Chris Froome makes history
Not only because he’s looked so dominant throughout the race, holding lead since stage three, but because there had to be a desire to right the wrongs of the 2011 Vuelta finish on the Angliru, where he effectively lost his chance at overall victory.
But after so many attempts at winning the Spanish Grand Tour, Froome has sewn up the win at last, barring any freakish mishaps on Sunday’s ride into Madrid.
It’s been a long time coming, and the joy and relief that Froome showed after crossing the line on stage 20 looked more raw and emotional than after any of his four Tour de France victories.
It’s not in his usual style to ride conservatively and even here, where he could have just sat in with Vincenzo Nibali and guarded his lead, the Brit went on the attack with Wout Poels in the final 3km of the climb, finishing 17 seconds behind stage winner Alberto Contador and extending his overall lead even further.
It means Froome places himself well and truly among the greats of cycling. He’s the first rider since Contador in 2008 to win two Grand Tours in one season, and the only rider to have won the Tour/Vuelta double since the latter moved to it’s current time slot in the season.
Alberto Contador bows out in style
It had to happen didn’t it?
Contador has relentlessly attacked in the Vuelta, his final race as a professional. After suffering a rotten day on the climbs in to Andorra on stage three and losing a heap of time, the three-time Vuelta winner has been fighting for a higher placing in GC and a glorious final stage win ever since.
He’s come close, but wasn’t able to find victory on any of the many mountain stages we’ve had over the past three weeks, but you’d have been a fool to bet against him throwing everything he had at the Angliru in one last shot at a win.
The 34-year-old used his team to great effect, at first controlling a large breakaway group early on before working with Colombian climber Jarlinson Pantano to get away on the early slopes of the Angliru.
After Pantano had buried himself, Contador then produced a vintage performance to drop everyone who dared try and hang on to his wheel on the steep slopes.
Eventually he found himself with over a minute gap back to the second group of the GC contenders, and despite slowing towards the final kilometre of uphill and with Froome attacking behind, Contador was able to hold on to take a fairytale victory.
Nibali holds on to second place… just
While it was a great day for some, it was a fight just to hold onto others, including second place Vincenzo Nibali.
The Italian sat comfortably within the Froome group for the early climbs, but his descending skills seemed to let him down on the technical (and wet) run from the top of the Alto del Cordal into the foot of the Angliru.
The TV cameras failed to pick it up, but Nibali hit the deck and was left chasing on towards the day’s most difficult climb.
He made it back and benefited from the admirable work of Franco Pellizotti the entire way up the climb.
But while the early and shallower slopes of the Angliru allowed Nibali to find his rhythm amongst the other GC contenders, he was once again caught out on the steeper ramps.
It’s far from the first time in this Vuelta that that has happened. He was able to put time into Froome on the steep finish of Los Machucos on stage 17, but has regularly been put under pressure on the sharp ascents that climax so many of the stages of this race.
By this point though, it was clear that Nibali was not going to be able to dent Froome’s lead. However, the fight for third place between Ilnur Zakarin and Wilco Kelderman put Nibali in trouble.
As Zakarin pushed on on a 20 per cent gradient, the Italian was initially dropped, but was again able to claw his way back.
But when Froome made his final attack with Poels and Zakarin followed, there was nothing Nibali was able to do. With Kelderman also out the equation, Niablin then just had to focus on keeping the Russin within 52 seconds, his lead on him at the start of the stage.
Eventually Nibali was able to gain back some ground and finish with a 36 second overall lead on Zakarin. Had Zakarin been able to hold onto the pace of Froome things could have been much more dicey, but he was able to hold on to secure his second Grand Tour podium of the year.
Aru crumbles and De la Cruz crashes out
For many of the riders in the top-10, the brutal third week of the Vuelta meant that the Angliru stage would just be about consolidating their places on GC or jumping up a position or two with a handful of seconds.
Fabio Aru, who appears to have been playing second fiddle within his Astana team to Miguel Angel Lopez for much of the race, cracked very early on the final mountain stage on the second categorised climb.
While he’s been struggling to stick it out with the top riders through much of the race, he has been on the attack numerous times and looked at least worthy of his eighth place on GC.
There was no coming back though after he was dropped on the climb before the Angliru, and the Italian champion eventually lost over 15 minutes, falling out of the top-10 and into 13th place.
It was worse news for David de la Cruz of Quick-Step Floors though, who like Aru had had his struggles in the race but was on the verge of potentially cracking a Grand Tour top-10 for a second time.
He was one of a number of victims of the treacherous descent towards the Angliru though, and came down hard on a corner and wasn’t immediately able to get back up.
The Spaniard was sadly unable to carry on, and was forced to abandon the Vuelta after nearly 20 days of racing.
A worthy crescendo
A difficult final mountain finish to a Grand Tour can sometimes just end up being too much for the riders, and sees the race fall a bit flat. But the Angliru provided all the fireworks we could have asked for.
With the stage so short at just 117km, that was enough to give plenty of riders an incentive to attack early on to try and grab some glory before the race finishes.
Moreover, the race benefited from the likes of Contador chasing time and being allowed off the leash by the likes of Team Sky, providing a real spectacle to finish off this year’s Grand Tour racing.
The Vuelta remains an outstanding watch each for racing fans within the calendar, often providing more excitement than even the Tour de France, and this year’s was certainly another memorable edition.