The Vuelta pendulum continues to swing

contador-froome
No sign of Nibali as the momentum shifts back in the direction of Froome. (Photo: Getty Images Sports)

When I last wrote about this Vuelta, almost a week ago, everything was looking good for Chris Froome. He had crashed twice in as many corners that day but his lead stood at 59 seconds to Vincenzo Nibali and nobody had put him in trouble. Indeed, everyone else was starting to fall out of touch. Fast forward six days and you could say that everything still looks good for Froome. But it hasn’t all been easy in the days between.

In that time, Rafal Majka, Miguel Angel Lopez, Froome himself, Stefan Denifl and, today, Sander Armee have all won stages. The most touching of these was Denifl’s, for the Irish team, Aqua Blue. Their team bus was burnt out earlier in the race. This was a fitting reward for the continental side on their Grand Tour debut. As for Froome, his win came in the time-trial; his second of the race, and gave him what is looking like some crucial breathing room. Without that time-trial, Froome would have come into today’s stage with a 19 second advantage on Nibali. It is irrelevant of course, the time-trial always existed, but it serves to highlight how Froome had begun to suffer in the mountains.

For most of the weekend heading into the time-trial it had all been looking good. He actually put six seconds into Nibali the day before the rest day. That pushed his advantage out to a second over a minute with the time trial then extending it to two seconds shy of two minutes. The race looked over, but looks can be deceiving.

Froome didn’t quite look himself. And nor should he deep in the second week of his second Grand Tour, bidding for back-to-back victories. He was struggling to hold the wheels at times and while he could dig deep to hang on, that punch was missing. And you could sense that his rivals knew it. Contador was always on the attack. He was jumping away at every opportunity and creating chaos for Team Sky. Granted he was a little over ambitious at times and it would cost him time at the line, but with time to make up, Contador had little to lose. The likes of Lopez and Ilnur Zakarin fed off this, with Lopez winning a stage and taking back time on back to back days. Of course, Froome could afford to give the pair some room, but both have climbed their way right into the top six.

Last Friday, Zakarin was sixth, 2 minutes 25 seconds back. In the time since he has only lost 4 seconds, and Froome put 59 seconds into him in the time-trial. He now finds himself 4th. Lopez had been 10th; he is now up to 6th. Wilco Kelderman hangs in and is now in a podium position while Chaves, who had been 3rd last Friday, has fallen away completely. He now sits 12th, almost 12 minutes in arrears. Contador, 9th on Friday at 3 minutes 13 seconds is up to 5th, but has only lost 21 seconds to Froome. And when you consider Froome also gained 59 seconds to Contador in the time-trial you start to see how crucial that ride was.

If there was a suggestion that Froome was starting to tire, then the next day confirmed it.

On a brutal, steep and punishing climb up to Los Machucos, with ramps reaching 30% in gradient, Froome suffered. Contador attacked early, again, in a bid to win the stage. Nibali soon followed. Froome couldn’t react. Surrounded by team-mates he set about limiting his loses. Contador wasn’t the big issue; on his last hurrah he bids to climb the standings and win a stage. Today he did the former but fell short on the later as Denifl took that magnificent win for Aqua Blue. He had survived from the days early break.

Nibali was the problem for Froome. He was the chief rival; the one he had to mark, but could not. He lost 42 seconds having gained 57 seconds on Nibali in the time-trial. From nowhere the race was wide open once more. Nibali, the freshest man in the race, was on the offensive. The gap was down to 1 minute 16 seconds with three hard climbing stages to go including a mammoth summit finish on Saturday. In theory Froome could afford to lose 25 seconds a day and survive, but if fatigue has set in those seconds can vanish fast.

And yet today, it all swung back the other way once more. The way this Vuelta has played out, we should have seen it coming. In many ways it was typical Froome; you never see it coming. You cannot tell what kind of a day he is on. If yesterday had all but wiped out his gains from the time-trial, so today all but wiped out the loss from yesterday.

On the final ramp, everyone was looking to Nibali to move. Contador tried for a long one once more but it came to nothing. Fabio Aru, a forgotten man who was losing this Vuelta by a thousand cuts; losing small amounts of time here and there, did manage to get away. It was a strange one because the days early break was 9 minutes up the road and never in risk of getting caught. Aru was down in 9th, 6 minutes 45 seconds behind Froome and well behind the podium. It appeared a bid to climb up a couple of places rather than win the stage. And on the final climb he blew up and only gained 12 seconds.

The attacks behind shrunk his lead in a hurry. But it was Froome, not Nibali, who put in the biggest surge. Contador and the ever impressive Mike Woods could respond; Nibali could not. When Froome looked over his shoulder to see that the Italian was not with him, he ignored the others and pressed on. The Sky man was looking good again, either recovered or hoping to expose Nibali. Take the fight to him rather than react, and that move caught the Bahrain-Merida rider out.

On the line Froome had gained back 21 seconds; exactly half the time he had lost to Nibali the day before. The ball was very much back in the Sky riders court. His lead in the red jersey was out to 1 minute 37 seconds. Kelderman in third was at 2 minutes 17 seconds. Contador, in 5th, still trails by over three and a half minutes. It’s a two way fight for the win, but now Froome can afford to lose upward of 45 seconds per day over the two remaining crucial stages.

Friday lends itself to an ambush and that may now be Nibali’s best hope. It’s how he snatched the Giro victory in 2016. He’ll have little choice but to try and he will know that Contador will be eager himself to try something audacious. The Spaniard is 1 minute 17 seconds off a podium placing and is desperate to win a stage. In cahoots with one another they will look to spark up the race. Froome will hope to have his Sky team mates at their very best to respond.

If Froome can survive tomorrow without losing time he should have enough in the bag. But never rule someone like Nibali out, even on Saturday. Like Contador, he won’t quit. This race has bounced back and forth so many times already. Nobody looks completely dominant and everyone looks prone to an off day. It’s been a long summer and exhaustion is setting in for everyone. That could matter a great deal, one way or the other.

The pendulum swings and this fine race continues.

Standings after 18 stages:

1. Chris Froome (Sky) in 72h3’50”

2. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) +1’37”

3. Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) +2’17”

4. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) +2’29”

5. Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) +3’34”

6. Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) +5’16”

7. Mike Woods (Cannondale) +6’33”

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