By Nigel Wynn
Brit Chris Froome was one of the hot pre-race favourites going into this year's Vuelta a Espana. Having placed second in the race last year, then second at the Tour de France in July Froome had proved his credentials as a Grand Tour racer.
However, both of those previous Grand Tour results were not achieved as team leader as he rode in support of Bradley Wiggins. Froome was bestowed the honour of team leader for the first time at this year's Vuelta, and admits that it has been a steep learning curve.
"I don't know where I'm going to end up by the time the race finishes in Madrid, but the most important thing for me is what I'm taking out of this race - a great deal of experience," Froome said via the Sky team's website.
"This has been my first time leading a team and having that weight on my shoulders. Getting the guys to work around me and letting them know what I need has been a really valuable learning process."
The race is currently on its second rest day, having offered three consecutive mountain-top finishes culminating in yesterday's brutal climb up to the Cuitu Negru ski station. Froome was again unable to maintain contact with Spanish rivals Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and race leader Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) as the road reared up to an average of 20 per cent in the final four kilometres.
"There was a stage with about 150 metres to go where I looked at the ramp ahead of me and thought 'I might have to walk up there'," Froome said of the climb which made the riders look like they were moving in slow motion.
Froome currently lies fourth overall, four minutes and 52 seconds behind Rodriguez with five stages of the race remaining. With hindsight, it was highly optimistic for Froome to be in contention at the race having ridden hard at the Tour, followed directly by the Olympic Games road race and time trial, where he took a bronze medal.
"The hardest part of the race is probably behind us now I think and it's just day by day now into Madrid," said Froome.
There are two further mountain stages of the race, both again featuring summit finishes: Wendesday's trip to Fuente Dé and Saturday's penultimate stage to Bola del Mundo. They offer the only remaining chance for riders to gain significant time on their rivals. The 2012 Vuelta a Espana finishes on Sunday, September 9.
If the Vuelta's overall classification stays at it is now, two second places and a fourth for Froome in his last three Grand Tour outings is a significant achievement and one that the 27-year-old can take with him into next season.
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