Froome primed to make his­tory and add Vuelta ti­tle to Tour de France tri­umph

The Observer - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - Wil­liam Fother­ing­ham Alto de L’Angliru

‘It’s an amaz­ing feel­ing. What a way to end a mas­sive three weeks ... and con­grat­u­la­tions to Alberto’

Chris Froome is poised to make cy­cling his­tory af­ter set­ting up a prob­a­ble over­all vic­tory in the Vuelta a Es­paña on the sum­mit of Spain’s tough­est moun­tain climb, the Alto de Angliru, the day be­fore the fi­nal largely cer­e­mo­nial stage through Madrid.

The fin­ish, per­ilously perched on a rocky slope in As­turias, was the fi­nal ob­sta­cle in his quest to be­come the first cy­clist to win the Vuelta and Tour de France in one year since Bernard Hin­ault in 1978, but Spain had eyes and tears for one man, Alberto Con­ta­dor, who rose to the oc­ca­sion to take the fi­nal moun­tain stage in the fi­nal Grand Tour of his che­quered ca­reer.

“It’s an amaz­ing feel­ing,” said Froome, “what a way to end a mas­sive three weeks of rac­ing. We did our best to catch Alberto but he was too strong. Con­grat­u­la­tions to him for fin­ish­ing like this, it’s beau­ti­ful.”

Froome left it late on the climb, but that has been his way at all the nine sum­mit fin­ishes through­out the three weeks since the race left the French city of Nimes. Roughly 3km from the fin­ish, as his group tack­led the slopes of a sec­tion of this climb known as the Cuenta de las Cabras – the cra­dle of the goats – he sensed that his closest ri­val for the over­all ti­tle, the Ital­ian Vin­cenzo Nibali, was slip­ping be­hind and he ac­cel­er­ated. He was rapidly joined by Wouter Poels and to­gether they forged ahead as Nibali strug­gled on the un­for­giv­ing ramp.

Nibali, win­ner of the Vuelta in 2010, had al­ready given hints of frailty, com­ing close to skid­ding off the road on the de­scent from the penul­ti­mate climb, the Alto del Cordal, mean­ing he was poorly po­si­tioned at the foot of the 12.5km long as­cent to the fin­ish, with its tight cor­ners and lengthy stretches at 25% gra­di­ent. He put his team-mate Franco Peli­zotti to work on the front of the group con­tain­ing Froome and the other con­tenders for much of the as­cent of the Angliru, but at the key moment when he needed to put Froome un­der pres­sure, he had no re­sponse.

The de­scent from the Cordal played a crit­i­cal role. It is leg­endary, but not in a good way, with its tight cam­ber-less curves and greasy patches un­der the trees; it al­most did for the Spa­niard who led over the penul­ti­mate pass, Marc Soler, who slid wildly on a right han­der, while David de la Cruz was an­other vic­tim. Know­ing its per­ils, and know­ing he had noth­ing to lose, Con­ta­dor de­cided to make his at­tack, and by the foot of the de­scent, he was clear with his team-mate Jar­lin­son Pan­tano, set­ting up a tense fi­nal climb that will live long in the mem­o­ries of Span­ish fans.

By the time Froome and Poels left Nibali be­hind, Con­ta­dor seemed to have vic­tory as­sured, hav­ing rid­den through the re­mains of the early es­cape that had included the Yates broth­ers, Adam and Si­mon. The pre­vi­ous 9km had been an ex­tended adios through a cor­ri­dor of flag-wav­ing, ec­static fans es­ti­mated at 150,000 in num­ber, who had been mak­ing their way painfully up the climb on foot and bike since the morn­ing.

They had waited in low cloud, loom­ing mist and au­tum­nal show­ers, and a near gale threat­en­ing to send spon­sors’ ban­ners fly­ing; there were ban­ners in hon­our of their hero, and at one point at least he ped­alled painfully across the words “Gra­cias Alberto” painted across the tar­mac. It was an evoca­tive end to a ca­reer that has included seven Grand Tour wins, as well as a two-year dop­ing ban which never made much im­pres­sion in his home coun­try.

Froome and Poels threat­ened to spoil the farewell party be­cause of their need to gain time on Nibali and the other over­all con­tenders, Il­nur Zakarin and Wilco Kel­der­man. Con­ta­dor, mean­while, was strug­gling to main­tain trac­tion on the steep, slip­pery wet slopes due to his er­ratic, out-of-the-sad­dle climb­ing style, which throws the weight to the front of the bike. Poels has a par­tic­u­lar affin­ity with this climb, hav­ing fin­ished sec­ond here in 2011, and at times he pulled Froome so hard that he looked likely to leave his leader be­hind.

The key ques­tion was how much time Con­ta­dor would pre­serve at the point where the road dips down­ward to­wards the fin­ish line; he crested the last ramp with 25sec in hand, which was just enough, al­though Froome and Poels had closed to 17sec be­hind by the che­quered flag. Their ef­fort en­abled the Bri­ton to ex­tend his lead on Nibali to 2min 15sec, with Zakarin over­tak­ing Keller­man for third, and Con­ta­dor mov­ing into fourth over­all.

What pre­ceded the Cordal and Angliru had been test­ing, but in a dif­fer­ent way. The pelo­ton had left Corvera de As­turias in pour­ing rain, muf­fled up in arm warm­ers and rain jack­ets as if rac­ing in April, and the show­ers tracked them through the lush val­leys, tor­ren­tial, cold rain one minute, daz­zling sun­shine the next.

Early on, the pace had been set by Con­ta­dor’s Trek-Se­gafredo team, clearly bent on keep­ing the break­aways within reach so that their leader would have a chance of winning the fi­nal moun­tain stage of the fi­nal Grand Tour of his ca­reer. It was a leg-bend­ing, body chill­ing pre­lude to the show­down that de­cided one of the hard­est fought Vueltas in re­cent years and which should fi­nally en­able Froome to lay the ghost of his sec­ond places in 2011 and 2016.

Tim de Waele/Cor­bis via Getty Im­ages

His­tory man: Team Sky’s Chris Froome is close to be­com­ing the first rider to win the Vuelta and Tour de France in same year since 1978.

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