Madrid, Spain, Aug 18 – Four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome begins his quest to make more cycling history on Saturday by ending a long and arduous wait to win the Vuelta a Espana.
Froome faces a huge challenge over three weeks of brutal climbs in the searing Spanish summer heat with a stellar cast of former Grand Tour winners such as Alberto Contador in his final race, Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru competing for the red jersey.
However, should the Briton emerge victorious when the race enters Madrid on September 10, he would become just the third man ever to win the Tour de France and Vuelta in the same year after Frenchman Jacques Anquetil (1963) and Bernard Hinault (1978).
Froome has come agonisingly close to winning in Spain in the past, finishing second on three occasions in 2011, 2014 and 2016.
“It certainly feels as if I’ve got unfinished business at the Vuelta a Espana,” said Froome.
“It’s a relentless race, the course is always a lot more mountainous than the Tour de France, the conditions are tougher being mid-August in Spain.”
Nine summit finishes lie in wait for the peloton, including a 12.2km climb up Alto de l’Angliru in the penultimate stage to ensure an explosive finish.
There is just one individual time trial, but the long and flat 42km circuit on stage 16 should allow Froome to take time off his rivals.
“It’s brutal, absolutely brutal, and to win something like that it feels as if you’re taking on an even bigger challenge,” added Froome.
“It’s certainly not easy to go straight from the Tour and to shift the mind-set to suddenly getting ready for another Grand Tour, another three-week race, just a few weeks on from the Tour de France.”
– Contador’s fairytale finale? –
Contador will be the home favourite as he aims to end an illustrous career in fairytale fashion by matching Roberto Heras’s record of four Vuelta wins.
The 34-year-old announced earlier this month the Vuelta would be his final race after a disappointing Tour de France in which he finished ninth and nearly nine minutes back on Froome.
“I don’t think there is a better farewell than in my home race in my own country,” said Contador, who is tied for fourth as the most successful Grand Tour rider of all-time with seven wins in total.
“I’m sure these will be three wonderful weeks.”
Two Italian former Vuelta winners pose the biggest threat to Froome and Contador as Nibali and Aru lead Bahrain-Merida and Astana respectively.
Nibali should be fresher than his rivals after sitting out the Tour de France following his third-place finish on home soil at the Giro d’Italia.
“The route is very demanding but overall I like it,” said Nibali.
“So many climbs, but also Navarra Circuit’s time trial with more of 40 kilometres can be decisive.”
Aru finished fifth at the Tour de France even taking the yellow jersey from Froome for a couple of days despite losing a number of teammates early in the race.
“It’ll be the hardest Grand Tour of 2017,” said the 2015 champion, who is also riding with his future in mind with UAE Team Emirates interested in snatching him away from Astana.
Romain Bardet also goes for his first Grand Tour win after finishing on the podium at the Tour de France in each of the last two years.
However, former Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez is out after being suspended by the UCI for failing a doping test on Thursday.