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Chris Froome (Sky) took a huge step toward winning the 2017 Vuelta a España after his Team Sky teammates controlled Sunday’s potentially explosive stage across the barren Sierra Nevada.
With attacks coming early and often in the 129km 15th stage, Team Sky did not panic. Led by four teammates on the final climb to Alto Hoya de la Moya, Froome was delivered safely across the line with his red jersey firmly on his back.
With less than a week of racing to go — and Tuesday’s Froome-friendly time trial looming following Monday’s rest day — the four-time Tour de France champion could afford to breath easy at the 2,500-meter finish line.
“I feel incredible,” Froome said. “If anyone had told me this would be the situation going into the second rest day, I’d have definitely taken it. I’m very happy with that and now I’m looking forward to the time trial.”
How well do things stack up? Froome not only expanded his lead to 1:01 to Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), but he also now leads the combined and points jersey competitions.
“It’s an amazing feeling to finish off today and to lead three competitions, and to have survived a stage like today.” Froome said. “I can’t thank my teammates enough. There was the attack from (Alberto) Contador and (Miguel Ángel) López. When they went, that was really the danger moment for us to try and control things. My teammates were incredible.”
Team Sky had its antennae up early Sunday. They wanted to avoid a replay of the disastrous stage to Formigal that all but cost Froome a chance to win the Vuelta last year.
Sky played the numbers game, massing warm bodies at the front of both big climbs. They kept any would-be attackers on a short leash on the first major climb, and then had Salvatore Puccio and Gianni Moscon set a high tempo on the lower flanks of the final climb.
“With the first climb super steep and some fear of an ambush, we were ready for this tricky part,” said Sky sport director Nicolas Portal. “On the last climb, with Contador attacking and going away, we just paced ourselves. The key thing was to make sure we didn’t blow ourselves up. We were not too worried about Lopez, because he was riding for the stage win. It was more about Alberto, but we thought he would pay for that effort. I think we were right to keep riding at our pace.”
When Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) attacked near of the bottom of the final climb up Sierra Nevada, Sky simply massed at the front. When Puccio and Moscon finally peeled off, Froome had Mikel Nieve and Wout Poels to drive it home.
“Things are going well with Chris. Everyone has been perfect on the team from day one,” Portal said. “After the crash with Chris [in stage 12], we were worried, but he was OK. Fingers crossed — hopefully the TT will be a good day for him.”
Froome’s position is expected to be dramatically improve following Tuesday’s 40.2km individual time trial around Logroño is Spain’s rioja wine region. The undulating terrain should favor Froome, and he can expect take two to three seconds per kilometer to his most dangerous rivals.
Froome will likely double — or even triple — his lead following Tuesday’s test against the clock. Then he could race defensively for the remainder of the Vuelta to finally win after finishing second on three previous occasions (2011, 2014, 2016).
“From our side, we were more concerned with Nibali,” Froome said. “If López continues to take as much time as he takes in the mountains, we’ll have to respond to his attacks. We’ll see how the GC is after the time trial.”
What’s left for the final week of the Vuelta?
There are two more hard mountain stages, and two uneven stages that are ideal for breakaways. And then final romp into Madrid. Froome is sounding confident that the elusive Vuelta crown might finally be his.
“To be honest, I think anyone had energy has spent it already,” he said. “Everyone is on the limit. We saw some little gaps in the end, with 500m to go. I think everyone gave everything they had today. I don’t think anyone had anything left.”
That’s good news for Froome, who quickly added thanks to his Sky body guards.
Before running out of the press conference to catch a flight to northern Spain, Froome provided an addendum to his words.
“It’s been a real privilege and honor to race with them during this Vuelta,” he said. “Today they’ve showed their class, by the way they rode when the big attacks went. That was textbook riding from them – chapeaux.”