Chris Froome (Team Sky) rounded off what he described as the 'perfect start' to the Vuelta a España with a finely calculated stage win on Sunday at Cumbres del Sol, the same finish where he was defeated by Tom Dumoulin two years ago.
Asked earlier in this year's race if he had unfinished business with the steep, rocky climb on the Mediterranean coastline, Froome had answered cautiously "not necessarily." But as it turned out, 500 metres from the top on the Vuelta's ninth stage, a double acceleration secured the Briton his first mass start win since Peña Cabarga, a similarly steep Spanish uphill finish, last August.
Froome's aggressive finale, coming after a lot of work by Cannondale-Drapac on the flatter segments stage but then with Sky teammate Mikel Nieve raising the pace on the final climb, was defined by one Colombian journalist to Froome in footballing terms. He did not know if Froome liked football, the journalist said, but he followed that up by asking if the Briton was aware of the soccer strategy that there's nothing better than a great attack to defend yourself.
"I'm not a big football fan," Froome acknowledged, "but I appreciated the skills in it, and sometimes, yes, the best form of defence is an attack.
"The way I've been feeling in this year's Vuelta, it suits me to be in front and make the race faster and the team worked so hard in the finale today, particularly with Mikel Nieve, that it was fantastic to get the stage win like that."
Froome said he had had some useful information from the team car about the headwind in the finale, and that this morning he had watched the end of the 2015 stage on repeated occasions. "I didn't want to go too early in the final, I had that experience in 2015 where I made a bigger effort with a kilometre to go and then ran out of steam at the end. I learned from that lesson so I went for one big move after Mikel Nieve worked hard, and De la Cruz had put in a big acceleration.
"I used that as a launch pad in the final. Then I saw [Esteban] Chaves was coming back and for a second I thought, 'it's going to be like Dumoulin'. But I refused to let that happen and gave it everything in the last 200 metres.
"It's pretty cool to revisit climbs I've done before and have memories of from before, similar to Peña Cabarga. But it's nice to put those feelings to rest today."
In the process of vanquishing some old sporting ghosts, Froome has now stretched his GC lead to 36 seconds, with the gap widening for the fourth time since he clinched the top spot on GC in Andorra last Monday. Yet asked if the other contenders should be intimidated, he insisted that his rivals had "no reason to be afraid."
"I'm still the same person, I can have bad days as well," he said. "This first part of the Vuelta has been a dream for us, to be in leader's jersey and win the stage an amazing position to be in." And at this moment, it's fair to say that the 2017 Vuelta is now Froome's to lose, too.
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