Vuelta a Espana: Froome moves a step closer to overall victory

Briton and Team Sky put up impregnable defence of lead at Sierra Nevada

For the third major mountain stage in succession, Chris Froome (Team Sky) once more proved that he and his squad were more than a match for his rivals, as the Briton's teammates closed down what few key GC attacks there were on the Vuelta a España's 15th stage with relentless ease.

Froome himself barely had to react barring the late flurry of accelerations on the Vuelta's toughest mountain stage, crossing the line in fifth place and gaining six seconds on his closest overall rival, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida).

But more importantly than the time gain was the absolute domination by Froome and Sky of whatever GC attacks materialized, be they long distance moves like the one Alberto Contador (Trek-Segrafedo) put in or a much briefer dig, midway up the final ascent by Nibali.

With a time trial coming up on Logroño on Tuesday that will surely see Froome gain significant amounts of time on his key rivals – as happened last year in Calpe in the Vuelta – two weeks into the race, and with Sierra Nevada behind him, it's safe to say that the 2017 Vuelta is now Froome's to lose.

The one possible fly in the ointment for Sky when it comes to controlling the race at the moment looks to be Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana Pro Team), now sixth overall after his stage win in Sierra Nevada. Clearly the strongest climber in this year's Vuelta so far on the longer ascents, in theory López could become a GC threat if he does not lose too much time in the time trial. But that, for now, remains a theory.

Froome explained in his press conference, prior to catching a flight north to Logroño, that while López could be a challenger in the final week, he had other fish to fry at Sierra Nevada.

"I'm not surprised by Lopez and how strong he's been," Froome pointed out. "He's been extremely consistent over the last mountain stages. I expected him to try again, especially with Astana pulling behind, they had the objective to win the stag with Lopez. He's ridden a fantastic race.

"We were concentrated on Nibali, though, he is second in GC. But if Lopez continues like this, we are going to have to respond to his attack as well."

Froome, in any case, had little to do personally on a stage where his teammates, in particular Wout Poels and Mikel Nieve, took charge of bringing back the more dangerous GC attacks right up to the last kilometre.

Even though he had a flight to rush to catch in Granada airport for the transfer north, Froome, unasked, went out of his way at the end of the press conference to express his gratitude. "I have to say a massive thanks to my teammates and the work they've done over the last two weeks. It's been an honour to ride with them, they showed their class the way they controlled my rivals today, they didn't panic, that was text book riding today."

Froome argued that if there had been comparatively few fireworks on the Sierra Nevada stage, it was because "this came the end of a very hard block of racing, two extremely days today and yesterday, and I think everyone that had energy already spent it.

"We saw some gaps at the end, with maybe 500 metres to go, and Alberto was dropped in the finale. Everyone was on the limit."

Such is the stranglehold that Froome and Sky appear to have on the race this year that questions among the media are beginning to drift towards next season, with one journalist asking Froome if he was planning on returning to the Vuelta in 2018.

"I'd have to see what the route is like for next year. But I genuinely love racing this Vuelta. I love the atmosphere and how tough it is," Froome said.

A question mark hangs, then, over next year's Vuelta and Froome. But this year's race, on the other hand, looks increasingly certain to have only one GC outcome for the Briton next Sunday in Madrid.

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