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