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 by: Bill Oetinger  10/1/2017

Froome doubles down

Finally, he did it. After three close seconds at the Vuelta a España, Chris Froome has finished first, throwing that monkey in a bridesmaid’s dress off his back at last. A lot of other firsts came with that first place finish. He became the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998—20 years ago—to win two grand tours in one season. He became the first rider since Bernard Hinault in 1978—40 years ago—to win the Tour-Vuelta double. And he became the first rider ever with the Tour-Vuelta double since the Vuelta moved from its April slot in the schedule to its August-September slot. (That switch was made in 1995.)

That last one is significant. Think about the timing. When Hinault won his Vuelta-Tour double in April, ’78, he had over nine weeks to recover between the two events. This year the Tour ended on July 23 and the Vuelta started on August 19. That’s less than four weeks. The turnaround time between grand tours is usually cited as the biggest challenge in knocking off two in a row, but Froome has overcome that one this year, and with just about the shortest gap possible between two events. Most impressive.

For further perspective, consider that there were five weeks between the Giro d’Italia and the Tour this year. Nairo Quintana and several other GC contenders tried to do the Giro-Tour double this year and failed pretty thoroughly. (Quintana was 2nd and 12th and the others were worse.) Even with an extra week of turnaround, they didn’t come close to doing it. For years people have been saying winning the Tour plus either one of the other grand tours is simply no longer possible. Perhaps it wasn’t so much a case of what the riders were trying to accomplish but who was trying to accomplish it.

Debating the relative merits of the three grand tours is always a good topic for lively debate but is especially relevant when someone wins two out of the three: was this Tour-Vuelta double easier than a Giro-Tour double would have been? The turnaround time factor suggests the Tour-Vuelta was the harder challenge this year. But that’s only one factor among many. Let’s do a quick review of all three three-week races and see if that tells us anything…

All had 21 stages with two time trials each. The Giro had two legitimate (long), fairly conventional time trials of 40 km and 28 km. The Tour had a 14-km prologue and only one other ITT of a relatively short 23 km on Stage 20. (One could be forgiven for thinking the French organizers did this to try and minimize Froome’s advantage in the ITTs and give a little help to local fave Romain Bardet. Not that it helped much, but with two full ITTs Bardet would have been even further behind.) The Vuelta had one of its silly 14-km team time trials as a prologue but then a full—40 km—individual time trial on Stage 16.

That leaves each race with 19 normal stages. Minus the time trials, the Giro averaged 186 km per stage (115 miles). The Tour averaged 184 km per stage (114 miles). The Vuelta worked out to 172 km per stage (107 miles). So the Vuelta’s stages average seven miles less than the Tour’s stages and eight less than the Giro’s. Does that make it easier? To answer that, we need to look more closely at the stages. While a grand tour is supposed to produce the best all-around rider with the fullest complement of all cycling skills, we all know that the races are decided primarily in the time trials and in the hilliest stages, where the biggest time gaps usually appear.

The Giro had eight seriously mountainous stages with five offering decisive mountaintop finishes.

The Tour had eight mountainous stages with four mountaintop finishes.

The Vuelta had 14 mountainous stages with seven mountaintop finishes, including at least two that were harder than anything on either of the other tours.

Those numbers tell the story: in spite of being seven miles shorter, on average, the Vuelta stages kicked ass early and often. The hilly days were Stages 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 18, 19, and 20, with 20 being Angliru, considered by many to be the hardest climb on the pro circuit in Europe. Are you kidding me? Just reading off that list of back-to-back-to-back sufferfests makes my legs hurt. The consensus among the weary riders was that the Vuelta was the hardest grand tour anyone could remember, not just in this year but as far back as they could recall. It was a beast.

The other factor to consider is the competition: who did you have to beat to win the race? The conventional wisdom for years has been that the Tour is the toughest not because of it parcourse but because it attracts all the A-List riders, while the other two events might field some second-string riders and weaker teams. That was not the case this year. The Vuelta’s field had more of the top riders than either of the other events, including Froome, Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador, Romain Bardet, Ilnur Zakarin, and Fabio Aru.

Froome ended up comfortably in first with Nibali at 2:15 and Zakarin at 2:51. At the Tour de France, Froome won the overall without winning any stages and seemed to rely on his strong Team Sky to do most of the heavy lifting for him. It was workmanlike and steady and certainly dominant, but not anything we would call aggressive or proactive or prepotente. But this Vuelta was different. After those three close seconds in past years, including getting tactically out-foxed last year, he seemed determined to leave nothing to chance this time. He was on the rivet right from the start. Sky didn’t win that little team time trial but they were just a few seconds back and he took the lead on Stage 3—the first hilly stage—and never gave it up. After that, almost every time the roads went uphill, he added a few more seconds to his lead. He won a big mountaintop finish on Stage 9 with an impressive series of attacks. By Stage 11, his lead over Nibali in second place was up to 1:19

But he is human. He has his off days and is subject to the vagaries of fate as much as anyone else. On Stage 12 he had a mechanical problem and swapped out his bike, then had a minor crash on a descent shortly thereafter, probably because the replacement bike was not quite right for him. He fought back and limited his loss to 20 seconds. He traded a few seconds back and forth with Nibali on the next two mountain stages and then won the time trial on Stage 16, putting 29 seconds into a very impressive Wilco Kelderman, :57 into Nibali, and :59 into Zakarin and Contador. That padded his lead over Nibali to 1:58.

