Vuelta a Espana

The Sky is falling: Angliru kicks the legs out from under Bradley Wiggins and Christopher Froome

Dreams of overall victory at the Vuelta a España came crashing down for Team Sky under a lethal onslaught from Juanjo Cobo (Geox-TMC), who tore away from the tandem of Wiggins and Froome with 5km to go on the Angliru and turned a 55-second deficit into a 20-second lead.

2011 Vuelta a España, stage 15, Froome and Wiggins
Chris Froome paces Bradley Wiggins. Photo: Graham Watson |

LA VEGA, Spain (VN) — Chris Froome again played loyal lieutenant to Team Sky captain Bradley Wiggins on Sunday, but should he have been given freedom to attack earlier?

Dreams of overall victory at the Vuelta a España came crashing down for Team Sky under a lethal onslaught from Juanjo Cobo (Geox-TMC), who tore away from the tandem of Wiggins and Froome with 5km to go on the Angliru and turned a 55-second deficit into a 20-second lead.

Wiggins struggled on the upper reaches of the Angliru, and when Froome finally gave chase with about 2km to go to follow Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) across the line for fourth at 48 seconds back, it was too late to save the red leader’s jersey for the team. Wiggins slunk across the line fifth at 1:21 back.

When the dust settled, Cobo knocked Wiggins into third at 46 seconds back. Froome remained in second, but he’s now 20 seconds behind Cobo.

Froome defended the team’s performance and said the Angliru is so steep that it’s simply every man for himself.

“Bradley is the team leader. Today was about who had the legs. There really wasn’t a decision about you go, I stay. It’s who had the better legs,” Froome told VeloNews. “We knew today was going to be the decisive day. Everyone was going as hard as they could there. I’ve got no regrets. I went simply as hard as I could.”

Froome said the team was surprised by Cobo’s voracity on the climb and said that he and Wiggins gave everything they had to try to keep the red leader’s jersey on the team, whether for him or Wiggins. Froome started just seven seconds behind Wiggins, but Froome said neither one had the legs to counter Cobo’s surging attack.

“On a climb like that, there’s not really much pacing that you could do. I knew Cobo was the big threat and he was up the road, we had to try to get as close to him as possible,” Froome continued. “I kept on waiting on him to blow, that didn’t happen. Hats off to him. He was stronger than us today.”

Team Sky sport director Steven De Jongh said the team plan was to try to defend the red jersey and said that Froome and Wiggins both had the green light to make a move if they could.

“It was Brad or Froomey. We decided this morning before the stage that if Cobo or Mollema were away in the final kilometers, they both should do their time trial to the finish,” De Jongh told VeloNews. “On those steep climbs, you do not mean that much to help each other. Brad didn’t have the legs and Froomey didn’t have the legs. We must accept that Cobo was stronger than us.”

Wiggins has been riding superbly throughout the Vuelta and knew that he needed to get past the Angliru to have any chance of winning the Vuelta. He and Froome seemed to have their other rivals under control, with the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez losing time Saturday.

But Cobo fired a warning shot when he bolted clear in Saturday’s summit finish at Farrapona and then countered with an even stronger attack Sunday up the decisive Angliru summit.

Wiggins’ final climb Sunday was complicated further when he dropped his chain right at the base of the Angliru after coming off the high-speed descent of the Alto de Cordal.

“Bradley had a mechanical on the bottom of the climb, so he had his chain off. He had to chase back on. He was a little bit in the red there, and he never recovered from that,” De Jongh said. “That played a little part, but Cobo was too strong today. Impressive.”

Wiggins was generous in post-stage Twitter comments, saying: “The revelation of this race Chris Froome.”

De Jongh put a positive spin on the day’s disappointment, saying that the Vuelta has already surpassed everyone’s expectations.

“At first, Bradley was a bit disappointed to lose the jersey. If you think back where he was after the Tour, on the operation table. We came down here for a top-10 and he’s still up for the podium,” De Jongh said. “All the effort he made to come back here and do a good Vuelta is paying off now.”

Time bonuses prove fatal to Sky

With victory Sunday and a second-place and third-place in stages, Cobo has earned 40 seconds in finish-line time bonuses so far in this Vuelta, time that’s proving critical in his narrow grip on the leader’s jersey.

Froome and Wiggins, who have yet to be among the top three or win intermediate sprints, stand on their real time.

Froome admitted that the mountaintop time bonuses sting a little harder, especially when he got pipped at the line by Geox-TMC’s Menchov, who took an eight-second bonus with third. The time difference on GC between him and Cobo is exactly what Cobo earned back with his stage win Sunday.

“That’s a big difference, yeah, that’s a big difference,” Froome said. “If anything, the time bonuses have perhaps … time bonuses on mountaintop finishes, I am not for that.”

De Jongh said there’s no reason complaining about the time bonuses because everyone knew they were there for the taking.

“The Tour de France has eliminated the time bonuses, but the Vuelta still has them,” he said. “The time bonuses, we knew that from the start. We must not complain about them. The time bonuses are there every stage except for the team time trial and the TT, that’s the way it is here in this race. We have to live with that.”

De Jongh said the team would keep fighting all the way to Madrid, both to defend its podium spots as well as to take advantage of any opening against Cobo.

“There is another week of racing. We are still second and third, that’s a huge result for the team. The Vuelta is not over. We will keep on grinding on time back as well,” De Jongh said. “So many things can happen, there can be side winds, Cobo can crash, we can crash. There are so many scenarios, you have to take it day by day.”