Chris Froome (Team Sky) crossed the finish line of the 2017 Vuelta a Espana’s last summit finish in third place but with a massive smile on his face as he savoured - finally - the absolute certainty that he is now just hours away from capturing Spain’s Grand Tour.
It’s been a six-year journey for Froome since he first hit the limelight of Grand Tour racing with a second place overall, a stage win and a day in the lead in the 2011 Vuelta a España. Now, in one fell swoop, on Sunday Froome will become Britain’s first winner of the Vuelta a España, the first British winner of a Grand Tour that is not the Tour de France, the first rider to clinch a Vuelta/Tour double since the Vuelta changed dates to September in 1995, and the first to do so, too, since Bernard Hinault in 1978.The Angliru marks the culmination of a tenacious pursuit by Froome of the overall Vuelta title, with three second places and a fourth preceding his long-sought victory, set for Sunday.
Sunday’s celebrations in Madrid, though, are still 24 hours away, and the last piece of the jigsaw fell into plce as Froome put in a solid defence of his lead on the Angliru. The doubts that los Machucos, the closest climb in terms of steepness prior to the Angliru, had produced about Froome’s potential condition on such difficult, rainsoaked ascents in the closing moments of a very long season, all ebbed away as Froome, guided by Sky team-mate Wout Poels, shed Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), who had crashed, with less than four kilometres to go.
Ably guided by Poels, Froome’s counter-attack brought him to within 17 seconds of Contador and a third stage win either for himself or for the Dutchman. But with the even greater prize of a second Grand Tour victory in two months to celebrate, despite not taking the stage, Froome was understandably delighted on top of the Angliru with his achievements in this year’s Vuelta in general, and with how he had defended his lead in a rollercoaster third week in particular.
“It’s an absolutely incredible feeling, and what a way to end such a massive three weeks of racing, having completed the Tour-Vuelta double,” Froome said afterwards. “My thanks to everyone for the support of the last few weeks.”
There had been no gift wins to Contador in the finale, it emerged, with Froome and Poels pursuing the Spaniard as hard as they could to the line on the Angliru. In the end, Poels finished second, curiously enough just as he did on the Angliru back in 2011 when racing for Vancansoleil. “We gave it everything,” Froome said simply.
Six years on, though, the scenario could not have changed more for Poels, Team Sky and Froome.
“It was such a tough climb. We did everything we could to try and catch Alberto and my congratulations to him, to finish his career like this is beautiful,” Froome said afterwards. “That was one hell of a finale for three weeks of going full gas. Everything was still up in the air and anything could have happened, there was a lot of climbing and a lot of wet, tricky descents.”
Froome confirmed that he had seen Nibali crash on the Cordal, “right in front of me.”
“The closer it got to the finish, I was almost counting down the kilometres. I had all the team around me and I felt good. I knew I just had to finish this off, and the team was absolutely fantastic. I’ve had some real ups and downs in this race, and the team has been there every step of the way.”
Froome argued that coming after the Tour de France, to go on to the Vuelta made the challenge of how he raced this season “even bigger."
"There’s a reason why nobody’s won the Tour and the Vuelta less than one month later before," he said. "It’s such an overwhelming feeling. Moments like now, they make all the sacrifices, the time away from home all worth it.”
As for the future, having won the Vuelta, the question of if or when he tackles the Giro is on the cards. But whilst the Giro d’Italia technically remains a possibility for next season, Froome argued that it was “too early to say what I’ll do."
"Next year is next year and I just want to enjoy this win," he said. "As I said earlier, the Vuelta is a race I genuinely enjoy doing. I came close last year, but tactically I got caught out. That gave me a lot of motivation and showed me it is possible to win both of them.”
He admitted that it was “quite romantic” to have claimed the Vuelta on the Angliru, the very same climb where his own Grand Tour ambitions took a huge leap forward back in 2011.
"It’s been an incredible journey," he said. "This was where I had my first opportunity back in 2011 when my leader struggled. So it’s amazing for this to have been the ultimate test of this year’s Vuelta and to have finished it off now.”
Froome paid tribute to Alberto Contador, too, saying that it was a fitting way for the Spanish champion to leave the sport.
“Certainly he’s a rider who brings so much flair to the races, and for sure it’s going to be easier for me when he’s not around," Froome said. "You have to respect that, it was very fitting in front of his home crowd. And so” - Froome concluded before switching to Spanish - “Adios...”
As for his own place in cycling’s pantheon of the greats, having won the Tour and Vuelta, Frome argued that it’s “not for me to say where I am in that history."
"But this victory and having done the double, is so overwhelming," He admitted. "The first rider to take the Vuelta, the first rider to do the Tour and go on to do the Vuelta…this is sealing my place in the history of the sport.”