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Froome slowly smothering Vuelta

ALMERIA, Spain (VN) — Just like the pummeling rain that drenched Wednesday’s stage 11, Chris Froome is slowly smothering any chance of sparks flying at this year’s Vuelta a España.

Cold and heavy rain showers doused the Vuelta on Wednesday, quickly turning Spanish summer into Belgian-like weather in a span of 36 hours.

That’s pretty much what Froome and the dominant Team Sky are doing to this Vuelta. Once regarded as the most exciting grand tour on the calendar for its unpredictability, a stronger-than-ever Froome is squeezing the life out of the 2017 Vuelta.

“I’m happy with that outcome today,” said the understated Froome.

Why wouldn’t he be? He was second on the day, picking up a six-second time bonus, and gained time on all of his direct GC rivals. Not bad on a day that could have gone very wrong.

On Wednesday, even when he looked to be suffering on the cold upper reaches of the barren, first-category Calar Alto summit, his rivals couldn’t press the advantage.

Froome managed to not only defend his red leader’s jersey, but he tripled the margin, tightening his grip on red from 36 seconds at the start of the stage to 1:19 by day’s end.

“It was a day when some of my rivals lost time. So to finish second, I couldn’t ask for much more than that,” Froome said. “The most important thing was to follow Nibali and stay with the favorites. I concentrated on staying with [Nibali] when I saw that [Esteban] Chaves was dropped, and Alberto [Contador] was on the limit.”

In what was the Vuelta’s first major mountaintop finale, Froome’s rivals are moving in the wrong direction.

Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) lost nearly two minutes to Froome, slipping from second at 36 seconds back, to third at 2:33. BMC’s double GC threat of Nicolas Roche and Tejay van Garderen both lost more than three minutes, plummeting from third and fifth, respectively, to 11th and 12th.

Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) climbed into the top-10, now ninth at 3:55, but also lost time to Froome. The Spanish superstar isn’t throwing in the towel yet, but he could not follow Froome even when the Sky captain looked to be struggling near the top of the climb.

“Froome didn’t look very comfortable. [Mikel] Nieve was closing the gap to Nibali, and [Froome] asked him to wait,” Contador said. “But we know how Froome is. He slows down a bit, recovers, and then goes back to the front.”

Only Nibali, winner of stage 3, seems keen to put up a fight.

“It’s obvious that Froome has a very strong team, and so is he. It’s very difficult to gain time against him,” Nibali said. “But at least someone needs to try.”

The Vuelta could soon turn into a race for the podium, if it hasn’t already. Sky brought its best Vuelta squad ever to Spain, and Froome is looking more determined than ever. So far, Sky has been able to control the race then set up Froome to pick away at  GC rivals.

After two breakaway stages on tap Thursday and Friday, a pair of steep climbing finales looming this weekend in the mountains of Andalucía could see Froome consolidate his lead even more. And that’s before the 40.2km time trial in Logroño.

Teams across the peloton admit that this Vuelta is Froome’s to lose. Sunweb’s Wilco Kelderman responded well Wednesday, climbing from 11th to fifth, at 2:37 back.

“It looks like they are in complete control,” said Sunweb director Addy Engels. “Sky is really strong as a team, and Froome himself looks very strong. They have no weakness.”

Barring another Formigal-style hiccup, Froome could finally have the elusive Vuelta title he’s been chasing since 2011. Sky’s style of racing isn’t the popular among many in the public. But no one can dispute its effectiveness.

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