Observers at the 67th Vuelta a España may be premature in writing off the chances of Great Britain’s Chris Froome. They say that in the 11 stages that remain he won’t be able to withstand the attacks of his three Spanish rivals, former Vuelta winners Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, and this year’s Giro d’Italia runner-up Joaquim Rodriguez. Froome faces a stiff task, and history does show that it’s very difficult for a foreigner to beat the Spanish on their own turf, but if anyone can succeed it’s the talented 27-year-old Englishman raised in Kenya and South Africa.
At the 2011 Vuelta, Froome just lost to the upstart Spaniard Juanjo Cobo, who held a tiny lead over Froome, never more than 20 seconds, over the final week—partly thanks to the tacit help of the other home teams. That “assistance” was far more pronounced a quarter-century ago when the last Brit to get close to victory at the Vuelta, Scottish climber Robert Millar, was runner-up to Spanish riders in both 1985 and 1986.
I was fortunate (if that’s the right word) to witness Millar’s unbelievable (that is the right word) loss to Spaniard Pedro Delgado at the ’85 Vuelta. Millar had ridden a great Vuelta and strong final time trial and was the solid race leader starting the final stage. My story of that sensational stage is too long to reproduce here, but it suffices to say that Delgado began that May day in the climbs north of Madrid in fifth place overall more than six minutes behind the Brit, and that a combination of bad weather in the mountains (cold rain, hail and wet snow), poor team direction, fatigued teammates, lack of time checks and a blatant coalition of Spanish teams handed the stage win to local rider José Recio and the final victory to Delgado after a long, two-man breakaway.
Race organizing, team structures and information technology have changed enormously since those days, but partisanship and collusion among friends can be just as pronounced as they were when Millar twice lost the Vuelta to intrinsically lesser riders. As Froome said on Monday’s rest day this week: “Since the start, my competitors haven’t given me any gifts and I don’t expect to get any.”
Besides the strong opposition he’s facing, Froome could be suffering from race overload after the Tour de France (where he was second to Sky teammate Brad Wiggins), and the London Olympics (where he raced to a standstill in the road race and medaled in the time trial). As evidence of his fatigue, critics point to moments of weakness that Froome experienced on each of the two summit finishes over the weekend. But a closer look at his and his three Spanish rivals’ performances through the Vuelta’s first week reveals a potentially different story.
Last week’s uphill finishes seemed sure to give an early verdict on who would be the strongest contenders, but there were other factors at play: a 100-degree heat wave blanketing northern Spain, fierce crosswinds on the plains preceding the climbs, the varying strengths of the teams at this ultra-mountainous Vuelta, and the psychological states of the top candidates for victory—notably Alberto Contador.
All of Spain is hoping that Contador can put his controversial two-year drugs ban behind him and win this first Grand Tour since his suspension ended earlier this month. With the expectation of a nation and the need to prove himself, Contador was clearly anxious on the initial summit finish last Monday. His frenetic, out-of the-saddle accelerations up the ruggedly steep 5.5-kilometer Alto de Arrate resembled his pre-suspension climbing style, but the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team leader couldn’t shake the opposition even with a half-dozen attacks.
The anxious Contador tried again the next day on the steepest (early) section of the 13-kilometer Valdezcaray climb. This time, just Froome and an ambitious Nicolas Roche were able to go with him; but it was an injudicious tactic given the unfavorable winds blowing on the upper, less-steep slopes. In the past, Contador wouldn’t have been so impetuous. He would have planned his attacks more meticulously and, on each of those stages, he would have needed just one sharp acceleration to leave the rest in his wake.
Anxiety to please the public was one part of the Spanish superstar’s failure to win on the early summit finishes, but poor team tactics and the debilitating temperatures were just as important in his significant loss to Rodriguez and Froome to the stage 6 finish at Jaca. Contador made four of his Saxo teammates race flat out on the downhill approach to Jaca, but as soon as the climb began he started cramping and realized he’d played into his rivals’ hands.
