But on the evidence of the opening stage of this year’s revised race – cut to 18 stages – Froome looks set to be consigned to little more than the role of super domestique to teammate Richard Carapaz if he can make it to the finish in Madrid.
Froome was dropped from a fractured leading group on the penultimate climb of the route from Irun to Arrate and, although he clawed his way back, he fell well back again, losing more than 11 minutes in total to the leading contenders.
For the 35-year-old, it was his first Grand Tour ride for two years and just 16 months on from an horrific crash which left him with multiple fractures.
The irony to his struggle at his swansong for Ineos Grenadiers before departure was that the high tempo in the final 18km of the stage was laid down by his team for a strong-looking Carapaz.
The Ecuadorian, who won last year’s Giro d’Italia, had initially been brought in as a back-up plan to Froome, which has very much shifted to that of team leader just 173km into this race.
Pre-race favourite Primoz Roglic, who had agonisingly missed out on a seemingly guaranteed Tour de France victory on the penultimate stage, moved into the Vuelta lead with a break in the final kilometre to take the stage win.
It gave him an advantage of just five seconds on Carapaz, with Irishman Dan Martin a further two seconds back and Britain’s Hugh Carthy 14 seconds in arrears in seventh.
Froome was not the only big name to struggle on a tough opening day of racing, with Tom Dumoulin and Alejandro Valverde among those to lose valuable time on the first day.
Meanwhile, at the Giro d’Italia, running concurrently to the Vuelta, Froome’s teammate Tao Geoghan Hart maintained his place in fourth just four minutes behind race leader Joao Almeida, who gained two bonus seconds on the line after Jan Tratnik took the stage win some 13 minutes up the road from the main contenders.
Earlier, UAE Team Emirates rider Fernando Gaviria was ruled out of the final days of the race after a positive coronavirus, his second of the season having previously tested positive back in February.
A statement from his team said: “All other riders and staff returned a negative test, and will undergo further testing today. The team’s medical staff are monitoring the situation closely and doing all they can to ensure we can proceed safely.”