Chris Froome (Sky) has argued that the 93 riders who finished outside the time limit on stage 15 of the Vuelta a España should not have been reinstated to the race, although he understands the commissaires' decision to allow them to continue. All of Froome's Sky teammate would have been excluded from the race had the rule been enforced.
The time limit for the tumultuous 118.5-kilometre stage, run off at an average speed of 40.745kph and lasting just over 2 hours 45 minutes, was set at 31:24, and the main peloton of 93 riders crossed the finish line 52:54 down. The stage was won Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx-QuickStep), with Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Davide Formolo (Cannondale-Drapac) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) also in the early 14-man break that gained time on Froome and Orica-Bike Exchange duo Esteban Chaves and Simon Yates.
The commissaires explained their decision to reinstate the 93 riders in a communique after the stage, writing: "The race commissaires, having discussed the situation with the race organisation, the AIGCP rep and the technical directors of the race, consider that the image of cycling would be negative if the 71st Vuelta has to continue with only 71 riders from the 16th stage onwards."
Froome said he did not agree with the decision, even though he fully comprehended the reasoning behind it. He was asked in a press conference on the Vuelta's second rest day how he would feel if Sky managed to shape the GC battle in the final week and perhaps even win the race with the support of teammates who had been reinstated.
Without the time cut being overruled, Sky would have been left with just Froome for the remainder of the Vuelta, as he was the only rider from the team to finish within the time limit. Bora-Argon, FDJ and Lotto-Jumbo would also have had just one rider left, while Giant-Alpecin, Dimension Data and Cofidis would have had just two.
"I didn't make that decision," Froome said. "That was the jury decision, we weren't the only team – there were 90 riders – with riders back behind the supposed cut off time. If you look around the peloton, Direct Energie wouldn't have any riders left.
"Personally I believe the rule probably should have been upheld, although I understand the jury's decision and the jury's there to make those decisions."
But as for whether the 93 riders should, in his opinion, have remained excluded from the race, Froome argued: "If the rule's there, it's there for a reason."
Keeping the pressure on
Froome's Sky teammates, with the exception of David López, were dropped en masse in the opening kilometres of stage 15, and it was a fraught day from that moment onwards. "It was a little bit of both: being caught by surprise, I didn't expect the GC guys to be going for it early on, and positioning, a little bit of circumstances. I think there was a small crash at the front, right when the move was forming, which also added to not being able to close it straightaway.
"But at the end of the day I don't think we were prepared for it, and clearly Nairo and Alberto were, so we got caught out."
Froome then leaked time later in the final climb, explaining that he had "done a bit of pulling coming into the final. Again, I lost a bit of time having gone really deep the day before [stage 14 to the Aubisque] and then I lost a bit more." He also confirmed that the Vuelta will be his last race of the 2016 season. "I'll definitely take some downtime and spend time with the family."
Now some 3:37 behind Quintana in second place, Froome acknowledged that his hopes of final overall victory were severely dented in the Pyrenees, though he refused to lay down arms.
"I'm not in as optimistic a situation as I was a few days ago. That was a big blow to the team, when I lost a big chunk of time and was on the back foot. But then again, as we saw in the Giro, things can change drastically in a Grand Tour. From our side, we have to keep the pressure on, keep doing what we have done all along and keep fighting."
Froome has twice finished second overall at the Vuelta, in 2011 and 2014, and recognised that at this point in time the race seems elusive. "It does, it does at this point. I love racing in Spain, I love the Vuelta, it was my breakthrough race and I'd love to try and win it, but that might have to be a goal for another year. Of course, I'll keep fighting, but it's less realistic than it was a few days ago."
Friday's time trial to Calpe is crucial to Froome's overall aspirations, although he pointed out that Quintana is not a poor racer against the clock, as he has shown this season. Standout results include racing well in the Vuelta al País Vasco's time trial and Quintana also won a completely flat time trial, if much shorter, in the Route du Sud this year.
"As we've seen, missing the right move can have massive consequences," Froome said. "If anything we're going to have look even harder now for opportunities now, try and make opportunities. We're not the only team doing that, clearly Alberto and Tinkoff are thinking about what they are doing to split the race up, there seems to be quite a battle for the podium positions right now. We could see a really explosive last few days of racing."