On The Roadby: Bill Oetinger 10/1/2016
Sky King comes back to earth
After the Tour de France, I tipped the old chapeau to Chris Froome and his dominant Sky team for having ruled the roost in that biggest-of-all stage races. I concluded it was an unbeatable combination: Froome at the top of his game and Sky with a killer line-up that stomped all over the other teams.
Well…that was so two months ago! At the end of the last grand tour of the season—the Vuelta a España, run from August 20 through September 11—Froome found himself one step down from the top of the podium, with Columbian Nairo Quintana standing above him. This would be the same Quintana who finished a rather anemic third overall at the TdF, 4:21 behind Froome. To be sure, most riders would consider any step on the TdF podium a real feather in their caps, but Quintana is not most riders and more had been expected of him. For him, that distant third was a disappointment. But he salvaged his season by winning the Vuelta, 1:23 ahead of Froome and 4:08 ahead of his countryman Esteban Chaves. (Chaves was second at the Giro, so the two Columbians are the only riders to stand on two grand tour podiums apiece in 2016.)
Three-time Vuelta winner Alberto Contador was a battling fourth, just 13 seconds off the podium. It’s probably a safe bet to say his best days are behind him at this point—he has even suggested this is his last season—but let’s give the guy some credit here. He crashed badly at the Tour de France and had to abandon, same as in 2014 (when he came back and won the Vuelta, 40-some days after breaking his leg). Then on Stage 7 of this year’s Vuelta, he was taken out in the last kilometer by an out-of-control rider and pretty thoroughly hammered. No broken bones but massive road rash and assorted thumps and bumps. In spite of being banged up to a degree where your average amateur rider would take a couple of weeks off, he was back in the saddle the next day for a brutal uphill finish. He kept at it and ended up well placed…a gutsy effort.
American Andrew Talansky was a respectable fifth, which has to be one of his best results ever. He never attacked or tried anything too outlandish, but he hung in there grimly on all of the many uphill finishes, did well in the time trial, and, one stage at a time, kept creeping up the rankings as other riders cracked. In contrast, his compatriot Tejay van Garderen totally tanked, abandoning on Stage 17, three hours behind the leaders. After a mediocre 29th place at the TdF and two lackluster grand tours in 2015, many are wondering what has happened to this promising talent, who has finished as high as fifth in two previous TdFs. He did have some good results this year, including winning a mountaintop finish in the Tour de Suisse. But overall, he has been a shadow of his former self lately. Can he sort it out and come back next year? He’s only 28, so there is still time…but does he still have it? He says he does, but the results say otherwise. We shall see…
Froome has now entered the Vuelta four times and has finished a close second in three of those attempts. (He was a distant fourth in 2012.) How close have those second-places been? In 2011, he finished :13 behind Juan José Cobo. In 2014, 1:10 behind Alberto Contador. And now 2016, 1:23 behind…for a grand total of a bit less than three minutes in arrears over 63 stages and 6111 miles. I can’t presume to read Chris Froome’s mind, but you have to figure he’s getting more than a bit frustrated at these Vuelta near-misses.
So how did it come to pass that Froome, the all-conquering champion of the Tour de France, was beaten by Quintana, whom he had so convincingly vanquished just two months previously? I don’t have any pat answer to that…only that these are humans, subject to the frailties that beset us all, and that some days and some tours work out better than others.
For whatever it’s worth, I do think the team that Sky sent to the Vuelta was not nearly as strong as its TdF team. Aside from Froome, it was an entirely different line-up. Gone were stalwart workhorses Vasil Kiryenka, Geraint Thomas, and Ian Stannard; gone were the mountain lieutenants: Mikel Nieve, Mikel Landa, Segio Henao, and above all, Wout Pouls. Instead, aside from Leopold Konig and Michal Kwiatkowski, the Vuelta squad was really a bunch of B-list no names. Instead of being escorted up every climb by a posse of strong riders, he often found himself with no one for company—and help—except Konig, and even this worthy failed him at a most critical moment. More about that moment later.
Many observers, as well as many participants, have declared this Vuelta the hardest grand tour in memory. No doubt we can quibble over the relative merits—or brutality—of this stage or that past tour, but most would agree that it was a very challenging three weeks. Certainly it made for great spectator sport. The formula for recent Vueltas seems to be slightly shorter stages but with more punch in terms of mountainous finishes. This year’s race averaged 96 miles a stage, while the Giro averaged 102 and the Tour 103. But those six or seven fewer miles each day were more than made up for by the climbs. Of the 21 stages, 10 had uphill finishes, and they were spread throughout the three weeks: Stages 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 14, 15, 17, and 20. Stage 1 was a team time trial and Stage 19 was the only individual time trial. Two or three other stages had significant categorized climbs but not hilltop finishes. All of the hilltop finishes were hard and the worst of them were absolutely absurd. (Pity the poor domestiques and sprinters: long after the TV cameras had been shut off and the pure climbers were in their team buses, those hard-working grunts were still dragging themselves up these many steep climbs. No joy, no glory…just day after day of leg-breaking, brain-baking misery.)
