OVIEDO, Spain (VN) — This isn’t the Chris Froome who is blowing everyone out of the water. This isn’t the Team Sky that is railing it over the climbs to leave opponents frustrated and exasperated.
This Vuelta a España sees a different version of Froome. The stubborn and tenacious qualities of his character are coming into play. Outgunned by Movistar, and outclassed by a superior Nairo Quintana, Froome is refusing to buckle. And it’s potentially setting the stage for a wild second half of the Vuelta.
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After a hugely successful season that included his third yellow jersey and his second Olympic medal, Froome is digging in when conventional wisdom might suggest lying on the beach instead.
“At this point in this season, coming after the Tour or the Olympics, I’m just hanging on to what I have left,” Froome said. “I’m trying to get through the best I can.”
On Monday, Froome revealed just how hard it is to crack him. Quintana had him on the ropes early on the Covadonga climb, but Froome did not panic, despite falling nearly one minute off the pace. He used his teammates in expert fashion, patiently reeled in faltering rivals, and ended up finishing third on the stage, just 25 seconds behind Quintana.
“I climbed at the best pace that I felt the most efficient way to get up there according to how the legs are feeling,” Froome said. “Obviously, Nairo is in great form, and we’ve seen that in the last few days. I have to be happy with where I’m at and just to keep doing my thing.”
After climbing to third, now at 58 seconds back, Froome is facing a Quintana full of confidence who is also refusing to let down his guard. With a long time trial waiting in the final week, it’s Quintana who is calling Froome the favorite to win the 2016 Vuelta at the race’s midway point.
“It’s a big gap,” Froome said of his difference to the Colombian. “If I can get more time back that would obviously be ideal, but if not, I will have to make do with what I have. … I hope that over the next few days I will find an opportunity to go for it, or just to defend the position that I’m in, and wait for the TT.”
The Froome of late August is a very different rider than what we’re accustomed to seeing in the middle of July, but we have seen him before. The Froome of late summer has kicked, clawed, and scraped his way onto the 2014 Vuelta podium in similar fashion. This year, he is still holding out hope that he can become the first rider to win the Tour-Vuelta double since the Vuelta was moved to the latter part of the racing calendar in 1995.
“Chris is feeling better as the Vuelta unfolds, and I think he will be stronger in the final week,” said Sky teammate David Lopez. “After the Tour and the Olympics, it’s natural that he is not at his best level. He’s had the travel, the time differences, and a lot of commitments, but he is here fighting. I believe that he can win. That is what we are racing for.”
Froome is never one to give up, and to beat Quintana, he might have to throw the Team Sky playbook out the window and race on instinct. Already Tuesday, Froome was forced to improvise, and the results were fascinating.
“Yes, it was good for the morale but also at the same time, I was hearing on the radio that Quintana was a good 40 seconds up the road, that was pretty tough, too,” he admitted.
“[I was] not necessarily riding by numbers but riding on feeling today, just riding with what I felt I could do on the climb in the most efficient way to get up there, not to lose every more time,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe if I’d gone, really pushed myself at the beginning, I would’ve lost even more time. I felt like that was the quickest way for me to get up there today.”
Whether that is quick enough for victory or another podium remains to be seen. Quintana knows he needs more time on Froome before the time trial. How much is hard to say. It sets the stage for a thrilling matchup between the peloton’s top two riders for the second half of the Vuelta.