Chris Froome lost more than 11 minutes on the opening stage of the Vuelta a Espana, a race he has won twice, on a day that signalled a changing of the guard at Ineos Grenadiers as the team got fully behind Richard Carapaz who finished second to defending champion Primoz Roglic of Jumbo-Visma.
Beginning his final race for the UCI WorldTour outfit he had joined when it began racing as Team Sky back in 2010, and with which he has won seven Grand Tours, Froome is continuing his recovery from the horrific crash at the Criterium du Dauphiné a little over 15 months ago that almost ended his career.
The 35 year old – who will race next year for Israel Start-Up Nation – was struggling to keep contact with the back of the main group with around 16.5km to go of today’s 173km stage in the Basque Country from Irun to the summit of the Alto di Arrate above the town of Eibar.
Afterwards, he said: “It was a great day for us with Richie coming second and being right up there for us on GC. He’s our team leader here and we’re going to be helping him as much as we can throughout the race to try and get us the victory overall.
“For me personally I got a bit caught out coming into the penultimate climb. I started pretty far back and got stuck behind the crash at the bottom there. I’m really happy to be here and happy to be racing a Grand Tour again after two years. I’m going to take the race day by day and just try and do as much as I can throughout the race.
“The sensations were good. I think I’m still missing a little bit of that top end from not having raced much. Today was definitely an improvement and I hope to keep building throughout the race.”
For all his words about being out of position and held up by a crash, 11 minutes on the opening stage of the race is a huge amount of time to lose, and he was clearly struggling well before the final Category 1 climb on the first of three tough stages that open this year’s shortened, 18-stage race – the original start in the Netherlands having long since been abandoned due to coronavirus – still ahead of him.
As he fought to hold onto the group, his team-mates forced the pace at the front of the overall, working for the 2019 Giro d’Italia champion Carapaz.
The Ecuadorian may not have won the stage, but with Ineos Grenadiers smashing much of the opposition on what must be the hardest start to a Grand Tour in living memory, his second place to Roglic, who attacked inside the closing few hundred metres to take the stage, must be considered a satisfactory start to his campaign.
No-one who has followed the career of Ineos Grenadiers team principal Sir Dave Brailsford, whether when he was performance director at British Cycling or when he set up Team Sky a little over a decade ago, would accuse him of giving into sentiment when it comes to team selection.
Could it that just this once, Brailsford his mellowed in his approach, and is giving the rider who brought Team Sky overall victory at the Tour de France on four occasions, the Vuelta twice, and the Giro d’Italia in 2018, a last Grand Tour outing, with the hope that perhaps he will ride into enough form to be able to act as a domestique de luxe to Carapaz later on in the race?
Or is it that, as they wait for him to ride himself into top racing form, losing that much time today was a calculated gamble to signal to rivals that he is not in the overall equation, leaving him free to ride his own race and, when necessary, support the team leader?
In this most topsy-turvy of cycling seasons – one of course overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic which has led the Vuelta to take the most stringent precautions of all three Grand Tours as the second wave of the coronavirus hits Spain – it could be that the overall will already be more or less settled by the end of next week, after which only one high mountain stage remains, that coming on the penultimate day.
Three years ago, when Froome won the Vuelta – his earlier title, from 2011, would be awarded retrospectively last year when Juan Jose Cobo was stripped of the title for doping – it was his great rival Alberto Contador, out of overall contention, who would storm to victory on the Angliru in what proved to be the swansong of his career.
Froome isn’t at that stage yet – after all, he has been signed to spearhead Israel Start-Up Nation’s challenge at next year’s Tour de France, and will be racing next season.
But the next couple of weeks – the next couple of days, even, with two more difficult stages coming – may give us more of an insight into how just much lasting damage that crash into a wall while recceing the time trial at last year’s Dauphiné has done to a rider who has already sealed his place in Grand Tour history.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.