By Kenny Pryde
As the Vuelta a Espana reached its final rest day before the race finish in Santiago de Compostella next Sunday, all the riders were happy to have finished a tough three days in the mountains of Cantabria and Asturias, though you suspect that some were more relieved than others.
With four hill or mountain-top finishes on the trot and wins going to Daniel Navarro (Cofidis), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp), Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), the general classification was also given a good shake, with Contador coming out on top and looking set for the win. Behind him, Chris Froome (Team Sky) emerged as possibly Contador’s most serious rival, for it was he who attacked on the road to the summit at La Farrapona, a 16.5km first category climb which topped out at 1,705m.
Froome’s attack, just under four kilometeres from the line, blew the lead group of 15 riders apart, dropped Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) as well as Fabio Aru (Astana), and only Contador was able to stay with Froome, jumping the Brit just outside the last kilometre having sat on the Team Sky rider’s wheel. As Froome slumped into the arms of his soigneur he said “I just couldn’t drop him.”
But if Froome couldn’t drop Contador, he had at least consolidated his podium position and scored important psychological points before the rest day.
“I came to this race fresh and I’ve been trying to build up during the race and I’m really happy with the way it’s gone. Coming in to the last week this is where I wanted to be,” explained Froome to the media scrum on the line. Later he added, “In some ways I’m looking on the Vuelta as the foundation for a good off season and towards next year’s goals.”
But Froome and Sky can be pleased with the way the team rode during three tough days with Performance director Tim Kerrison quietly pleased at the manner his riders had taken the race on, proving to themselves and the peloton that they were still a force.
“We tried to look on these three mountain stages as a block,” said Kerrison later, “so the plan wasn’t to ‘hold back’ on the previous two days, it’s not quite that, but to ride as economically as possible and still stay with Contador. The plan wasn’t to lose time on Lagos de Covadonga though. Having said that, the stage today (La Farrapona) was one where Chris could afford to go a bit deeper and it looks like he’s come through these three stages in better shape than either Rodriguez or Valverde."
Irishman Phillip Deignan and Luke Rowe - with Pete Kennaugh in the early break - were all prominent in setting the tempo in the final two climbs before Mikel Nieve took over. Had the stage been planned before the start?
“No, not really, Chris sort of said that he was feeling really good once we were into the stage so we decided to take it up on the second to last climb so we pretty much played it by ear until we saw how the stage was going to play out. There were a few worried guys today at the start of the stage - the non-climbers in the peloton - who were worried about the time limit when you’ve got a big climb so soon into the stage.”
Young Welshman Rowe echoed Deignan’s analysis: “We just wanted as many guys still with Chris as far into the stage as possible and we wanted a hard stage too, so when Katusha let the momentum drop a bit, we decided to take on for as long as possible and make it as hard as possible. I’m not sure that Froomey emptied the tank yesterday (Lagos de Covadonga) for sure he left a little bit in reserve with today in the back of his mind.
"I’ve been trying to save energy all race, doing my job and sitting up to ride in with the grupetto the whole race, because the final stages will be tough. But today’s stage there were 175 guys on the start line worried about it, because I’m sure that most of us had been thinking about it from the start, there was nobody at the start today who wasn’t a bit worried.”
So, with Team Sky coming back out swinging and bossing the race, with morale in the camp high and Froome as fresh as any rider can be so far into a brutal Tour of Spain, might we see further changes in the general classification? Froome wasn’t talking up his chances - noting that “Contador was super strong” - but if you’d asked him and Team Sky if they would have been satisfied with a podium in this Vuelta, they’d all probably have signed up for that when the race began almost three weeks ago in Cadiz.
Having said that, there are still three more mountain stages to go before the fat lady warbles in Santiago de Compostela, ‘el final del Camino,’ the end of the road.
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