Chris Froome may be a four-time winner of the Tour de France, but the Vuelta a España remains something of a white whale for the Sky rider, who has placed second overall three times in five appearances but never succeeded in carrying the red jersey to Madrid.
2017 marks the third time that Froome has attempted to win the Tour-Vuelta double, a feat only ever achieved by Jacques Anquetil and Bernard Hinault, and never since the Vuelta moved to its current, post-Tour slot on the calendar in 1995.
Froome responded to his – relative – struggles in the second week of this year's Tour by pointing out that his 2017 preparation had been tailored to allow him to maintain his form into the August and September as part of his Vuelta bid. The team around him is perhaps the strongest supporting cast in the race, with Wout Poels, who missed the Tour, back at Froome's side. Sky will even travel around Spain accompanied by what it calls a 'Race hub', namely a truck that expands into work spaces for the team's staff. As ever, no expense has been spared by the British squad but, as Froome has discovered over the years, plans have a habit of going awry in late summer in Spain.
2011: 2nd overall, 13 seconds behind Juan José Cobo
Six years on, Juan José Cobo's overall victory at the 2011 Vuelta a España is now viewed as something of an aberration – the 'Bison' was last seen in the colours of Turkish Continental outfit Torku Sekerspor in 2014 – but he had a considerably finer pedigree than the man who reached Madrid in second place overall. Cobo had won a stage and placed 10th at the Vuelta in 2009, after all. He had won the Tour of the Basque Country and been retroactively awarded a stage of the 2008 Tour de France. Chris Froome, by contrast, had seemed to come from nowhere.
That August, Froome's two-year stint at Team Sky looked to be petering towards a forgettable conclusion. 45th overall at the Brixia Tour and 85th at the Tour de Pologne, he had done little to warrant inclusion in the squad for the forthcoming Vuelta, but when Lars Petter Nordhaug withdrew from consideration, Froome found himself on the start line in Benidorm. And so began the most sudden and startling transformation in modern cycling.
Froome caught everyone – his Sky team seemingly included – by surprise when he seized the overall lead after delivering what was, to that point, the time trial of his life in Salamanca on stage 10. His team leader Bradley Wiggins had been expected to move into the red jersey that afternoon, but instead it was a faintly confused Froome who clambered onto the podium after being the only rider to finish within a minute of Tony Martin. "I wasn't really expecting that," Froome said. "I just had a fantastic day and somehow I've ended up in the leader's jersey."
In later years, Sky manager Dave Brailsford would describe Froome as a "diamond in the rough", but he scarcely seemed a precious commodity when he was delegated to ride for Wiggins on the next stage to Alto de la Manzaneda, where he surrendered the lead to his captain. When Cobo launched what proved the race-winning attack on the Angliru on stage 15, meanwhile, Froome was again pressed into Wiggins' service, and only seemed to realise in the final two kilometres that he was, in fact, the stronger of the pair.
That hesitation – not to mention Sky's gearing selection on the Angliru – would prove costly. In the final week, the Vuelta became a duel between Froome and Cobo. Froome claimed stage honours at Peña Cabarga, but he could not dislodge Cobo, and he reached Madrid a mere 13 seconds down.
According to David Walsh, the spike in Froome's performance on that Vuelta was surprising enough for Sky's medical staff to re-examine all of his blood samples from the previous two seasons. A week after the race finished, Sky announced that Froome had signed a new, three-year contract.
2012: 4th overall, 10:16 behind Alberto Contador
What a difference a year makes. Twelve months after inching towards the exit at Sky, Froome returned to the Vuelta as team leader at the end of a season that had yielded second place at the Tour de France and a bronze medal in the Olympic Games time trial. Froome had spent the Tour riding shotgun for Wiggins but, like at the 2011 Vuelta, the race had only underscored that he was a far more reliable option in the high mountains than his nominal captain.
Sky paid heed to the lessons of the Tour. They were already pencilling Froome in as team leader for the 2013 Tour and pushing Wiggins towards an ill-fated tilt at the Giro. The 2012 Vuelta, then, was an additional examination of Froome's credentials before the line of succession was confirmed. In hindsight, with the exertions of the Tour and the Olympics in his legs, the race seemed a test of the limits of Froome's endurance as much as a realistic attempt at overall victory.
Even so, Froome began the race well, performing strongly on uphill finishes at Eibar, Jaca and Collada de la Gallina. After the Pontevedra time trial on stage 11, he lay third overall, just 16 seconds behind Joaquim Rodriguez, but he faded thereafter, conceding clumps of time on successive days at Ancares, Lagos de Covadonga and Cuitu Negru.
By the time Alberto Contador turned the Vuelta on its head on the road to Fuente Dé on stage 17, Froome found himself almost 10 minutes down, and out of the hunt even for a podium place. The final week proved a slog, and Froome was distanced once again at Bola del Mundo, but he emerged from the ordeal in 4th place overall, 10:16 down on Contador, who had returned from a doping ban in late summer. In that light, the 2012 Vuelta was a most useful gauge, too, of the threat Contador might pose to Froome and Sky at the following year's Tour.
2014: 2nd overall, 1:10
After winning the 2013 Tour, Froome eschewed the Vuelta in favour of winding down his season gently at the USA Pro Challenge and the WorldTour races in Montreal. The defence of Froome's Tour title lasted a mere four and a half stages, however, when he broke his scaphoid in a crash on the road to Arenberg, and it meant that his 2014 calendar was hastily redrawn to include the Vuelta.
