TRYING CIRCUMSTANCES Chris Froome’s Tour-Vuelta double lacked ‘panache’ but was a tactical, technical masterpiece that controlled the uncontrollable
If, indeed, God does love a trier, then the love’s been spread thinly across the pro peloton in 2017. Take Belgium’s Thomas De Gendt, who by his own measure got into the break on no less than 15 occasions in 40 Grand Tour stages this year - including, according to French newspaper L’Equipe, 1047km at the Tour de France at the front of the race - before finally triumphing on stage 19 of the Vuelta a España. “I win the last attempt. I wish someone could have told me that,” tweeted De Gendt.
Alberto Contador went through similar emotions in his swansong at the Vuelta, adopting a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it approach to attacking. Sometimes they stuck, sometimes they didn’t, but he made it count when it mattered with victory on the best place possible, atop the race’s now defining climb of the Angliru in the final mountain stage of the race.
In an era of tightly controlled racing where feats of winning solo, stage-long breaks are but sepia memories, the blueprint for Grand Tour racing success in 2017 is to chip away, to graft and to build small but incremental micro-victories. Nobody has lived and breathed that more than Chris Froome this summer. In making history and becoming the first rider, after several near misses, to win the Tour-Vuelta double in its current configuration on the calendar (and only the third ever after Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault), Froome accomplished this mind-bogglingly difficult feat in a brain over brawn way - even if considerable brawn was involved. All summer long, by simultaneously focusing on both the big picture and the more immediate tasks at hand, Froome, rather than the eyeballs-out tactic he’s employed in the past to stunning effect, eked out a string of micro advantages that added up to a whole lot. His critics point to the team of lieutenants at his disposal, like Wout Poels at the Veulta, himself finishing sixth overall, who could lead a top team in his own right. It was a team that was largely refreshed from the ‘A Team’ of the Tour, yet lost none of its potency for it. They’ll point to Sky’s methods and paint them as strangulation tactics, as if they invented them, rather than simply being the best current practitioners. Don’t forget Contador, the great entertainer, won (but was later stripped of) the 2010 Tour de France without winning a stage, something Froome also did this year and Greg LeMond did in 1990. It’s no less legitimate a way to win, particularly when you’re attempting the unprecedented. And it’s not as if Froome is devoid of flair - it’s deployed sparingly but it is there. It’s just that his avenue to victory demanded a particularly strategy. In winning two Grand Tours back-to-back, carrying the leader’s jersey for 34 out of 42 stages and for controlling such uncontrollable contests, Froome goes down as a legend of this sport. If not, on this occasion, for panache, then for precision, focus and persistence.
Froome eked out a string of micro advantages that added up to a whole lot