LOGROÑO, Spain (VN) — In a grand tour that saw most of its major stars starting on the back foot, Chris Froome (Sky) remains the biggest enigma of this Vuelta a España.
Since rolling out of the sweltering heat of Jerez de la Frontera, the 2013 Tour de France champion has been wildly inconsistent. One day challenging the Spanish mountain goats for stage victories, the next, ceding time against the clock on a day when he needed to knock it out of the ballpark.
Froome’s up-and-down Vuelta was encapsulated in Wednesday’s wild finale at Aralar. Team Sky was drilling it at the front on the final climb as if they were setting up Froome for a major attack. Instead, it was their captain who was getting dropped off the back. Just when it looked like Froome had lost contact, he clawed his way back, and actually moved up to fourth overall on GC.
Going into a decisive string of climbing stages looming in Asturias, Froome remains dangerously within striking distance, just 1:20 behind race leader Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), and only 12 seconds off the podium’s third-place man, Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
Will Froome fly, or will he bomb? No one seems to know the answer to that, not even Froome.
“Chris is still in there. He’s not giving up,” Sky sport director Dario Cioni told VeloNews. “He knew coming here he was not going to be in the same shape like he was for the Tour. He had to miss a lot of training due to his injury. We will see.”
In a Vuelta full of superstars, Froome is the one major name who’s been struggling most to find his trademark kick. By Sky’s own admission, Froome knew coming into this Vuelta he would not be at 100 percent. That doesn’t mean he won’t keep racing to win.
“We said from the beginning, the most important thing for Chris is [to] put a grand tour in his legs. That’s important for next season,” Cioni continued. “Everything is a bonus on top of that. We will see what happens in the mountains. We haven’t seen a truly long, hard climb yet.”
Contador took the lead following his superb time trial performance Tuesday, on a day when Froome needed to step up. On Wednesday, Contador was quietly cursing a missed chance to eliminate, or at least further gap, Froome. The Sky star was struggling to keep pace with about 2km to go on the Aralar climb. Contador had his hands full marking surges by Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). He couldn’t capitalize on Froome’s moment of weakness.
Froome clawed back to save the day. As Cioni said, he’s “still there.”
“Words cannot explain how tough that final climb was,” Froome wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “I’m very relieved to have finished where I did. The fight continues.”
Froome avoided crashing late in Thursday’s circuit course around Logroño, a blessing for the Briton who has already gone down in this Vuelta and wants to avoid a serious spill in the remaining stages.
Friday’s 13th stage transitions into Cantabria, with a short, punchy finale that is ideal for Rodríguez or Valverde, if a breakaway does not stay clear. Sky will be riding to keep Froome in the game as long as possible.
“We are truly taking it day to day. If Chris has a bad moment, and the GC picture looks over, then we will look at that,” Cioni said. “Right now, Chris is still close. We will ride to protect him. The hardest climbs are still to come. Nothing is decided in this Vuelta.”
That’s a similar line that Movistar and Katusha are taking as well. Despite losing Nairo Quintana to a crash, Valverde is only 20 seconds behind Contador. Valverde’s finishing kick is earning him valuable time bonuses, and he could continue to trim Contador’s lead if breakaways don’t stay clear in the mountains.
Rodríguez, too, is quietly optimistic going into a trio of brutal climbing stages starting Saturday across the steep mountains of Asturias, poised in fifth at 1:35 back.
“I hope I can attack,” Rodríguez said at the line Thursday. “Alberto and Alejandro both have an important lead on the rest of us. There [are] still a lot of mountains, and I hope they’re good for me.”
Tinkoff-Saxo are not counting their chickens just yet. They’re looking warily not only at Movistar, Katusha, and Sky, but also at Fabio Aru (Astana), who bolted clear to win Wednesday. The explosive Italian is now 2:13 back in seventh place.
“The hardest part of the Vuelta is still to come,” said Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Tristan Hoffman. “Alberto is strong. He is confident. But you can see the race is still wide open. Nothing is decided yet.”
Froome knows all he needs is one good day to jump right back into contention. After missing out on a chance to win the 2011 Vuelta by just 13 seconds, Froome will not let the opportunity slip by again. The key will be his legs. If he can suddenly rediscover the magic he had in 2013, this Vuelta indeed is far from over. If not, it will quickly be over for Froome.