After losing significant time to rival Nairo Quintana in the Vuelta a España, can Chris Froome still turn things around before the race ends on Sunday?
Froome managed to cling on to his second place behind Quintana overall, but he has a deficit of three minutes and 37 seconds behind the Colombia. It’s a significant time gap with four days remaining in the race, but is it too much to overhaul?
There are many factors that could still contribute to whether Froome can still get the better of his Colombian rival, and stand on the top step of the podium in Madrid when the Vuelta ends on Sunday.
Both Froome and Quintana took part in the Tour de France. Froome won, with Quintana third. Froome went on to contest the road race and time trial in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, where he claimed bronze in the TT. As Tour winner, Froome has also been involved in a strong of engagements and racing post-Tour crits since July.
Given this heavy post-Tour schedule, it was something of a surprise when Froome said he was going to ride the Vuelta, and even more of a surprise when he said he was going for the win. Quintana’s lighter post-Tour activities mean that he arrived at the Vuelta fresher, and of the two riders he has looked sharper.
Froome has looked like he is minimising his losses in the mountains, rather than gaining time as he did in the Tour. In terms of fatigue, this could be one Grand Tour too far.
One of the big talking points after stage 15 was regarding the huge number of riders who finished outside the time cut. A group of 93 men arrived at the finish in Sallent de Gállego beyond the 31 minute and 24 second cut-off point, with the largest group arriving nearly 53 minutes down on stage winner Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx-QuickStep). The race jury ultimately decided to let all riders start stage 16.
Tellingly, every single one of Froome’s Sky team-mates finished beyond the time limit. Had the race jury stuck rigidly to the rules, Froome would have started Monday’s stage 16 on his own. Conversely, Quintana not only had solid support in Sunday’s devastating escape, but his team-mates collectively look stronger and fresher than Sky.
“It was a tough, tough stage for us. The guys obviously did a lot of work yesterday [Saturday] so we weren’t as prepared as some of the other teams this morning,” Froome said after the stage.
In the final week, there is a question mark hanging over the fatigue of Sky’s entire roster, not just its leader.
Even before the race started, Froome’s rivals conceded that the Brit is the GC man to beat in the 2016 Vuelta’s sole individual time trial on Friday. The 37km test against the clock is relatively short, but even so Quintana has said that he needs at least three minutes over Froome going into the stage to feel comfortable.
Now, he’s got that. Froome is going to have to have a very good day, and Quintana a very bad one, for Froome to overhaul him on that stage alone.
There’s more than just a time trial…
The way in which riders’ fortunes have changed day-by-day in the Vuelta so far means that it would be pretty foolish to say that Friday’s TT is the only decisive stage left in the race. Remember Froome’s surprise downhill attack to win stage eight of the Tour into Bagnères-de-Luchon and take the overall lead? No one – in particular Quintana – was expecting that one.
You can bet that Froome and Sky will be looking at opportunities to get one back over on Quintana and Movistar, and not leaving it solely to the time trial.
The penultimate stage 20 features a big climb up Alto de Aitana to the line, but why wait until then – why wait for the obvious? Sky could spring a surprise move at at point. And they may have to – particularly as Froome failed to gain any time on stage 17‘s uphill finish.
“We just have to sit down and look at it and keep on going,” Sky principal Dave Brailsford said after stage 15’s upset.
“Sometimes in sport you take a punch in the face, turn around sit yourself down and say right, there are six days of racing left, we’re still in the same position as we were this morning and we’ll just keep on going.”
One of the hardest things to gauge is any rider’s hunger to win a particular race. You could argue that Froome has already fulfilled his aims for the season, winning the Tour de France for a third time and claiming an Olympic medal. Quintana, on the other hand, has not won a Grand Tour this season and is therefore feeling unfulfilled.
As we all know, the personal desire and drive to win is absolutely key to carrying out the task in hand. A determined tired rider can still beat a less driven fresher one.
On this point, it is possible that only Froome and Quintana themselves know how much they truly want to win this race. Plus, Alberto Contador (Tinoff) definitely has more to gain than either Froome or Quintana, and Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) looks every bit like a man wanting to win his first Grand Tour.
Of course, every race could be dictated by a number of factors not directly controlled by riders or team that can shape its outcome. Weather, illness, crashes, mechanical problems, stray animals on the road, spectator intervention, deflating kilometre-to-go-markers, etc.
There is a certain amount of luck involved in managing to escape a Grand Tour without being affected by some kind of incident, and Froome was pretty lucky in the Tour – even when he was forced to run up part of Mont Ventoux after breaking his bike in a tangle with a race moto, he still safely retained his race lead.
No one likes to see bad luck rob a rider of a win, but history tells us it can happen all too frequently.