Five talking points from stage 17 of the Vuelta a España
Froome loses time, but still holds red jersey by more than a minutes
Froome’s first sign of weakness
For the first time in the Vuelta a España, Chris Froome has shown real signs of weakness, conceding 42 seconds to Vincenzo Nibali, his closest contender, and having to be ushered across the line by team-mate Mikel Nieve.
Froome looked in trouble from the very start of the climb, immediately being distanced when Miguel Angel Lopez and Alberto Contador attacked on the first steep section with six kilometres remaining.
The good news for Froome is that he had no fewer than five team-mates around him to coax him up the climb, Mikel Nieve being the last man standing and pacing the red jersey all the way to the line to limit his losses.
In the end, Froome lost nearly all of the time that he gained in Tuesday’s time trial, and now has to survive two more summit finishes – including the infamous Angliru – with a lead of 1-16. It should be enough, but it might be a little closer than Team Sky would have hoped.
Vintage Contador climbing performance
After showing weakness and losing time on the summit finishes to Sierra de la Pandera and Sierra Nevada, a few had written off Contador’s chances in this year’s Vuelta, especially as he went into the second rest day ninth overall.
However after a strong performance in Tuesday’s time trial, Contador was back to his climbing best on Los Machucos, following a move by Miguel Angel Lopez, then going clear by himself in a bold attacking performance.
While some might have been tempted to sit to maintain traction on the back wheel on the steep gradients, Contador continued to dance out of the saddle as he picked off the breakaway riders to distance all of his GC rivals.
The result moved Contador to 3-34 behind Froome, and just a minute and a half off the podium, which is now within reach if he can recreate this form on the Angliru.
Nibali back within striking distance
With Froome holding a lead of nearly two minutes after Tuesday’s time trial, it might have been tempting to declare the Vuelta as a contest to be over, but after the drama of Los Machucos, the Shark is back within striking distance.
There were no attacks from Vincenzo Nibali on stage 17, but then again he didn’t need to, as he worked hard on the front of the group to distance Froome.
The only disappointment for Nibali was that he was edged out of the bonus seconds by Miguel Angel Lopez, but unless he loses the Vuelta by four seconds, who shouldn’t be too miffed about that.
Perhaps sensing weakness in Froome, expect to see more of Nibali in the coming days as he looks to put the Team Sky man under pressure and take his first Vuelta victory since he won took his debut Grand Tour victory in this race in 2010.
Stefan Denifl delivers dream victory for Aqua Blue Sport
While most eyes were trained on the intriguing GC battle emerging behind, Stefan Denifl was the last of the breakaway riders to survive on the steep slopes, and delivered a memorable victory for Aqua Blue Sport in their first Grand Tour.
After a team talk on the team’s makeshift bus – after their own bus was burnt out in a suspected arson attack earlier in the race – Denifl made it into the six-strong early break and survived the wet, misty, and precipitous descent off the Portillo de Lunada to go on to the steep final climb with a lead of 1-30 on the GC group.
It would be a tough task to hold off the group of GC favourites, but former Tour of Austria winner Denifl looked in brilliant form as he dropped all of his breakaway companions and turned over what looked like quite a light gear on the steep slopes.
In the end Denifl won by a relatively comfortable margin of 28 seconds – and actually extended his advantage over Froome during the eight kilometre climb – giving Aqua Blue Sport a great success in the final week of their debut Grand Tour.
Technology conquers Los Machucos
When you read about climbs as steep as Los Machucos, what instantly comes to mind is riders struggling to turn over a gear and weaving from side to side in an attempt to stay upright while making pain-staking upward progress.
However, with some riders using gears as low as a 34t chainring combined with a 32t sprocket, there were no such images today (or at least not at the front of the race) with the latest groupset technology allowing riders to run such gear ratios without running into mechanical difficulty.
Instead it was almost difficult to tell when the riders were on the climb’s numerous sections of more than 25 per cent, and when they were on parts where the gradients were in single figures as riders continued to climb in their usual styles.