Having said all that—about all those brutal climbs—in the end, there were only three mountain finishes that really account for the gap between Quintana and Froome…those three and the Stage 19 time trial. The ITT was always the elephant in the room: Quintana knew he couldn’t match Froome in that discipline, so his challenge was to gain as much time as he could on the climbs to offset whatever he would lose in the ITT.
He launched useful, late-stage attacks on Stages 8 and 10 that netted him approximately :30 each time. He clearly looked like the stronger rider…or at any rate the stronger climber. But a minute was not going to be enough against Froome’s time trialing. Something more was needed and he got it on Stage 15.
As we all know, a feature of stage racing is the formation of a breakaway fairly early in each stage. For a variety of complex reasons, some riders are allowed to escape this way and others are not. But occasionally the conventional order of things goes out the window and something unexpected happens. On this stage, the unexpected thing was that Quintana managed to get into the early break, along with two of his Movistar teammates. Race leaders are not supposed to get in the break, but he did. What’s more, almost immediately, Contador shot off the front of the main group and bridged up to the break, which also contained two of his Tinkoff workers. Now two contenders were in the break! As Phil Liggett would say: “That put's the cat among the pigeons!”
While the 14-man break was disappearing up the road, Froome was frantically trying to muster his team to chase, but his team was AWOL: all but two of his workers were off the back, caught by surprise. (This was so early in the stage that we didn’t have video of it, so I’m not entirely sure why so many of the Sky guys were caught out so badly.) Quintana’s excellent lieutenant, Alejandro Valverde, had the rest of the Movistar team riding at the front of the main peloton, going fast enough to keep Froome’s lagging (B-list) teammates from catching up, but not so fast that they would reel in the break. It was a masterful bit of tactical warfare and it worked to perfection. One of the two remaining workers with Froome blew up and dropped off the pace and the rest never caught up. Leopold Konig, who should have been his last, best helper on the climb to the finish, was so far off the back he finished next-to-last, almost an hour behind. In the end, Froome was isolated, vulnerable, and discouraged. I’ve never seen such a meltdown from the usually powerful Sky train. They got outmaneuvered, outgunned, and just plain spanked.
Froome never got back to the leaders and ultimately lost 2:37 to Quintana. That was pretty much the decisive moment of the tour. Taken together with his two other 30-second gains on Stages 8 and 10, Quintana now carried a cushion of 3:37 into the time trial (and needed most of it). As expected, Froome won the ITT and put 1:57 into Contador, 2:16 into Quintana, and 3:13 into Chaves. That left Quintana with a lead of 1:21, which he padded to 1:23 on the final climb of Stage 20.
On that last mountain stage, Froome attacked Quintana over and over, one acceleration after another, trying to see if he could crack his rival. He couldn’t. Each time Quintana calmly reeled him in and sat on his wheel, then almost casually came around him at the finish. It was nearly a carbon copy of the the final hill stage in 2014, when Froome tried to crack Contador in the same way and Contador covered every move and then went clear at the end. Hats off to Froome for never giving up. He is a scrapper. But that one big tactical blunder on Stage 15 put him too far behind the 8-ball.
It was a wonderful tour, with all the excitement we have come to expect from recent Vueltas. Just because significant chunks of time only changed hands (among the leaders) on three out the ten hilltop finishes doesn’t mean the other stages weren’t thrilling. Many of the winners were the last survivors out of the days’ breakaways, so not only did we have the battle for the GC, we also had many other riders seizing their moments of glory. Quintana only won one stage outright. Froome won the time trial and also nipped Quintana at the line for the win at Peña Cabarga on Stage 11…again, almost a carbon copy of his win over Juan José Cobo on the same hill on Stage 17 in 2011. (It must have seemed like deja voodoo for Froome.)
Sigh…I can’t believe all our grand tours are over for another year. We’ll have to slide off into winter with the last few events of the season: Milano-Torino (won today, as I write this, by Miguel Angel Lopez…another darn Columbian), Lombardia, Paris-Tours, and the Worlds. It has been a great season. Can we remember all the way back to the spring classics? To Nibali’s miracle comeback in the Giro? And barely a whiff of a doping issue all year long. Thank you so much!
Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org