This Vuelta a España will go down to the wire.
Just when Chris Froome and Team Sky looked to have the red jersey all but sewn up, it started to unravel Wednesday on the brutally steep Los Machucos summit finale.
Attacks came from all sides, and Froome looked just vulnerable enough to pump some of the Vuelta’s trademark unpredictability back into a race that looked to be on cruise control just 24 hours ago.
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Froome kept red, but saw his lead to Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) trimmed to 1:16. With three decisive stages left, including Saturday’s fearsome Anglirú summit finale, this Vuelta ain’t over yet.
“Anything could happen,” said Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), who attacked to regain more than one minute on Froome. “The Vuelta won’t be decided until Saturday.”
Following Tuesday’s big gains against the clock, Froome looked to have a lock on what’s been an elusive Vuelta crown. He started Wednesday’s stage 16 1:58 ahead of the ever-dangerous Nibali. After an intense day through cold, rain, and fog, Froome dragged himself stubbornly across the line in 14th at 1:46 back. It was enough to defend red.
“I paid a little bit for the effort from [the time trial],” Froome said. “There are three days to go, and the team is good, and I am feeling good. I think I can finish off the job. It’s going to be your typical Vuelta finale.”
That’s just what everyone is hoping for.
Much to the chagrin of some fans, Team Sky brought a Tour de France-style squad to this Vuelta. So far, it has been smothering the attacks and keeping Froome safely in red. Even Wednesday, Froome nearly had his entire team around going up the penultimate climb.
Sky’s dominance meant that everyone else in the Vuelta peloton has been fighting for scraps, and looking for an opening. On the final ramps up Machucos, Fortress Froome showed a hint of cracking.
The summit push, with ramps as steep as 28 percent, seemed to go on forever. And Froome’s usually reliable train was derailed on a climb so steep it was every man for himself.
Once isolated, Froome was vulnerable to attack. Contador charged early, with Nibali, Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Miguel Ángel López (Astana), and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) also peeling away from Froome.
The ever-steady Mikel Nieve, who will be racing at Orica-Scott next season, was the last man standing for Froome, and helped pace him to the line to limit the losses.
“We knew we could play with the buffer a little bit,” Nieve said. “They took back some time on us today, but we defended the lead, and that’s the most important thing.”
Second-place Nibali is in the best position to profit if Froome truly stumbles. He’s been patiently nipping at Froome’s heels, hovering within a minute or so, waiting to pounce at a moment of weakness.
“We hit the climb hard. It’s one of those unforgettable climbs, like the Zoncolan or Bola del Mundo, truly difficult,” Nibali said. “Was Sky weak? Not at all. Up until the final climb, they still had seven riders. It’s the same old Team Sky.”
Rivals know that getting to Froome is the hard part. Thursday’s lumpy stage might provide some interesting terrain to try to attack while Friday’s stage is well suited for a breakaway. It will all come down to the Anglirú.
“It’s true it’s been harder for me to win the Vuelta,” Froome said. “I’ve already won four Tours [de France], and I still haven’t won this one yet. We’re still in the lead. I hope I can finish off the job.”
Saturday’s showdown on the Anglirú will decide everything. That’s how the Vuelta should be. Down to the wire. Even Team Sky’s dominance cannot rewrite that script.