After enduring his worst day of this year's Vuelta a Espana on Los Machucos, Chris Froome (Team Sky) got his own back on his general classification rivals on the much shorter and decidedly less steep Santo Toribio de Liébana. Froome gained back half of the time he lost on Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) the day before following an aggressive showing from himself and his teammates.
Froome explained afterward that they had gone into the day hoping to expose the weaknesses of his rivals. David Lopez, Mikel Nieve, Gianni Moscon and Wout Poels were all put to task on the climb and stripped the group down to an elite selection. Inside the final kilometre, Froome took over the duties and rear gunner Poels was there to assess the damage. Froome's biggest threat for the final victory, Nibali, could not withstand the tempo, giving Froome an opportunity to regain the time lost on Los Machucos.
"We had our own plans today and part of that strategy was to see in the final whether anyone was exposed and to set a really high tempo on the final climb," explained Froome. "The guys did a great job of doing that, and I was feeling a lot better. As soon as I made an acceleration on that last climb, Wout Poels got on the radio, and he told me, 'Nibali's dropped, Nibali's dropped. Keep pushing.' That was exactly the result we were looking for today, so I'm really happy with that."
Froome's lead is now 1:37 over Nibali, compared to the 1:16 it had been when they rolled out of Suances in the morning. After struggling on Wednesday's summit finish, Froome admitted that he had paid for going so deep in an effort to win the time trial the previous day. He said much the same thing after stage 18, but this time he was talking about his rivals. A day on, Froome believes that he is back to his best.
"Yesterday wasn't good and it feels great to gain 21 seconds today and extend my lead. I think a lot of guys perhaps paid the price for making such a big effort yesterday," he said. "Like I said yesterday, I think I paid a little bit for the effort I made the day before in the time trial. Maybe I wasn't 100 per cent yesterday, but I certainly recovered today."
Friday's stage 19 will be an interesting day with the category 1 Alto de la Colladona inside the first 30 kilometres. It is unlikely to have too much of an impact on the overall classification with the final showdown set for the weekend on the Alto de l'Angliru. Its gradient is just as leg-sapping, but it is five kilometres longer and is equally as likely to suffer from poor weather as Los Machucos. This time out, Froome hopes that he won't be left out in the cold like he was on Wednesday.
"I'd be quite happy if I never saw Los Machucos again. We've got something similar ahead on the Angliru. Hopefully, I'll have a better day there than on Los Machucos."