The 2017 Vuelta a España saved its most dramatic day for the end. On Saturday, the peloton tackled the mighty Alto de l’Angliru climb, and the sport’s stars did not disappoint. Alberto Contador grasped glory one final time in his career. Chris Froome shut the door on his GC rivals. Rain fell in buckets. Fans went berserk. It was a typical day on Spain’s toughest mountain.
Where does Saturday’s battle on the Angliru rank among the six other editions?
Fred Dreier @freddreier: I’d say third overall. I will forever watch the 2008 edition to see Contador at his apex just bounce away from his rivals with that famous climbing style. And it will be a long time until someone tops the foggy, zany 2013 battle between Chris Horner and Vincenzo Nibali. That edition is still GOAT.
Caley Fretz @caleyfretz: I’d say second overall. The Horner year takes it for sheer oddness. But seeing Contador hit out on the final mountain of his career was something special.
Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegs: Second only to 2013 when Chris Horner put the final nail in Vincenzo Nibali’s coffin as the Italian went down in a blaze of glory. This year’s vintage was so good because of all the uncertainty. Could Contador really hang on after escaping so early? Would he swoop onto the podium? Should Froome set Poels free to spoil the party? There was so much to play for in stage 20.
Andrew Hood @Eurohoody: Every Angliru battle is a movie unto itself. Contador’s final charge was impressive on many levels. Housewives and journalists across Spain were in tears when the “Pistolero” was first across the line. The ingredients added up to be a perfect goodbye for Spain’s biggest cycling star. My personal favorite was the first. I’ve only seen it on YouTube, but I was lucky enough to have interview Jose Maria Jimenez a few times before his tragic death. He was a gifted and troubled cyclist, but that first Angliru summit finale was a dive into the great unknown.
What were the most important factors that contributed to Contador’s stage victory?
Fred: The most important factor was that Contador laid an egg back in week one and lost three minutes on that stage in Andorra. Contador entered the Angliru stage 3:34 behind Froome, so Froome knew he could give him more than a minute’s leash. The other factor was the strength of Wout Poels. Had Froome been isolated, then the GC contenders may have launched some attacks, which could have whipped up the pace and closed the gap to Contador. Instead, Poels was there to set a hard pace, quelling any potential attacks.
Caley: It was no gift, that’s for sure. Froome wanted to get him back. The weather played a role, but here’s my flaming hot take: I think what really did it was how much faster Contador is on those steeps. His out of the saddle style is better suited to them.
Spencer: As it’s been all Vuelta, Contador relied on loyal teammates — in this case, Jarlinson Pantano, for the most part — to set him up with enough lead to be in with a shot. The second key was Contador’s experience. He’s ridden alone to victory here before. It’s essential to know how to pace oneself on such a tough climb. As we saw, he nearly went too deep and cracked in the final kilometer.
Andy: Two key elements added up to Contador’s win. First, his desire to win. He simply had an extra gear Saturday because he knew it was his final shot, and gave absolutely everything. He attacked on the descent of the Cordal, along with teammate Pantano, giving him an important head-start to the GC riders. He took a big risk by attacking by so far back, but no one has more drive and ambition than Contador. Second, Nibali’s crash on the descent of the Cordal shaped the final Angliru climb. Nibali just didn’t have it to attack Froome, so the final climb was more constant for Froome. Had Nibali attacked, Froome would have gone after him, and likely would have kept going to ride more aggressively for the stage win.
How would you assess Chris Froome’s strategy?
Fred: I wouldn’t be surprised if someday, decades from now, Froome admits that he decided not to slam the door on El Pistolero in those final two kilometers.
Caley: Conservative. But that’s what it had to be.
Spencer: I give it two flailing elbows and one carefully watched power meter — in other words, textbook Froome. He had henchmen with him from bottom to top. He put in one measured dig when he knew he could bury Nibali. Simple, effective, and boring.
Andy: Smart. He did what he had to do. Avoiding risks was more important than trying to go for one more big win. And he won himself a lot of friends in Spain by not chasing down Contador. Froome said Contador was too strong, but Froome was quickly gaining time in the final kilometers. Since Froome didn’t see any direct challenges on the Angliru, he really didn’t have to attack at all.
What was your favorite moment of the stage and why?
Fred: When Poels and Froome gave chase, and the gap shrunk from a minute to 25 seconds, I had to stand up and walk outside and scream. I really wanted Contador to win. It’s those tense and emotional moments that remind us why we watch cycling. This year’s grand tours delivered so few of those moments it was nice to be reminded of them.
Caley: As Contador’s lead slowly dwindled you could just feel the pain, desperation even inside him. At about 2.5k to go we seemed to reach peak Contador.
Spencer: By now, most of you know I love cycling’s will-they-won’t-they moments. What can I say, I grew up on 90’s rom/coms! So those final two kilometers were deliciously suspenseful. Contador looked to be flagging. Poels was pouring it on. Plus the other podium spots were in play as Ilnur Zakarin attacked a struggling Wilco Kelderman. Pure magic.
Andy: The entirety of the climb was a pleasure to watch. Contador is such an iconic figure in Spain. To see him attacking from the bottom, and arriving solo for victory in front of his fans on Spain’s hardest climb was sublime. As he said himself, there was no better way for Contador to leave the sport.