Chris Froome (Team Sky) may not have won at Calar Alto on stage 11, but the Briton confirmed that his second place on the Vuelta a España's first major mountain finish and the time gaps he had established constituted a "huge step towards securing my lead" in the race.
After the first nine days of skirmishing and a previous maximum GC margin of 36 seconds, Froome has now opened up a gap of more than double that, 1:19, on his closest rival, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida).
Riders like Adam Yates and Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) lost time, while BMC Racing Team's duo of GC contenders, Nicolas Roche and Tejay van Garderen, had a very difficult day.
The GC is looking more clearly in Froome's favour after a week where he was in the lead but always by narrow margins.
Asked if this was a big step towards winning the Vuelta overall, Froome said, "Definitely. Given the time gaps today, it's definitely one of the more crucial stages that shapes this Vuelta a España. I'm really pleased with how it went. It's a huge step towards securing my lead at the Vuelta."
The Vuelta has moved into a different phase, Froome pointed out, given you "just have to look at the GC to see how the race has completely opened up now. It's a very different kind of race, it felt as if we were in the Spring Classics with this kind of weather, not something you expect in Vuelta a España.
"But we're all in the same boat, and you have to make the best of these circumstances. Orica made the race at bottom of last climb, [and put] a lot of people on the limit, when Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali attacked, the race exploded completely."
Froome singled out teammates Gianni Moscon and Mikel Nieve for praise after their strong racing on the final climbs. The two Sky riders managed to bring back Contador and Nibali well before the last flurry of moves on the flatter upper segment of the Calar Alto.
At one point Froome was seen talking to Moscon. "I probably told him not to worry too much about Nibali and Contador," Froome said of the conversation. "With a lot of road to cover, we didn't need to chase them full gas."
Asked by one reporter if he had buried the hatchet with Nibali following their stormy relationship during the 2015 Tour de France, Froome confirmed that was the case, saying there were "certainly no issues" now. Even so, it is clear that Nibali, himself a former Vuelta winner, is currently the Briton's biggest rival on GC and with Chaves on the back foot, Froome's teammates clamped down the Shark's attack.
Tellingly, Froome then was feeling strong enough in the final kilometres to allow Nieve to launch his own attack and go for the stage win, but as the Vuelta leader said, despite his easing back, the counter-moves proved too strong for Nieve's charge away to work out
"Today wasn't my cup of tea given the conditions, I do prefer the really high temperatures and today was almost polar opposite, but all have to make the best of this situation," Froome explained.
"I could sit back a little bit and I didn't want to play cat and mouse, guys like Contador and Nibali stood more to gain from this stage than me, so I left them to it. I told Nieve to go for it on GC and thought maybe they were not going to chase him, but the race opened up again."
Froome then shadowed Nibali all the way to the line in the final kilometre, gaining time all other rivals barring the Italian and Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb), a final indication, if it was needed, that he is more than in control of the situation at the Vuelta.
"At no moment was I afraid of being dropped," Froome emphasised. After such a strong initial performance on the Vuelta's first major summit finish of three this week, there seems to be little chance of that happening in the days to come, either.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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