Chris Froome admitted earlier this week that he was not sure what to expect from himself at this year’s Vuelta a Espana, saying that he planned to “take the first few days to see exactly where his form was at” given his stop-start return from a life-threatening accident last year.
The seven-time grand tour champion was not extended even that courtesy on Tuesday as a brutal first stage in the Basque Country saw him shelled from the back of the bunch on the penultimate climb.
Froome eventually lost over 11 minutes to stage winner Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma). His Vuelta hopes are over already.
It was always unlikely that the 35-year-old, who is competing in his final race for Ineos Grenadiers after 11 years at the team, would be in contention for the overall.
Despite the confidence he expressed early in lockdown that he was training at his old levels and that he could pick up where he left off at the Criterium du Dauphine last summer, Froome was clearly a long way short of his best when racing resumed in August.
After leaving Froome out of Ineos's Tour de France lineup, Dave Brailsford said that it made sense to give the four-time Tour winner a few more weeks to build some form and have a crack at the Vuelta, a race he has twice won before.
But Froome is clearly not in shape to compete with the race favourites in Spain. On what was in fairness a brutal first stage, he lost contact with the main group on the short, sharp Elgata climb, around 16km from the finish atop the Alto de Arrate. Froome fought hard, briefly regaining contact before his team-mates ramped up the pace to try and set up Richard Carapaz for the stage.
The Ecuadorean eventually finished second behind Roglic, who takes the first red jersey of the race, the duo leading home a select group which included Britain’s Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling).
🎥El sufrimiento de Froome (@INEOSGrenadiers) para seguir el ritmo en el Alto de Elgeta / 🇬🇧 Hard efforts by former winner @chrisfroome to keep the pace from the bunch at Elgeta climb! #LaVuelta20 pic.twitter.com/K2V8EuZfUU
— La Vuelta (@lavuelta) October 20, 2020
Froome was far from alone in finding the going tough on a blustery, autumnal day. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) is also out of contention for the overall after losing almost 10 minutes, while other General Classification riders to fall behind on the final climb included Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma), Alejandro Valerde (Movistar) and Wout Poels (Bahrain-McLaren), who each lost at least a minute by the summit of the 5km-long, 8.5 per cent average gradient Alto de Arrate.
“I think it was a great day for us with Richie coming second,” Froome said afterwards, adding that Carapaz was the “team leader”. “For me personally I got a bit caught out coming into the penultimate climb and got a bit stuck behind the crash at the bottom there.
“But I'm really happy to be here, really happy to be back racing a grand tour again after two years of not doing any grand tours. I'm just going to take the race day by day and keep trying to do as much for the team as I can through the race.”
Froome will presumably now try to help Carapaz and possibly go for a stage win if he can find some form during the race. He said the “sensations were good” in his legs. “I think I still miss a little bit of that top end from not having raced much. But it’s definitely an improvement and I hope to keep building throughout the race.”
Over at the Giro d’Italia, Froome’s team mate and compatriot Tao Geoghegan Hart remains in overall contention after stage 16. Jan Tratnik of Bahrain-McLaren won the stage from a breakaway as race leader Joao Almeida (Deceuninck-QuickStep) used a late attack to add a couple of seconds to his lead in the pink jersey. Geoghegan Hart remains just under three minutes off the lead, and one second off the podium, with the first of three huge mountain stages in this final week coming on Wednesday. The day had begun with news that Fernando Gaviria would not start after the UAE Team Emirates rider tested positive for coronavirus during Monday's rest day, along with a staff member from AG2R La Mondiale.