Vuelta a Espana

Froome in red, rocketing toward Vuelta victory

Chris Froome looks to have the Vuelta in the bag after stage 16 time trial, but he and his rivals are wary of final mountainous stages.

LOGRONO, Spain (VN) — There are still five stages to go, but the Vuelta a España feels like it is all but won, especially after Tuesday.

Chris Froome fulfilled expectations in the long, 40.2km time trial at the Vuelta a España. The Sky captain won the stage and took race-breaking gains on his rivals.

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Froome didn’t quite seal the deal, but it will take a complete collapse for Froome to lose this Vuelta.

“It’s a great position to be in,” Froome said after taking his second stage win of this Vuelta. “It’s a good buffer, but of course, the race isn’t over. We are going to have to keep fighting.”

Is this Vuelta already over? Well, not quite.

The bumpy profile over the next four days across Asturias and Cantabria mean that Froome will have to remain alert. With the Vuelta’s two hardest climbs — los Machucos and the Anglirú —to come, there’s still some room for an error or a major coup.

Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), second at 1:58 back, is trying to keep things interesting. The Italian, renowned for his final-week exploits, adds perhaps just a touch of drama and suspense to what otherwise looks like Froome’s elusive Vuelta victory.

“I knew Froome would do well, and he did. It was a TT suited to him. The GC? Let’s see,” Nibali said. “The whole week to come is demanding. Sky is showing to be a strong team, but let’s see.”

Froome paced himself in the 40km course across Spain’s rioja wine-growing region. Sunweb’s Wilco Kelderman set the fastest early split, but Froome kept up the pressure to take a 29-second victory.

Kelderman climbed to third at 2:40 after the Dutchman gave Froome a run for his money in the time trial.

Team Sky is now clearly in the driver’s seat, but it doesn’t want to jinx it. After finishing the Vuelta second on three occasions since 2011, Froome isn’t putting the champagne on ice just yet.

“It could be anything; crashes, punctures, the usual things and you have to be ready for the unexpected,” said Sky principal Dave Brailsford. “The stages that are coming up are so hard and the climbs so steep and intense, that there’s no opportunity to relax. I think you just don’t know what’s going to happen in cycling.”

Those infamous last words in cycling — it ain’t over till it’s over — will play out over the next four road stages. Team Sky will be hyper-cautious.

Though Sky has absolutely dominated the Tour de France, winning five of the past six editions, the Vuelta has eluded them.

If this were the Tour, Froome’s lead would seem insurmountable. But this is the Vuelta. Anything can happen.

“We know that Froome is the big favorite,” said Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), who surged back into podium range, now fifth at 4:58 back. “There will be a lot of movement in the GC. Riders like [Astana’s Miguel Ángel] López can keep moving up.”

Despite brave talk, there is a sense of inevitability settling into the Vuelta. Froome took a half-minute and more on all of his direct GC rivals Tuesday. Others lost even more time.

Team Sky has the strongest and deepest team in the Vuelta. They will ride en masse to protect Froome’s flanks, and let their rivals attack each other as the fight for the podium commences.

Froome can follow wheels all the way to Madrid, and finally win the Vuelta.

“I don’t have to attack in the position that I am in now,” Froome said. “Of course, it would be great to go for another stage win. The most important thing now is to look after my lead, and stay out of trouble.”

Trouble, either in the form of a rival or some sort of accident or illness, is about the only thing standing between Froome and victory in Madrid.