who couldn’t produce the power in his legs to stay with the leading GC contenders.
It’s hard to imagine what must be going through Froome’s mind right now. Froome’s comeback from his crash in many ways has already gone better than expected, and he’s been able to finish races. But for a rider of Froome’s caliber, that’s not enough.
Froome is tough enough mentally to not panic, and he continues to take the long view on his recovery. In the short-term, he knows he needs to put 18 days of hard racing into his legs. That will help carry him into 2021 and bring momentum into his new adventure with Israel Start-Up Nation.
No one will ever question Froome’s grit and determination. With seven grand tour titles, he is the most successful stage racer in the bunch. Yet professional cycling is a cruel game, and any racer, even a rider of Froome’s stature, is only as good as their last result. And Froome’s last win came with the 2018 Giro title.
His new, open-ended contract will give Froome confidence going into next season knowing he will have a team fully dedicated to helping him. But the peloton is changing. Today’s peloton is ruled by young, ambitious riders with explosive riding styles. From Wout Van Aert in the classics to Tadej Pogačar and Egan Bernal in the grand tours, youth is ruling the pack.
And with race course designers largely ditching the old-school grand tour routes packed with stages 225km or longer and long time trials — the Giro d’Italia remains a hold-out — modern racing is based on explosiveness and recovery. The grinding, seven-hour stages that so favor riders like Froome hardly exist anymore.
For Froome to have a chance a realistic chance to join the Tour’s five-win club, he needs everything to go perfectly from now until next July. And that means making it to Madrid, and leaving Spain stronger and with some confidence back in his legs.