Before this past weekend only two men had ever won the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España in the same year. And nobody had ever done it with the Vuelta coming after the Tour in the current calendar.
For Chris Froome held off the opposition to secure a historic double. Since the start of the Tour and the end of the Vuelta, 72 days had past. In that time Froome raced in Grand Tours for 42 days. And of those, he has spent 32 days in the leaders jersey. It was a remarkable level of consistency of both physical endurance and mental fortitude. It was a fine achievement.
There is no doubt that Sky were ever powerful. No other team has the strength in depth of Sky when it comes to Grand Tours. But that comes with success. The best riders gravitate to the best teams. You can have all the money in the world to throw at riders, but if you don’t use them right it doesn’t matter much. Sky managed it and played it to perfection. And Froome used his team better than many might have.
He never reacted to attacks when he knew he had his team with him. He made his moves when the timing was right and took the time he needed, but never more. So often there were moments in which it would have been so easy for him to panic. Times when so many others would have begun to doubt their form, their timing and their team. But Froome never seemed to waiver or stray from a plan put in place last winter to see the challenge through. And in return he had a team that never doubted him.
On the road Froome’s race craft has never been better. It was his control, composure, reading of the race, tactical nuance, timing of his efforts, and balancing of his form, that set him apart. It was because of this that he was able to win back-to-back Grand Tours. Many lamented Froome’s racing style and his teams control. But then again, many have also wanted someone to attempt such a double for a long time. Nairo Quintana tried for the Giro and Tour. He took the more aggressive approach, and won neither.
So we cannot have it both ways. When the Tour has been the singular goal for Froome in the past we have seen him attack with force. Think of that attack on Mont Ventoux in 2013. And don’t forget him running up the same mountain three years later. He won that Tour with unpredictable tactics and a level of panache; attacking on descents and in the cross winds. But on none of those occasions was he able to follow it up with a Vuelta victory. He always fell short. The goal changed in 2017. The tactical approach had to measure up.
Besides, the criticism of Sky was a little over hyped anyway, as things often tend to be on social media. The idea that Sky completely neutralized the race is a little dramatic. Had that been the case everyone would have finished on the same time as Froome. He wouldn’t have won the points jersey either. Yet, there was Froome, the man that some had complained was too conservative, going for the intermediate sprint on the final day to secure that prize.
Alberto Contador often posed a threat with his many wild attacks. That in itself stimulated the contrast between Froome’s approach and the carefree panache of the Spaniard. But his goals were not the same as Froome’s, especially after losing time on stage three. Would things have been different without that time loss? I suspect Contador may have been more aggressive than Froome; he wasn’t attempting the double after all. But I doubt Contador would have gotten the same rope to play with had time been tighter. As it was, Froome kept cool and let him go; going with him only when it would benefit him. Likewise when others would attack too. Froome knew he could afford to lose small amounts of time here and there so long as it wasn’t always to the same person. He could calculate the risks on the road.
And with Contador, more often than not, the moves didn’t come to much. Or at least until the final stage on the brutal Angliru. That day Contador signed off his career in style with a stage win on his final summit finish. And who could begrudge him that? Froome settled for third and secured his double. The nearest rival, Vincenzo Nibali, had cracked. He had threatened to take back time on Froome as it appeared the Sky man was tiring in the final week. But on stage 18 Froome recovered and Nibali began to waiver. It was far from a done deal going onto the Angliru, but Froome could control the narrative. And in the end he dominated it.
Nibali clung onto second while Ilnur Zakarin jumped up to third as Wilco Kelderman faded. By then even that pair were far enough behind Froome. And further back, his team-mate and loyal domestique, Wout Poels secured 6th. Contador had jumped to 4th but would slip behind Kelderman on the final day while trailing off the back to receive the plaudits of the locals. In 7th was the brilliant Canadian, Mike Woods in only his second ever Grand Tour. His time-trial cost him a top five. His late arrival to professional cycling left me wondering, what if? What if he’d taken up the sport a decade earlier? But he can look to someone like Froome for inspiration. Froome himself was a late bloomer who took the path less traveled to European racing and took time to figure it out.
All those names, all those who finished in the wake of Froome, now look to him as the benchmark. He has elevated himself to the position of the best stage racer this century. He is no Merckx nor Hinault, but you cannot compare different eras. Not least with where the sport has been and is now. Some might argue Contador, but he was rarely the same after his ban. You can read into that what you like. Contador has seven official Grand Tour wins to Froome’s five, thus far, but only half as many Tour de France victories as Froome. And you can say what you want about Le Tour, but it is the big one. It is the Champions League or World Cup of stage racing. It is the race everyone wants to be a part of, the one that more riders target than any other, the one with the most prestige and the most pressure. And while Contador rode more than one Grand Tour in a season, he never won back to back Grand Tours; completing the Giro-Vuelta double in 2008.
To those riding against him, Froome is the template on how to ride a modern day Grand Tour to victory.
Which leads to the question of what now? Does he go for the Giro with the ambition of holding all three titles at the one time? Doing that would put him in a club with only Eddy Merckx (who did four in a row across 1972-73), and Bernard Hinault (1982-83). It would also complete the career Grand Tour triple crown and further cement his place among the greats. But that might mean sacrificing the Tour, and winning the next Tour would secure five wins. That in itself would put him in a select group.
The Giro-Tour double would likely prove to be tougher than the Tour-Vuelta. The Giro comes first and several riders will make it the key goal of their season. More will show up fresher there than at the Vuelta. The weather can be unpredictable and Froome has shown he doesn’t like racing in the cold. But win it and you must then go to the Tour next. And even more riders target the Tour as their number one goal. Even more riders show up there with 100 percent form. Froome would need to win the Giro, recover, and come back again in France. He would need the strength of his team more than ever.
But that decision can wait. Right now Froome will revel in the moment of achieving his goal. And he finally scratches the itch that is the Vuelta after having finished second 3 times. But not too much time to reflect, for he will then go on to attempt another triple crown by adding the World time-trial championship to his honour roll.