Analysis from a crucial time trial on stage 16 of the Vuelta a España
Chris Froome nearly doubles Vuelta lead
Fans of Froome might have had their hearts in their mouths as the Brit went through the first intermediate split 23 seconds down on a flying Wilco Kelderman, also conceding time to Ilnur Zakarin and Alberto Contador.
However this was a classic Team Sky negative split tactic, with Froome accelerating through the course of the time trial to overtake Kelderman by seven seconds by the second split,and eventually win the stage by 29 seconds.
That gives Froome a commanding 1-58 lead at the top of the general classification, giving a decent margin for error for the coming days in the mountains.
Unexpected success for Kelderman
Surprise package of the day was Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb), a former Dutch time trial champion, but someone who has never finished higher than 14th in a Grand Tour time trial.
Kelderman set off the start ramp like an absolute train, powering through the first intermediate split with an average speed of more than 52kmh to go fastest by 16 seconds.
Watch: Vuelta a España stage 16 highlights
Some might have expected Kelderman to fade from there, but instead he held his effort well through the hilly middle of the course, only conceding time to the peerless Froome and eventually finishing second on the stage.
That result moved the 26-year-old up to third overall, just 42 seconds behind Vincenzo Nibali, and on current form you wouldn’t put it past Kelderman to overhaul his Italian rival by Madrid.
Vintage Contador in final time trial
This stage marked Alberto Contador‘s final Grand Tour time trial, and the Spanish rider pulled out a vintage performance that he would have been proud of in his pomp.
Contador has looked in decent shape in time trials all year, only once finishing outside the top 10 in an individual time trial all year, and paced himself perfectly in this last effort against the clock.
Eventually finishing 59 seconds down on Froome, Contador’s splits suggested that he couldn’t have gone any faster as he steadily lost time throughout rather than setting off too fast and losing shed loads of time later on.
His fifth place on the stage was also enough to move him up to fifth overall, just over two minutes back from the podium which certainly doesn’t seem out of reach if a vintage Contador long-range move can stick over the coming days.
Esteban Chaves drops out of contention
For the first week of the Vuelta a España, Esteban Chaves looked like Chris Froome’s main rival as the Colombian matched him on the climbs to go into the first rest day just 36 seconds down.
However since then Chaves has struggled, slipping down to fifth on Saturday’s stage to Sierre de la Pandera, before having a nightmare today to drop well-and-truly out of contention.
Never a strong time triallist, the Orica-Scott rider lost more than four minutes to Froome to drop to ninth overall, nearly seven minutes in arrears.
From here, Chaves may be content to hold on to his top 10 spot in the GC, especially if he suffers on one of the two ultra-steep finishing climbs of the final week.
Los Machucos beckons
Unsurprisingly, after a rare flat day in the time trial, the Vuelta a España heads back into the mountains for stage 17, which features one of the steepest climbs to ever feature in a Grand Tour.
The fearsome final climb of Los Machucos will undoubtedly be the highlight of Wednesday’s 180.5km stage, featuring a maximum gradient of 31 per cent that is sure to have the mechanics reaching into the back of the truck for the compact chainsets and 32-tooth sprockets.
Just don’t expect fireworks on such a climb, as the brutally steep gradients will make attacking all but impossible and the riders forced to scale the near sheer rock face at their own pace.