Sky's captain dropped his last rival Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in the high gradients 100 metres from the line to win solo. Quintana, who finished on the same time, continues the lead the race with 54 seconds on Froome and 1-05 minutes on team-mate Alejandro Valverde.
"It was definitely my objective coming into this race, trying to ride myself into the race," Froome said. "I obviously had a busy season with the Tour de France and the Olympics before coming to the Vuelta, so I didn't have a lot of time to specifically prepare for the Vuelta. Because of that, I've been aiming to build into the race and hopefully be better in the second half. Hopefully, I'm on track for that now."
Froome appears to be improving after some early loses, including 31 seconds to Quintana on the summit finish to Lagos de Covadonga on Monday. Following the rest day, he responded well on the small 5.6-kilometre climb south of Santander.
"On the Lagos de Covadonga, I had a very different approach to it. Just given my experiences [there], I decided to ride it in a very different way and in a pace that's suited me best. In the past, I always exploded halfway up,” added Froome.
"This time I paced myself a lot better. That was the best way for me to ride up the Covadonga, but today was a completely different climb, I approached it differently. It was about staying right at the front, obviously following Nairo when he made his move."
Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange), fourth overall, fired up the road with 1.7 kilometres to race. Sky's Leopold König paced the group until Quintana fired at 700 meters. Froome marked him and went at 500 metres. Unable to drop Quintana, he fired again for a slight advantage and the stage win on Peña Cabarga.
It is not the Alpe d'Huez or the Mortirolo, but Peña Cabarga holds a special place for Froome. In 2011, he won his first grand tour stage on the climb and went on to finish second overall behind Juan José Cobo. It showed the talent and strength that allowed him to conquer the Tour de France three times in the following years.
"I have some special memories from 2011, from the Vuelta against Cobo at that time. It was my first victory ever as a professional. I definitely have some special memories from that time,” said Froome.
"Today's just another day. I knew the finish well, I think that definitely helped. Coming into the last few hundred meters, knowing the left turn to the finish. You can't see the finish line necessarily, but I knew the right moment to accelerate. I'm very happy to have the stage win."
It was only his second individual stage win in the Vuelta since that 2011 win. There will be more chances to come, however. After a few medium-mountain days, the stars are expected to shine in the Aubisque and Aramón Formigal stages this weekend.
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