Showing immense determination, Team Sky’s two Colombian climbing prodigies, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, raced so fast on the short, switchback climb to Jaca’s ancient fortress that Valverde later described it as more like the finish of a sprint stage! When the two Colombians peeled away to launch Froome on a final-kilometer charge, neither Valverde nor Contador could follow the pace. Only Rodriguez stayed on the Brit’s wheel, and then out-sprinted him for the stage win, earning him the 12-second time bonus and the leader’s red jersey.
Froome and his Sky cohort attempted to replicate their Thursday tactics on Saturday’s much tougher stage finish on the 5,085-foot (1,550-meter) Collada de la Gallina in the Pyrenees of Andorra. At 7 kilometers, it was twice as long as the one at Jaca, but Sky’s team director for the Vuelta, Marcus Ljungqvist, gave Henao and Uran the same orders to raise the pace from the start of the climb. So when the Colombian pair had done their damage and gave way to an attack by Froome, he still had the hardest part of the climb to complete: 3 kilometers tilting up gradients as steep as 15 percent.
Froome had never seen the climb before and that lack of knowledge worked against him more than his alleged fatigue. When he accelerated, only Contador followed him, while their two rivals held back. The Katusha team’s Rodriguez is a resident of the Catalan region and spends much of his year in Andorra and knew the Gallina climb intimately; and he told his friend and Movistar team leader Valverde that the pace was too high to maintain all the way to the line.
That was confirmed when Froome couldn’t get Contador to help him and the Brit virtually sat up before the multi-time Tour winner counterattacked in his former style. Contador’s Saxo team boss Bjarne Riis believed that Contador was going to win the stage, but even the Spanish phenom struggled at the end, shifted down and tried to spin his way to the finish, only to be overtaken just before the line by the more patient and stage-savvy Valverde and Rodriguez.
Froome was the victim that day of his poor team tactics (would they have been better if Sky’s top sports director Sean Yates was present?), the work he’d done unnecessarily to help Sky sprinter Ben Swift on the flat stages, and his rivals’ connivance. “The climb was really hard,” Froome later said, “and this battle against three such strong rivals was incredible.” But does he think he’s riding against a coalition of the Spanish trio and their teams? “I don’t think about a fight against the three,” he said, “but a fight against three weeks. To do two grand tours [back to back] is a new experience for me.”
Perhaps it was not knowing his physical limits of racing constantly at such a light level, or simply not knowing the course layout, that saw Froome have a hard time staying with the front group on Sunday’s tricky stage finish above the Mediterranean port of Barcelona. Barcelona is the hometown of race leader Rodriguez, so after Contador made the mistake of jumping too early on the little Alto de Montjuic hill 4 kilometers from the line, Rodriguez waited until a steeper, narrow section to counterattack, which only BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert could answer. Those two combined forces on the fast descent and then sprinted up the final uphill kilometer (with Gilbert taking his first win of the season), nine seconds ahead of a Valverde chase group and 12 seconds ahead of the Contador-Froome peloton.
With the crucial 39.4-kilometer time trial coming up on Wednesday in Galicia, Rodriguez has a 53-second lead on Froome, a minute on Contador and 1:07 on Valverde. Those four are a minute clear of their only potential challenger, Dutchman Robert Gesink, who has his Rabobank teammates Laurens Ten Dam and Bauke Mollema for company in the top 10.
But after the Vuelta’s one time trial, which Froome has to ace to stand a chance of winning overall, the outcome will likely rest with the relative strengths of the four leaders’ teams. Unlike that bygone era when Millar (racing for a French team) came up against an armada of Spanish riders leading Spanish teams, Froome and his British squad face Rodriguez on a Russian-sponsored team and Contador on a Danish-based outfit. Only Valverde is on a Spanish team, but with Rodriguez as a friend and Contador the most influential rider in Spain, the home forces may stop the Brit from winning the Vuelta for a second year running.
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Image: Fotogreporter Sirotti