Afterward, he said his radio wasn’t working right and he wasn’t getting info on his or anyone else’s time splits in the ITT, so he just kept hammering, all the way through. In hindsight, he wondered if maybe he burnt a few matches going so hard. That’s because he had a true moment of vulnerability the next day on the second hardest hilltop finish of the race: the super brutal ascent to Los Machucos. (It was a new road for the Vuelta…another of their wicked discoveries, like Angliru and Bola del Mundo. It’s only 7 km at an average of 9% but it has several pitches over 25%.) He got dropped by most of his chief rivals and lost a chunk of time. His lead over Nibali was shaved down to just 1:16.

But that was the only crack in his wall and he patched it up quickly, adding another :21 over Nibali the very next day. That’s where it stayed until the last and biggest, baddest mountaintop stage to Angliru on the day before the final, ceremonial stage into Madrid. This was a good one, but to do it justice I have to fill in a little back story about Alberto Contador. The former champion has been in the twilight of his career, not having done much on the biggest stages since beating Froome in the 2014 Vuelta and winning the 2015 Giro. He had announced that this Vuelta would be his last professional race. He lost 2:33 on the first mountain stage, when he said he was sick with some bug. That put him more than three minutes back almost before the Vuelta had warmed up. But after that setback, he was aggressive pretty much every day, attacking often and looking like el Pistolero of old, eventually clawing his way back into the top five.

Finally, on this toughest of all stages, he attacked again. On the last real stage of his career, he wanted to do something for his Spanish fans. He wanted to go out in a blaze of glory…and he did. He built a lead of over a minute halfway up the wall, then hung on grimly while Froome and his chief lieutenant Wout Poels chased him down. He finally came across the line 17 seconds ahead of the two Sky riders. This was no gift. Froome and Poels tried their hardest to catch him. It would have dishonored the old champion to not make the effort. He had just enough seconds in hand to seal the deal. If he couldn’t win the overall, this was at least a wonderful consolation prize.

Meanwhile, Froome’s gritty chase of Contador had distanced Nibali and all the other riders still near the top, resulting in Froome’s final margin of victory growing to 2:15. That’s not a huge, Secretariat-sized gap, but he achieved it while retaining control almost from the start, never really letting up. He had that unlucky mechanical and crash on one stage, losing 20 seconds, and the one bad day on Los Machucos, losing :42, but on all the other stages, he either held his ground or expanded his lead. He won two stages and looked to be the best rider almost every day. This was no fluke.

Unlike last year’s Vuelta, where Team Sky fielded a decidely B-List roster to support Froome—and paid for it—this time around they brought a team of heavy hitters. Wout Poels, Mikel Nieve, and Gianni Moscon pulled like a train on every uphill grade, tearing the legs off most other team’s support riders and quite a few other team leaders. This squad was at least as strong as their Tour de France team. Poels’ 6th place overall speaks to that. They are loaded.

I’ve seen some articles exploring the question of where Froome now stands in the pantheon of all-time great cyclists. It’s a fair question but a bit premature. He says he wants to ride for another five years and his Sky contract currently runs through 2020. Barring untimely accidents or injuries, he should be able to accomplish much more. He’s now won four Tours and one Vuelta. His first priority is to win at least one more Tour to put himself into the elite five-Tour club. He won’t jeopardize that goal by doing a Giro before a Tour. But say he nails another Tour next year. After that he may feel inclined to try and add a Giro to his palmares. To play on the team’s name, you could say the Sky’s the limit for both him and his team.

Finally, a tip of the old chapeau to Vinnie Nibali. He finished a somewhat distant second here and a very close third at the Giro…the only rider besides Froome to stand on two grand tour podiums this year. Like Contador, he appears to be past his best and the pundits count him down and out over and over again. But he is still battling and still hanging in there. It was only last year that he won one of the most exciting Giros ever. I won’t make any predictions about his future but his present looks pretty damn good.

Well…here we are again, nearing the end of another season. It has been as good as any I can remember. We’ve just had the World Championships…Peter Sagan won the road race again for the third year running—amazing—and Tom Dumoulin bookended his improbable win at the Giro by winning the time trial (with Froome taking the bronze medal). We still have Milano-Torino, Lombardia, and Paris-Tours to cling to before being cast out into the darkness of another long winter. Sigh…

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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