The perfect storm! Chris Froome completes historic Tour/Vuelta double – the first of its kind – on the same day that multiple Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador – the last of his kind – bows out in home race following fairytale stage win. Forget BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Chris Froome wasn’t even the highest trending pro cyclist on Twitter. Well, not at first anyway. By the time he sprinted to 11th to deny four-time stage winner Matteo Trentin the green jersey Contador was almost a distant memory.
The Tour de France found its bag of tricks extremely empty this year. Not even a smokescreen of big names could deny an obvious truth for pro cycling fans; it was the worst Grand Tour of the year by some margin. May’s Giro remains the best of 2017 but the Vuelta runs it extremely close. Whilst the Giro almost certainly provided the better bike racing, the Vuelta had Contador soloing up l’Angliru for a moment even more perfect than Philippe Gilbert’s Flanders victory in Belgian colours.
Forgetting – for just a moment – the performances of Froome and Contador, this Vuelta can also boast Esteban Chaves flashing a return to his best form and the affirmation of a new superstar in Miguel Angel Lopez. We saw Wilco Kelderman prove his worth to an already talented Sunweb roster and both Michael Woods and Davide Villella show Cannondale backers what they’ll be missing. Quick-Step took six stage victories whilst Tomasz Marczynski set things in motion for Lotto Soudal’s four successful mountain escapes.
And The Shark loomed large! Nibali – led by ally Franco Pellizotti – studied Froome’s every move in hope of finding a weakness. In the second week it looked as though things might just go his way but he tired as Froome held strong. He leaves Spain with yet another Grand Tour podium and another strong Giro/Vuelta double. He’s finished 1st and 3rd, 2nd and 7th, 1st and 2nd, and now 3rd and 2nd across his four efforts.
Nevertheless, we can’t escape the fact this Vuelta belonged to Froome. Or was it Contador? The two are phenomenal Grand Tour performers with very little in common. One carries with him a doping offense that only few take at face value. The other has a clean record which nobody believes.
Pro cycling is riddled with doping offenses but Contador’s case is surrounded in a thick mountain fog. You could read a 1000 word article on how the clenbuterol found in his system in the autumn of 2010 could not possibly be considered a pro cycling ‘dope’. Likewise, there are articles proving there is next to no chance the clenbuterol could have come from a food contamination. The odds were simply too great – Contador’s telling a tale!
Whatever the truth – and we’ll never know for sure – Contador’s won round a huge chunk of the cycling community with his approach to bike racing. Whilst fans are still split, the peloton seems to be almost entirely on his side. Romain Bardet has previously stated his admiration, as has El Pistolero’s heir apparent and l’Angliru partner Enric Mas. The whole of Trek-Segafredo – many only recent teammates – seem enamoured and even his Vuelta rivals have been quick to pay their respects.
Straddling the previous generation, a young Contador would have been a benchmark for the likes of Nibali. Rightly or wrongly, his doping offense was bottled up and left in 2010. From there emerged a new Contador; a stunning Vuelta winner in 2012 and the master of the Mortirolo three years later. His results got worse but – in some ways – the performances better. No matter how far down on the GC, Contador always remained a threat. Even when he wasn’t a threat he bluffed and acted like he was. With no legs to compete he’d launch attacks from 50km out. As with many performers across many sports, I found Contador more loveable the more fallible he became.
The stage was set for Contador to go out on his back; full of spirit but with little to show for it. However, his legs responded well to the challenges of the final week of his final Vuelta. He launched off the front one last time on the Vuelta’s hardest climb. Everything was perfect and Contador rolled back the clock as he danced up l’Angliru. In recent years he has often found himself bettered by his breakaway companions but not this time around. Mas and Marc Soler have years to hone their craft but Contador was calling on his legs for the final time. He moved into a solo lead and kept up a painful looking pace. He was soon crowned victorious one last time on his final summit. Job done. The happiest of endings.
I cheered Diego Ulissi to a superb victory in Montreal last night – he who loved his asthma pump a little too much in 2014 – so I can’t possibly begrudge even the most outspoken Contador supporters for celebrating such a wonderful career.
Contador was 3:11 behind Froome as he arrived in Madrid; just one second further back than at the end of the third stage. It’s an astonishing fact when you consider Sky’s total control and Froome’s dominant time trial albeit slightly misleading. Losing time in Andorra, Contador was set free to fly but Froome was rarely troubled.
Froome may have briefly lost control on the Alto de los Machucos but he stomped his way back to supremacy the next day as Nibali struggled. The Brit was imperious for large parts of the race forcing a talented field into a mere podium battle. Unless you’re a fan of comprehensive showings by big budget teams, it wasn’t always the best watch. However, lost amongst the astonishing performances of Gianni Moscon, Mikel Nieve and Wout Poels was the fact that Froome was doing what no rider had ever achieved.
Practically sluggish at both Romandie and the Dauphine, Froome timed his two month peak to perfection. For 32 of his last 42 race days Froome has worn a Grand Tour leader’s jersey. He adds an overdue Vuelta victory to his fourth Tour de France and nobody can deny he is the most complete GC rider of the last five years.
Whatever Team Sky is doing – whether you believe it to be legal or not – is clearly working. Froome has delivered masterful displays at four of the last five Tours and followed up the most recent two with impressive Vuelta results.
He looked tired in comparison to Nairo Quintana last year and that problem was clearly addressed. No wins in 2017 prior to the Tour, Froome’s tweaked schedule proved highly successful. He won the Tour by a small margin and without a trademark attack knowing he would need to start the Vuelta fresh. By comparison, a lively Bardet finished a close third at the Tour but was left bouncing round Spain with no consistency.
We’ve moved on from biological doping (sort of) and motor doping is now taking the spotlight. Seven seconds of dodgy looking pedalling can’t possibly prove the existence of any such wrongdoing but plenty of videos have been launched in the direction of Team Sky. Froome’s naturally awkward style almost works in his favour when dispelling these accusations but so long as he keeps winning in such glorious fashion the questions will remain.
Some of the uproar is directed at the race authorities and it’s sad that in 2017 there’s a chance that Twitter may be more clued up than the people in power. Nevertheless, I trust that any cheaters will get caught and hopefully this time it won’t take ten years.
One things for sure, Sky are dividing the sport with their recruitment, tactics and success. At the start of the final stage, one Italian, Bahrain’s Valerio Agnoli, offered Froome a celebratory cup of coffee. By the finish in Madrid, another, Matteo Trentin, probably wanted to throw one at him.
After all-but-cementing his Tour/Vuelta dream, Froome turned his eye to defending the points jersey. I’m not quite sure what I expected to happen but it certainly wasn’t the red jersey sprinting to 11th place to take his third of the four race jerseys. After contemplation I think it was the right thing to do. We want to see racing and Froome vs. Trentin was the most exciting thing to happen on Sunday evening.
Watching Froome drizzle through a few lines of Spanish – arguably better than his French, which was arguably worse than my GCSE exam – I couldn’t help but wonder if he was trying to make a few friends. There can be no doubting Froome doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Understandable in some parts of Europe, even in Britain he is part-way shunned. Over the last three months he has completed a racing double comparable with any iconic achievement from any sport. Perhaps the scrutiny of Team Sky needs to continue but I’m going to let Froome have his day.