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Roundtable: Contador punches, Froome wavers on Los Machucos

The Vuelta a España finally delivered the drama.

Wednesday’s stage 17 of the Vuelta a España included a brutal finale, as riders tackled the Alto de los Machucos, a monstrous climb featuring ramps steeper than 20 percent. The riders and the climb did not disappoint. Austria’s Stefan Denifl (Aqua Blue Sport) attacked from a breakaway to win the stage, while Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) broke away from the favorites to inch closer up in the overall standings, and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) clawed back nearly 40 seconds. Race leader Chris Froome (Sky) showed his first real signs of fatigue, losing time to his rivals on the steep climb. Contador punched! Froome cracked! Let’s roundtable!

Which rider’s performance will you remember from Los Machuchos, and why?

Andrew Hood @Eurohoody: Alberto Contador. Nothing against Denifl, his victory was well-deserved and a coup for his team, but Bertie is a rider who simply refuses to give up. He’s been two steps back, one step forward throughout this Vuelta, but he’s never stopped pressuring the race. He’s like a dog chomping into his bone. He won’t let go. A podium would be the ultimate goodbye.

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegs: We’re all going to say Contador, aren’t we? And rightly so. What a bold attack — so early and with Lopez, the man who embarrassed Alberto on Sierra Nevada in stage 15.

Caley Fretz @caleyfretz: Alberto Contador. He looked like the old “Pistolero.” What a way to finish a career, particularly if he can repeat on the Angliru.

Fred Dreier @freddreier: I’ll remember Chris Froome’s performance the most, honestly, because it was so unlike him to lose contact with the favorites that early in a major climb. We’ve seen Froome get dropped midway up a big climb, and near the top, but I cannot remember ever seeing him drift off the back like that at the bottom.

The last time Chris Froome looked this vulnerable was _____.

Andy: On the 2015 final up Alpe d’Huez in the Tour. Quintana had him on the ropes that day, but just like at Los Machucos, his strong team and his TT gains helped save the day. It’s always easier defending a lead than trying to take it. Froome also looks a bit sick. He was sounding hoarse at the rest day press conference, and he’s been coughing heavily at the finish line. This Vuelta will go down to the wire.

Spencer: Stage 17 reminded me of Peyragudes in this year’s Tour. Here’s the catch: On both days he didn’t look that vulnerable. He lost some time on Peyragudes. He lost some time on Machucos. However, he didn’t lose the overall. Not by a long shot. This is just another case of Froome picking his battles and riding conservatively because he has the luxury to do so.

Caley: I was going to say the Vuelta’s Formigal stage last year, but today was different. That stage was tactical. Machucos was just legs, which is maybe even more worrying for Froome. The last time Froome looked weaker than his rivals was up Peyragudes at the Tour.

Fred: Froome looked to be out of gas, which would not be a problem if there wasn’t that big, bad Angliru (Angry Lou) on the horizon. That fact makes Froome seem fairly vulnerable. The last time we saw him with this tenuous a grasp on the lead was, well, never. I think this is a new position for him.

Who played his hand best today. Who played it worst?

Andy: The best? Denifl, huge payback for a ever-steady pro who’s been banging around for a few years. He rode smart all day, rode into the breakaway, did just enough work to make it stick, and had the legs to finish it off. Fending off a charging Contador takes nerves of steel. The worst? Well, on a climb like Machucos, it’s every man for himself. Superman Lopez got too ambitious early, but still rebounded to take third place.

Spencer: I’ll tip my cap to Lopez. No, he didn’t hang with Contador, but he rode his own race and still had a match left to burn Nibali at the finish to take third place. Superman keeps flying. The worst hand-playing of the day is the Orica-Scott team. They had Magnus Cort Nielsen sit up from the break to pace Jack Haig up to the Machucos, but the young Aussie couldn’t hang. Plus, the team’s GC hope Esteban Chaves is falling apart.

Caley: Nibali played it perfectly. He kept his effort steady, slowly took time out of Froome. Chaves hit out too hard and too early and can hardly hope for a top-10 anymore.

Fred: Denifl played his hand perfectly. In any other situation he is finishing five minutes back, but by riding smartly in that breakaway, he set himself up to win. The bad move of the day goes to Orica-Scott. Chapeau to the team for attacking on the penultimate climb, yet in retrospect it seems like wasted energy.

How do you see things playing out on Saturday’s ascent of the Alto de l’Angliru (Angry Lou)?

Andy: Froome will be able to count on the fight for the podium to help him control any dangerous attacks from Lopez, Contador, or Nibali. Everyone’s on the limit, and fighting to defend what they have right now. The next two stages could be interesting, especially Thursday. If Froome shows any sign of cracking, Nibali could pounce. The Angliru is long enough for Froome to lose if he’s truly struggling, and someone else has a great day.

Spencer: Contador looks primed to win the Angliru stage. It would be a beautiful final flourish in his last race, the Vuelta no less. As for the GC race. I think there will be fewer fireworks. Nibali will keep chipping away at Froome. Maybe he’ll get 20 seconds, but we won’t see Sky melt down. Mikel Nieve and Gianni Moscon both proved they’re equipped to support Froome through the race’s final mountains.

Caley: These steep climbs don’t seem to suit Froome all that well. Maybe it’s because he likes to spin so much, and unless he puts mountain bike gears on his Pinarello he just can’t do that on a 20% grade. Nibali will take more time on Angliru.

Fred: I believe the favorites will make it very difficult on the climb. Zakarin or Lopez attacks for the win. Froome starts pedaling squares near the top and loses a ton of time, maybe a minute, but still holds onto enough precious seconds to secure the victory.

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