On that kind of rolling course, Froome can expect to take two, three, or perhaps four seconds per kilometer against a field of spindly climbers. That can add up to two or perhaps even three minutes in just one day, essential gains if Froome finally wants to win the Vuelta after three second places since 2011.
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So will Froome just spin around Spain for the next two weeks, and then knock it out of the ballpark on TT day to open week three? Don’t count on it.
“Froome still needs to distance his rivals, even if he doesn’t so say,” said Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo). “He’s above all the others in the time trial, but things can happen, and nearly the entire Vuelta is still ahead of us. I believe he will attack.”
Two explosive uphill finales on tap this weekend should see if Contador is right. If Team Sky’s aggressive posture in Monday’s climbing stage into Andorra is any indication, Contador is reading the race correctly.
“Tomorrow has a really tough final,” Froome said Friday after defending red in the Vuelta’s longest stage. “There will be ramps over 18 percent on the climb before we descend to the finish. It’s definitely going to be a GC battle tomorrow.”
There were no major shakeups in GC, with Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) remaining second at 11 seconds back.
Saturday’s up-then-down finish to Xorret de Catì features an explosive, first-category climb before a narrow, twisting descent to the line. Cumbre del Sol, waiting on Sunday with another very steep finale, is where Tom Dumoulin won the stage two seconds ahead of Froome in 2015.
There is no pressure on Froome to attack, but others expect him to press the advantage.
“Chris will take a lot of time in the time trial, but it is a risk just to wait for that one day,” said Cannondale-Drapac sport director Juanma Garate. “Team Sky is the strongest here in this Vuelta, so I do not expect them to just wait [for the time trial].”
Sky will want to use its early collective strength to press the advantage. Gianni Moscon and Wout Poels have been shredding the field with big pulls in the early climbs so far in this Vuelta.
With time bonuses in play at the finish line, Froome has already indicated he will be attacking every time the road goes up.
“I have lost this race by 13 seconds before,” said Froome, referring to his narrow 2011 loss to Juan José Cobo. “I will be fighting for every second I can.”
That means the pressure is even higher on Froome’s direct GC rivals. Knowing they will lose time in Logroño, the climbers need to press their case on every climb they can.
“Tomorrow will be another hard day, and riders are starting to get tired,” said Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), ninth at 50 seconds back. “So far, two riders have shown they are the strongest. We are in a good position, with Esteban [Chaves] in second, and Simon [Yates] and I still in the top-10.”
Adding even more urgency coming into this weekend’s pair of climbs is the fact that almost none of Froome’s direct rivals can honestly expect to stay close to Froome in the Logroño time trial.
Though the GC picture remains fairly tight after one week of racing — eight riders are still within 50 seconds of Froome — none of them are renowned for their prowess against the clock.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) is the lone exception. He showed some grinta Thursday, shaking off a pair of crashes to finish only 20 seconds behind the GC bunch. It’s been awhile since van Garderen has had a high-stakes time trial performance in a grand tour.
“In a three-week race you can never count on every day going perfect. You just have to deal with the bad stuff, and take advantage of the good days,” van Garderen said at the start Friday. “The GC is still in play. On a day like that, you could easily lose minutes, or even be out of the race. So I limited the damage, and hopefully it won’t affect me too much.”
On Friday, Jetse Bol (Manzana-Postobon) jumped from 32nd to seventh after riding into the day’s winning breakaway. For a little while, he was even in the virtual leader’s jersey. Team Sky, led by Ian Stannard and Christian Knees, did enough work to keep Froome safely in the leader’s jersey.
“I am clearly not going to give the jersey away to a direct rival,” Froome said. “It’s certainly thanks to Ian and Christian that I am still in red today.”
If Froome rolls out of this weekend with the red jersey still on his back, he might not give it away to anyone.
“The Vuelta obliges you to ride at the front,” Froome continued. “There are so many crashes, and you have to stay alert. I’m happy because we were in good position all day, and still have red.”
Both of the featured climbs this weekend are most dangerous if you have a bad day or are not in good position. The last time the Vuelta came to Xorret de Catì was in 2010, with the top GC trio — Joaquim Rodríguez, Vincenzo Nibali, and Igor Antón — coming through on the same time behind breakaway winners. Other GC riders lost 15-30 seconds on the climb. In 2015, Dumoulin took 16 seconds on eventual winner Fabio Aru up Cumbre del Sol.
As Froome said it best, every second counts in the Vuelta. Sky won’t let this weekend slip through their hands.