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Chris Froome was struggling at the Vuelta a España. The four-time Tour de France champion was dropped on the climbs and lost minutes on the GC. The media was playing up the image of a hobbled champion on an uncertain comeback from injury.
Though Froome would not admit it publicly, the underwhelming performances and setbacks were bringing him down.
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“You could see how concerned he was, and after the second or third day, when he missed out on the echelon on the descent, I said to him, mate, you have to start from zero,” Wurf told VeloNews. “You have to do everything again. You have to get dropped, have to ride on the front, you have to do all the things you did 10 years ago to become a great bike rider, because you’re literally starting from ground zero.”
And that’s what Froome started to do. Throughout the remainder of the 2020 Vuelta, Froome was taking pulls on the flats, protecting team leader Richard Carapaz in the echelons, and setting tempo on the climbs.
As a result, it was a stronger and more confident Froome who left the 2020 Vuelta .
And as the 34-year-old begins the newest chapter of his career at Israel Start-Up Nation, that advice from Wurf in last year’s Vuelta that helped him finish his first grand tour since finishing third at the 2018 Tour could prove decisive going into this season.
“The fact that he’s even able to race at this level, it’s a miracle,” Wurf told VeloNews in a telephone interview. “He said, ‘that’s the reality of the situation,’ and when he came to terms with that, he was the first to raise his hand to do the work on a climb, or pull on the flats. He’s come along so much. You can never count him out.”
Froome, who is training in southern California ahead of a season debut in February, said he is starting to ride and feel like a contender again. His horrific crash at the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné is now firmly in the rearview mirror.
Israel Start-Up Nation trainers and sport directors are quietly optimistic that Froome is closing in on being a challenger in his bid to win a record-tying fifth yellow jersey.
Wurf, meanwhile, continues with Ineos Grenadiers in 2021. The triathlete ended up racing quite a few days more than he initially expected when he rejoined the WorldTour as a surprise, final-hour add for the UK-registered team. The Ironman triathlon world championship in Kona, Hawaii remains at the center of Wurf’s ambitions, but with the event canceled in 2020, Wurf was sent to the Vuelta to help round out the team in the season’s final grand tour.
Wurf had a front-row view of how Froome struggled early on, but also watched him as he gained strength and confidence as the race unfolded.
“It was a tough start for him. As a friend, I am glad I [was] here with him,” Wurf said. “He’s a great champion, and when he came to the Vuelta, he probably felt there were some expectations of him. On the team, we never talked about him being the leader. It was all about Richard [Carapaz]. It was all the media pressure, and you could see after the first few days, it really weighed on him.”
Wurf recounted how Froome soon started raising his hand every time the team asked for someone to pull on the flats or take early pulls on the climbs. In the end, Carapaz finished second overall, and Froome arrived in Madrid with a grand tour in his legs.
Froome carried that momentum into the off-season and traveled to California with his family to prepare for the 2021 season just weeks after the Vuelta concluded.
His season debut has yet to be defined, but it’s likely he could end up racing the Ruta del Sol or the Volta ao Algarve in February.
The reset at the Vuelta could set up Froome for a solid start to what could be the most important season of his career. All four-time winners of the Tour have gone on to win a fifth title. Froome is determined to join the five-win club.