The stage had everything you don’t wish to see and everything you do, all at the same time. It was a stage full of drama but which, when it came down to the details of the standings, didn’t have a dramatic impact. Cycling can be funny that way. It was the incidents rather than the results that told the story. Cycling can be so often that way.
In the early hours, before the stage began, the Irish team, Aqua Blue had their team bus set on fire. Burnt to a crisp by an arsonist, the team had to borrow a standard coach to make it to the race start. Luckily for them most of their equipment was elsewhere and thus not lost. It will no doubt have affected their preparation and left a few of them asking, “why us?” Police arrested a suspect who was also alleged to have set fire to several other vehicles.
But the race goes on and more drama lay in wait. Race leader Chris Froome crashed twice in as many corners on two separate bikes. A fan in trying to run along side Alberto Contador, got pushed by a policeman and fell in front of a motorbike. Maxim Belkov, riding well behind the sharp end of the race, had a fan run across the road and tackle him to the ground. It later transpired the fan suffered from Downs Syndrome. Upon learning of this Belkov decided to take no further action.
All these incidents happened within a short period of time. It was chaotic. Tomasz Marczynski, who won his second stage of this Vuelta, was all but overlooked in the drama. Indeed, in a racing sense it was the move by Alberto Contador on the final climb. It seemed a strange time to attack, and so it proved to be as he only gained 20 seconds on his rivals and 40 seconds on Froome. The Sky rider never quite got back on terms following his double spill, but limited his loses well. But fans love these kind of attacks by Conador because it sparks a race to life in a way it wouldn’t otherwise. It added another dimension and who can fault such an effort. Contador may be several minutes behind, but he isn’t going down without a fight. Will he pay for it later in the race? We can only want and see, but given the time gaps, Contador doesn’t want to wait. He feels he must take every opportunity. And what if the move caused confusion behind and he gained a minute, or more? If you never try you’ll never know.
Contador isn’t a major threat to Froome right now. But nor do you want to give someone like Contador a sniff. You know he will attempt moves like this for as long as he can and if he gets too closed on time he will become a danger. So Froome must have panicked, even for a moment, when he crashed that second time. Tradition dictates waiting on the race leader under certain circumstances, but not here. And for two reasons. The first was because it was a crash. Crashing is a part of racing. You put the pressure on and try and force a mistake. It wasn’t why Froome crashed this time. It appeared the road was dusty and his wheel went out from under him, but regardless, the race goes on. Crashing is different than an unforced mechanical, as it was at the Tour for Froome. The second reason is because of Contador. He was already up the road. Had the rest waited on Froome, Contador’s game would have doubled. Instead of gaining 20 seconds on, say, Vincenzo Nibali, he might have gained 40 seconds. It doesn’t seem a lot, but it could prove telling. Tonight, Contador is a little over two minutes behind Nibali, who himself is now within a minute of Froome.
The condition of Froome will be crucial. How banged up is he? He has said that it is little more than flesh wounds, and if so then he had a lucky escape. But even those can take their toll. Tomorrow is a flat stage which he’ll welcome. But respite doesn’t last long in this Vuelta. on Saturday they go climbing again. He’ll need to be at his best. Yes he has the buffer of the upcoming time-trial, but there is a lot of racing between now and then. And a lot of racing after it too.
Froome has always fallen short at this race. Second three times. Something always catching him out. Luck never quite on his side. Until today he had been perfect; not putting a foot wrong. Canadain Mike Woods said so much in an interview. That while everyone else made little mistakes, the Sky rider was flawless. Now some would argue that Froome’s bad luck had arisen once more. But you could also argue that the fact he only lost seconds and doesn’t appear too injured shows luck is now on his side. If that’s as bad as the mistakes or the misfortune gets for Froome, he will win this Vuelta. He’ll be hoping that is the case but the likes of Contador and Nibali will try keep the pressure on.
Froome’s bike handling and descending skills have improved a lot in recent years. Indeed he is one of the better ones in the peloton. More so than Contador who himself can look fragile on the descents. He linked up with teammate Edward Theuns who helped wit the descent off the mountain and the run in to the finish. But it doesn’t always go your way. Nibali, one of the best descender’s in the sport has had his share of spills. Sometimes it happens and today it happened to Froome.
And so the race goes on. More racing action like that please, but less of the indirect madness of today. And best wishes to Aqua Blue and their new bus.