It is two years since Chris Froome last rode a Grand Tour, finishing third to team-mate Geraint Thomas as his Tour de France dominance finally ended.
At the age of 35 and 16 months after a crash which left him with a plethora of broken bones, the question remains whether he can win another – a question not even Froome currently knows the answer too.
On Tuesday he will wheel out of the Basque town of Irun at the start of the Vuelta a Espana trying to prove in his final race for Ineos Grenadiers that the formative Grand Tour rider of his generation is still a force to be reckoned with.
But on the eve of the race, his was hardly a rallying cry.
Froome said: “It’s quite hard to say where I am at the moment, I haven’t done many stage races recently. The signs in training have been better and better, and I’m feeling more like my old self again, which is fantastic but it’s hard to quantify that.
“I haven’t been able to race and see where I’m at against my rivals. I’m going to take the first few days to see exactly where I’m at from that point and I’ll be able to have a clear plan for the rest of the race and know exactly what job I can fulfil at that point.”
When Ineos Grenadiers announced the omission of Froome from their Tour de France line-up, they made the bullish ambition of trying to win all three of cycling’s big road races with Egan Bernal at the Tour, Geraint Thomas at the Giro d’Italia and Froome at the Vuelta.
A back injury denied Bernal, while a rogue drinks bottle brought Thomas off his bike and out of the Giro. Bookmakers currently have Froome as a 40-1 shot, suggesting Ineos Grenadiers could yet draw a trio of blanks.
The suggestion, instead, from Froome himself is that he could act as a super domestique to Richard Carapaz, who was pulled from any possible Giro title defence initially as back-up to Froome and now seemingly a prospective team leader.
Froome said: “We’ve got a great team here to support Richard as much as possible. We’ll take it one day at a time and hopefully finish on a high note.”
It would be apt if Froome could pull off the unlikely at the Vuelta, a race that acted as his break-out with victory back in 2011, the first of seven Grand Tour wins.
The fact the race has been reduced to 18 stages could aid his cause but it is a route for the out-and-out climbers and a strong team. Once again, Jumbo-Visma look to have the strongest line-up with Primoz Roglic, denied Tour glory on the penultimate day, and Tom Dumoulin at the helm.
As for where Froome might find himself in the general classification, that remains to be seen.
“I’m feeling better and better on the bike, and I can take a lot of confidence from that,” he said. “I’ve got to keep in mind I haven’t raced a Grand Tour for two years now, it’s very much about getting back into it again.
“I’ll take it one day at a time and see how I go. I’ll know pretty quickly as we get into it in the first few days. It will be interesting to see how far off I still am once we get into the guts of the Vuelta.”