It is six years since Chris Froome climbed the Alto de l’Angliru in the 2011 Vuelta a España with a brief to support his team leader, Bradley Wiggins, who was wearing the red leader’s jersey and was within sight of his maiden grand tour win a week from Madrid.
Froome, who had been a virtually unknown domestic with Team Sky until he beat Wiggins in a time trial in the Vuelta that September, did his best to support him when he was attacked by the Spanish climber Juan José Cobo, sticking with the race leader until he was ordered to ride for himself in pursuit of Cobo.
By then it was too late; Cobo had flown, and although Froome would close to within 13sec overall by winning the stage at Peña Cabarga, that Vuelta would be filed on the “might have been” shelf for him and Sky. The team finished second and third in a race that would come to be seen as a breakthrough for the British squad.
Since then, Froome has persistently targetted the Vuelta, finishing second twice more, and once taking fourth; in that time he and Sky have grown to become the most feared unit in world cycling, albeit with a few caveats. Between Froome and Wiggins, they have taken five Tour de France victories in six years, but they have yet to win the Giro or the Vuelta.
They have also inspired almost continual controversy, beginning with the questions at that Vuelta over whether or not they should have supported Froome from the off. Not to mention the question of who Froome actually was and where he had emerged from. The Vuelta and the Tour have been relatively devoid of debate but the background of a stressful year of parliamentary and Ukad inquiries remains, as does the question of just what was done with the 55 doses of cortisone bought by the team between the end of 2010 and 2013.
If Froome seals his long-sought Vuelta victory on Saturday, it will mark the end of a six-year quest and there could be few more distinguished locations for such a feat, which would make Froome the first cyclist since Bernard Hinault to win the Tour and Vuelta in the same year. The Angliru has gained immense notoriety since its first inclusion in the route in 1999 in an overt attempt to match the Tour and Giro’s most feared ascents. In 2002, it became truly famous when David Millar was inspired to stop and hand in his race number, a symbolic single metre from the finish line as a protest against the toughness of the climb and the danger of the descent of the Col de Cobertoria, which leads to its foot.
The Angliru is 12.5km long, with a maximum gradient of 24% – close to one in four – and its inception marked the beginning of a search among grand tour organisers for ever steeper and more extreme ascents such as Monte Zoncolan in the Giro and Les Lacets de Montvernier in the Tour. Wednesday’s Vuelta finish on the mountain goat track at Los Machucos – barely feasible for a car in places let alone a bicycle – was another from the same mould.
With its length and difficulty, on the Angliru Froome’s overall victory is by no means assured. He has a buffer of 1min 37sec to defend from Vincenzo Nibali, with Wilco Kelderman and Ilnur Zakarin lurking within three minutes. An unlucky crash or mechanical fault, or a repeat of the weakness that saw Nibali and all the other overall contenders gain time on Wednesday would make the race completely open.
That uncertainty is totally fitting in a race which Froome and Sky have dominated since he moved into the lead on stage three but, paradoxically, without ever truly managing a single knockout blow. As he did in the Tour de France in July, Froome has gained time gradually and inexorably on the opposition, opening gaps of any true significance only in Tuesday’s time trial in Navarra. These were almost instantly countered the following day when the Sky leader faded en route to Los Machucos.
Fitting the pattern of nip and tuck, having ridden Nibali, Kelderman and Zakarin off his wheel in the final kilometre on Friday, Froome was again put under pressure by Alberto Contador, who attacked on the day’s final climb, the Alto de San Martín de Huerces, gaining 45sec at one point. Riding the last grand tour of his distinguished career, Contador has been a bugbear for the past fortnight, and the Sky leader must be thanking his lucky stars the treble Vuelta winner lost valuable time in Andorra owing to stomach pains.
Contador did not threaten Froome’s overall lead en route to Gijón but he was able to link up with a team-mate Edward Theuns. His attack then met the usual steamroller response from Team Sky in the final kilometres, with the quadruple Tour winner’s team receiving assistance from Sunweb, who felt Contador might threaten the third place overall of Kelderman, their leader. Contador was swept up by the peloton 2.5km from the finish.
The stage win went to the Belgian Thomas De Gendt, making it a double for the Lotto-Soudal team after his team-mate Sander Armée’s victory on Thursday. Like Armée, De Gendt was a member of a large breakaway that included no one of any danger overall – a group who now include most of the field so large are the time gaps behind Froome. Another Belgian stage win continued a pattern in this Vuelta, which has yet to see a Spanish stage victory in almost three weeks of racing. Froome and Nibali are not the only ones who will be feeling the strain as the Angliru approaches.