Froome was not, of course, the only high-profile rider seeking redemption at the Vuelta. Alberto Contador had also crashed out of the Tour, fracturing his tibia on the descent of the Petit Ballon. It was perhaps only fitting that Froome and Contador were united in their misfortune, given how they had avoided one another for much of the early-season ahead of their anticipated clash at the Tour.
The duel was instead postponed until the Vuelta, and was nip and tuck through the punchy opening week in Andalusia, where they placed second and third on the hilltop finish at La Zubia. Contador began to impose himself as the race moved northwards, however, gaining 25 seconds on Froome with a stinging late attack at Valdelinares and then moving into the red jersey as the Briton surprisingly struggled in the Borja time trial.
At that point, Froome lay 5th overall, but it was nonetheless apparent that he was the only man capable of denying Contador victory. He duly launched a volley of attacks on the summit finish at La Farrapona on stage 16, but Contador resisted them and then tacked on an acceleration of his own to win the stage. Although Froome finally clawed back a handful of seconds at Mont Castove, it was clear that Contador, at least on this Vuelta, more than had his measure. As if to prove the point, Contador proceeded to drop Froome to win the penultimate stage on the Puerto de Ancares to seal overall victory, 1:10 clear of the Sky man.
"I gave it everything in the final, I tried to drop him but he was better than me," Froome said. "I think this is going to give me a lot of motivation going forward. I came here with quite modest expectations, so to be sitting second here I'm really very happy with it."
2015: DNS, stage 12
If the Froome-Contador encounter at the 2014 Vuelta had been a metaphorical opening gambit for the following year's Tour, then Froome took the idea rather more literally after reclaiming the maillot jaune in July 2015. Riding the Vuelta in 2011, 2012 and 2014, he reasoned, had shortened the winter, and provided something of a foundation for successful Tours the following summer. Unlike after his previous Tour win in 2013, Froome decided to prolong the hardship by lining out for the Vuelta.
For much of the opening week, Froome looked a shadow of the figure who had decided the Tour in one chillingly dominant display at La Pierre Saint Martin. On that afternoon in the Pyrenees, Froome pedalled with the same kind of facility he had shown at Mont Ventoux in 2013, but he was rather heavier-legged in the opening climbs at the Vuelta, conceding ground to Esteban Chaves, Dan Martin and even his Sky teammate Nicolas Roche.
Only at Cumbre del Sol on stage 9, where he placed second behind a surprising Tom Dumoulin, did Froome show any of the vim of July. He reached the first rest day in 8th place overall, 1:18 behind the Dutchman and hopeful that the Pyrenees would prove more to his liking than the shorter, explosive ascents of the race's opening half.
Instead, the Vuelta’s toughest stage, the miniature epic from Andorra to Cortals d'Encamp, would prove Froome's final act, as he crashed ahead of the first climb, the Collada de Beixalis. Although he remounted and even briefly re-joined the red jersey group, he was riding on borrowed time. "From then on, I just tried to hang on for dear life. I convinced myself just to get to the finish," Froome said after crossing the line more than 9 minutes down on Mikel Landa. A post-stage scan revealed that he had fractured a navicular bone in his foot, and he withdrew from the race.
2016: 2nd overall, 1:23 behind Nairo Quintana
Froome and Sky's strength at the 2016 Tour was such that the race slowly developed into something a procession, and by the time he reached Paris, he was rather more forthright than usual about his intention to attempt the Tour-Vuelta double. Perhaps for the first time, it seemed that the demands of the Spanish race had been factored into his approach to the Tour rather than tacked on as a mere afterthought.
That said, navigating the four-week gap between the Tour and Vuelta was made rather more complicated by Olympic Games in Rio, which took place on a parcours seemingly well-suited to Froome's characteristics. Although he struggled in the road race, Froome recovered sufficiently to take a second successive bronze medal in the time trial, and came back across the Atlantic as favourite to win the Vuelta.
Froome looked rather more comfortable than he had done in 2015 on the punchy finales of the Vuelta's opening week, but then conceded ground to Nairo Quintana once the race reached more mountainous terrain on the second weekend. When Quintana soloed clear at Lagos de Covadonga and gained more than a minute, it initially seemed as though he had delivered a knockout blow, but Froome delivered a stirring fightback in the closing kilometres to pin that deficit back to just 25 seconds by the summit.
Froome proceeded to beat Quintana to the summit of Peña Cabarga after they slugged it out on the next stage, and through the second week, he broke even with the Colombian, remaining second overall, just shy of a minute down. With a 37-kilometre time trial still to come, the balance seemed to be tilting in Froome's favour only for Sky to endure a calamitous outing on the short, explosive stage to Formigal.
The catalyst was a familiar one. Contador, already more than three minutes back and seemingly out of contention, proceeded to rage against the dying of the light by attacking from the gun. Quintana was alive to the danger of an ambush but Froome and Sky were ruinously ill prepared. As the bunch strung out in the face of the early accelerations, they never managed to close the gap. An isolated Froome struggled in the finale, and conceded 2:27 to Quintana by day's end.
All of his Sky teammates, meanwhile, were among the 93 riders – later reinstated – who finished outside the time limit on a chaotic afternoon of racing. "Personally, I believe the rule probably should have been upheld," Froome said, perhaps pointedly. He was a comfortable winner of the Calpe time trial with two days remaining, but it was a mere consolation prize. Quintana rode into Madrid in red, 1:23 ahead of Froome. "It's definitely possible to win the Tour and the Vuelta," Froome insisted after descending from the podium. It went almost without saying that he would try again in 2017.