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Froome, who has won seven grand tours including four yellow jerseys, is taking a seat in the engine room for Ineos Grenadiers in Spain this month as he rides in support for Richard Carapaz. Although the 35-year-old isn’t filling our screens at the front of the attacks, or on stage-winner’s podiums, the Vuelta is proving one of the most important of his career to date.
Having not ridden over three weeks since the 2018 Tour and struggling for form in his patchy race schedule since then, Froome is riding himself back into shape at his first grand tour since sustaining a career-threatening list of injuries last June.
“It’s an amazing feeling for me, how after two weeks of racing my legs are coming round,” Froome told ITV Cycling. “That’s what I’ve been missing, the time in the peloton, you can’t replicate that in training … I’m thoroughly enjoying being here and feel like it’s hugely beneficial to getting back towards my normal level for the future.”
Froome started the race uncertain of his form having amassed only 26 race days since his mid-summer crash in 2019, as a result of a long rehab process and the COVID racing shutdown. Though he said he felt he was on an upward curve ahead of the Vuelta earlier this month, the key piece of the puzzle was refamiliarizing himself with the heat of the pro peloton.
“A big part of this process is just getting back up to speed, and getting used to that race rhythm, and getting back to the top-end,” he said in a pre-race conference. “I’ve closed that gap recently, and it will be interesting to see how far off I am when we get into the guts of this race.”
After finishing way off the back in a tough opening stage that he later described as a “baptism of fire,” it was clear Froome still had a lot of work to do. Since then, Froome has been winching his way back to form, grafting on the front through the opening hours of racing through Spain, and he briefly lit up stage 12 to the Angliru with a move on the day’s penultimate climb.
Though anonymous hours in the engine room and a few minutes of acceleration aren’t going to define Froome’s palmarès, this year’s Vuelta is pivotal to his future. Having failed to impress since the racing restart this August, the team veteran was dramatically ditched from Ineos-Grenadiers’ Tour de France squad and many questioned whether he would ever return to the top of a grand tour podium.
With a high-profile, high-salary, move to Israel Start-Up Nation on the horizon in 2021 as team boss Sylvan Adams piles money into a squad dedicated to supporting him, Froome needs a solid Vuelta in his legs to prove his future viability as a grand tour leader and big-budget investment.
While the grand tour great admitted there’s still some way to go before he’s back to the form he needs to take the fifth Tour de France he so desires, he was typically bullish in his commitment to getting there.
“Certainly it’s been a question mark if it was going to be possible, and obviously I’m not there yet,” Froome said when asked if he had doubts over returning to his best. “I’ve still got a long way to go and I’m going to keep doing the hard yards to get there.”
Froome has four days left in an Ineos Grenadiers jersey as both this year’s Vuelta and the 2020 season draws to a close.
From there, despite entering the twilight of his career, he will enter a whole new chapter and is ready to prove the doubters wrong.
“I’ve received countless tweets telling me to pack it in already,” Froome said on Twitter earlier this week. “If I quit every time things got tough during my cycling career I would have never achieved anything. Believe me when I say I’m far from done.”