Froome riding back into top form
Stage 11 of the 2016 Vuelta a España marked the mid-way point of the race, and an important point for the general classification contenders. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) went into the first rest day in the overall lead, with a 58 second advantage over Chris Froome (Sky). A portion of that was built up on stage nine, when Quintana attacked leaving Froome to play catch-up.
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This time, it was Quintana that was left to keep up with Froome as the pair distanced the rest of the favourites group on the short, steep final climb to Peña Cabarga. Froome won here in 2011, taking his first ever Grand Tour stage victory – and he looked absolutely set on repeating that landmark victory on Wednesday.
As Quintana sat on Froome’s wheel into the final few hundred metres, the Tour de France champion looked back at his nemesis, anticipating the sprint. Froome then powered away, created a slight gap on Quintana to take the stage win and claw back a handful of seconds via the winner’s bonus.
More importantly, the balance of power has tipped towards Froome and the question now is whether this is the start of a bigger change going into the mountains and crucial time trial in the second half of the race.
Vuelta looking more like a two-rider, two-team race
Race leader Quintana and challenger Froome convincingly look more and more like the two strongest riders in the race, and put more time into key rivals Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange).
Aside from Contador and Chaves, it is telling that the next two strongest riders are Quintana and Froome’s key mountain helpers, Alejandro Valverde and Leopold König. With firepower like that to assist them, Movistar and Sky are starting to once again dominate proceedings.
Only Orica-BikeExchange appear to be able to rival Movistar and Sky, with two riders in the top 10: Esteban Chaves and Simon Yates.
Simon Yates a strong Plan B for Orica
Esteban Chaves launched a convincing attack within the final two kilometres of stage 11’s finishing climb, opening up a gap of nearly 20 seconds and looking like he could take the stage victory. The Colombian’s effort showed, though, when he faded on the steep final ramp to the line and was caught and passed by Froome, Quintana and others.
Chaves hung on to finish eighth, but British Orica-BikeExchange team-mate Simon Yates – winner of stage six – passed him to come home in sixth, and gain seconds on Michele Scarponi (Astana) to move up to seventh overall.
The young Orica pair – Chaves is 26 and Yates 24 – are taking the fight to their vastly more experienced rivals, and appear to be completely unfazed in doing so. Along with Simon Yates’s brother Adam, who finished fourth in the Tour de France, Orica has got three bona fide Grand Tour prospects who are serving up an exciting display of attacking racing.
Tinkoff put on a show… but ultimately for nothing
Tinkoff drilled out the pace at the front of the peloton for much of the second half of the stage, taking almost full responsibility for catching the day’s large 23-man escape group.
Perhaps the squad were putting on a show for team owner Oleg Tinkov, who had arrived at the race. Or perhaps team leader Contador – still heavily bandaged up from earlier injuries – had signalled that he felt good.
Either way, the effort ultimately paid little in return, with Contador unable to keep pace with Quintana and Froome when they made the race-winning move on the final climb. With a deficit of over three minutes to Quintana, it is increasingly looking like Contador may end his final season with Tinkoff empty-handed in terms of Grand Tour success.
After the controversy in this year’s Tour de France regarding spectators spilling out onto the road impeding the progress of the riders, it was evident that security has been stepped up a notch at the Vuelta. Race organisers are not keen on seeing a repeat of stage 12 of the Tour on Mont Ventoux, where a race motorbike was forced to stop abruptly by spectators, causing Richie Porte and Chris Froome to crash, and Froome to end up running.
Police and officials were positioned at short intervals all the way up the un-barriered section of the final climb on Vuelta’s stage 11, visibly pushing the crowds back to the edge of the narrow road and preventing anyone from running beside the riders. It was a welcome sight.
It is the first time this season that such crowd control has been seen, and may become more commonplace in the biggest races.