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The 2011 Vuelta was striking for a few reasons – the stratospheric speed at which some of its climbs were raced; the out-of-nowhere win by the unfancied Spaniard Juan Jose Cobo, riding for the Pro Continental Geox team in his homeland’s biggest race; and the arrival of Chris Froome as a Grand Tour contender.
The Team Sky (now Ineos Grenadiers) organisation has enjoyed an exceptional run of success in the years since, although the 2011 result has, until recently, been overlooked in the team’s narrative. That’s because, until just over a year ago, Froome wasn’t the winner.
That changed in mid 2019, when Froome’s tally of Grand Tour wins grew by one following the retroactive relegation of Cobo for biological passport violations. At the time, Froome was facing an extremely uncertain future, having just suffered a brutal crash at the Criterium du Dauphine that came close to ending his career.
As he faced the prospect of never racing again, Froome learned that he’d just won a Grand Tour eight years earlier.
“It was when I woke up a day after my big crash last year. I was in the intensive-care unit when they told me, ‘congratulations, you’ve just won the Vuelta,’” Froome said in Spain yesterday, before adding with more than a little understatement, “It was a strange feeling.”
At this year’s Vuelta, Froome has clearly been some way from his peak – he finished up more than three hours back in the overall standings – but he left the race with an unexpected souvenir. At the start of the Vuelta’s final stage, in the Hipódromo de la Zarzuela, Froome was finally handed the winner’s trophy for his breakthrough Grand Tour.
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Thank you to @lavuelta for giving me the opportunity to celebrate my 2011 win today. I first learnt about it while in ICU in June last year not knowing if I’d ever be able to compete again. Today I will complete my first Grand Tour since that crash and although it was not at the level I had hoped & worked for, I’m proud to have completed this step on my journey back to where I want to be. Muchas Gracias ???? ????????
“This victory is truly special for me,” Froome said. “It was a very special race for me [in 2011]. That’s when I discovered within myself I could become a Grand Tour rider, and be a candidate to win them. That Vuelta gave me confidence to go the Tour de France, and to strive to win Grand Tours.”
In the years since, Froome has become synonymous with Grand Tour success. His record includes four Tour de France wins, a remarkable come-from-behind victory at the 2018 Giro d’Italia, and the 2011 and 2017 editions of the Vuelta a España.
While Froome’s return to his former level is still a work in progress – if, indeed, it’s even possible at all – it’s already an impressive comeback given the extent of his injuries following the high-speed June 2019 crash which left him with a fractured femur, elbow, pelvis and ribs.
The memory of that crash, along with the emotion of finally being publicly awarded with the 2011 Vuelta win, was playing on Froome’s mind in Madrid yesterday, which also marked his final day racing for the team he’s called home since 2010.
In 11 years we've been through it all, together. There will never be enough words, so we'll just say this:
Thank you, Froomey ❤️ pic.twitter.com/cQlMI3HTVv
— INEOS Grenadiers (@INEOSGrenadiers) November 8, 2020
In a post-race interview, in the navy blue of the Ineos Grenadiers kit, the enormity of it all began to sink in. “It’s been an emotional day, the last day with the team … it’s time for me to reflect on all the highs and lows of the past 11 years,” Froome told reporters, eyes welling up.
The 35 year old joins Israel Start-Up Nation next season, hoping to climb back a little closer to the pinnacle of the sport.