Team Sky's Unsung Chris Froome Bids for Grand Tour Glory at Vuelta a Espana
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Olympic gold medalist, Tour de France winner, sportsman of the people, Mod rocker, British icon and soon enough Sir Wiggo.
Bradley Wiggins has had, and it is not overstating it to say, an incredible year.
The Tour de France victory cemented his status as one of his sport's greats, while a combination of charming cockiness, a straightforward manner and an admirable work ethic has seen him emerge as one of his country's most popular sportsmen.
Riding in close proximity to Wiggins—or within minutes in the case of the time-trials—throughout this summer has been Chris Froome, a man who's own tremendous achievements have been overshadowed by the achievements of his Team Sky teammate.
In any other year, a bronze medal in the Olympic road time-trial and the prior even more remarkable effort of finishing second in the Tour de France, would have marked him out as Britain's best all-around cyclist.
For now, that title belongs to Wiggins, but Froome can match him and improve on his existing standing as one of his sport's great prospects in the next few weeks as he prepares to take on the year's third and final grand tour: the Vuelta a Espana (aka, Tour of Spain).
The 2011 edition of the Vuelta saw Froome finish second (Wiggins was in third) in a name-making race that, by most accounts, rid his Sky superiors over any remaining doubts of the Kenyan-born rider's value.
Besides the result itself, it was what was seen in Froome's performances that stood out, in many ways foreshadowing aspects of the working relationship that he and Wiggins established at this year's Tour de France.
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Stage 15, in particular, culminating on the brutal mountain finish of the Angliru, saw Wiggins struggle as the race entered the final three kilometers of the final climb. This is where Froome rode ahead of the man he was purportedly riding for, and into second place.
Neither of course could contend that day with the astonishing, winning ride of (eventual race winner) Juan Jose Cobo, but Froome's better performance signaled the first time it would be claimed that he had the measure of Wiggins in the mountains.
That was a claim made fairly regularly in last month's Tour, but as was the case in Spain last year, there was reason and/or evidence to suggest that the gap was even closer than some suggested.
In 2011 Wiggins was still coming back from a broken collarbone that had prematurely ended his Tour hopes, and could quite reasonably be accounted for any struggles at the Vuelta weeks later (and lest we forget, he still finished third!).
If claims that Froome could have quite feasibly won this year's Tour de France himself were not without merit themselves, Wiggins reinforced his own credentials in the race's last week by riding strongly and purposely at his teammate's side as they fought off the advances of Vincenzo Nibali in particular.
The debate over who is Sky's best general classification contender will be an underlying theme to this year's Vuelta (starting Saturday 18 August), but the focus will be primarily on Froome, as he gets his chance to compete as team leader.
He will have to contend with seven mountain stages (three of which have hors catégorie finishes) in the heat of the August sun in Spain, which will make for some demanding and excruciating days in the saddle.
Winning the race will not be easy, with Alberto Contador returning from his drugs ban in the home favourite's first grand tour since last year's Tour de France.
The Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank man struggled through France off the back of a phenomenal effort in the Giro D'Italia just two months prior, and questions will be raised over whether Froome has the legs to deliver another supreme effort only a month after the Tour de France and just weeks following on from his Olympic excursions.
The traditional understanding (as backed up by the Contador example) would be that Froome surely could not follow this up by going a step further and winning the Vuelta, but as Daniel Benson writes in his preview on CyclingNews.com:
"Sky has torn up the rule book this year, wiping away the clichéd doubts of "peaking too soon", doing "too much work" on the front and "diluting team aims". With their mantra of marginal gains, the team has been near unstoppable in stage races it has raced to win and there’s genuine discussion over whether they can attempt the triple Grand Tour slam in 2013."
Froome will not have quite the strength of squad Wiggins had for the Tour (after all, he doesn't have him!), but in the likes of Rigoberto Uran, Danny Pate, Olympic team-mate Ian Stannard and Spain's own Juan Antonio Flecha, he has guys he can rely on.
As for rivals elsewhere, failure to recover from injury has sadly meant Andy Schleck misses out, but Joaquim Rodriguez, Thomas De Gendt and Robert Gesink will be among the favourites looking to, like Froome, take the red jersey and a first grand tour success.
Also back will be last year's winner Cobo, who after an underwhelming 2012, will be desperate to salvage something from his season.
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The likelihood of that remains to be seen, but his presence along with Froome's at least provides an excuse to reminisce about their battles last year, in particular, their thrilling duel on the final climb of stage 17 on Peña Cabarga.
With the pair out ahead of the chasing pack and valuable seconds at stake, Cobo looked to have cracked when Froome launched an attack within the last two kilometers.
In a display worthy of a champion, the Spaniard managed to reel him back in, and for a moment, looked as if he would take the stage, at which point Froome mustered one last burst of energy to sprint for the win.
With Cobo closely following, it was not enough for Froome to take the race lead, but it was a spectacular, unofficial introduction of one cycling's great new prospects.
Whether they feature him, Cobo or whoever, if this year's Vuelta has a stage or two as good as that one, we will be in for a treat.
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