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THE ‘Shark’, Vincenzo Nibali, now cycling in the colours of Bahrain-Merida, may have failed in his attempt to retain his title, yet he succumbed to a man rewriting the history books as the organisers of the Vuelta a Espana set a route that ensured a grand finale to the final grand tour of the cycling season.
Entering the 20th day of racing just under two minutes behind race leader, Chris Froome, Bahrain’s adopted Italian faced a relatively short stage that culminated with the Angliru, considered by many to be the hardest climb in road racing. And, it has history.
Despite only appearing in the tour for the sixth time, it was the stage on which Sir Bradley Wiggins lost the lead of the race in 2011 to the eventual winner Juan Jose Cobo, while the retiring hometown favourite, Alberto Contador won in 2008 on his way to overall victory.
The climb alone, coming after two earlier brutal ascents, lasts for over 13km with gradients ranging between 10 per cent and 24 per cent.
Crucially for Nibali, famed as much for his bike handling and bravery as for his strength racing uphill, despite his amphibious nickname, it was the incessant rain that was his undoing, sliding into a barrier as a result of excess water on a bend. It was to his credit that he managed to catch the peleton up the final climb although the effort took its toll and he eventually faded.
While Alberto Contador finished his final climb with a stage victory the plaudits was reserved for Chris Froome.
By claiming the overall race win he became only the third man in history to win the Vuelta in the same season as the Tour de France and the first after the Spanish race was switched from spring to late summer.
After three second place finishes in the Vuelta, this is the first time that he has claimed the red jersey awarded to the winner, while he has won the Maillot Jaune on four occasions.
Contador retires having won seven Grand Tours including his home race three times although was also stripped of one Tour de France and one Giro D’Italia victory having tested positive for clenbuterol.
The question was posed on social media whether anyone begrudged him the stage win on the Angliru. Personally, I believe that he should have been banned for life and that the ICU missed an opportunity to levy a meaningful sanction. Of course, none of that matters in Madrid where he led the peleton into his home city before completing a full lap of honour with this teammates.
Froome is not an individual who will, I suspect, command the reverence reserved for past riders who have similar records. Their feats meant they were rewarded with nicknames such as ‘The Cannibal’ (Eddy Merckx) and ‘The Badger’ (Bernard Hinault, who won his races in 1982/3). Even Contador, despite his misdemeanours, is revered by his fans as El Pistolero.
He does not dominate races or accumulate a steady stream of stage victories. Merckx was known for his insatiable desire for victory, no matter who he was racing or where (the mountains, time-trials or sprints) while Hinault dominated the peleton. Jacques Anquetil, third on the overall list having claimed eight Tour titles, loved solo attacks.
Rather Froome accumulates small point differentials when he can, epitomising the approach adopted by his team, Sky, who eschew the phrase ‘marginal gains’, the philosophy of picking up small advantages where they can.
The team is all so important. Froome is well supported by teammates who strain every sinew to enable him to be one of the freshest (relatively) when he needs to be. Wout Poels set a furious pace in pursuit of Contador as they tracked down the leader.
I am quite sure he could have secured more stage wins had he wanted. Saturday was a case in question when he proved with his final charge that he could catch Contador. However, recognising that this was to be his final climb I believe that Froome bowed to the history books, safe in the knowledge that he had done all that he needed to.
Nibali, fighting all the way, ensured that he retained second place on the podium.
In the media the Kenyan-born champion is always polite and professional, demonstrating a deep knowledge of the history of cycling. However, we may just have seen evidence of the inner fight that has brought him so much success.
While the run-in to Madrid is largely processional and he did participate in taking selfies and posing with sparkling drinks, there was still the matter of fighting for the green jersey (best sprinter). Froome needed to sprint to the line and in finishing 11th made sure that he added this to the red and white (combined) ones he had already won.
The question now on everyone’s lips, is whether Froome will target the Giro in Italy next year in an attempt to hold all three Grand Tour titles consecutively, further engraving his name in the history books.
There is also the possibility of entering the world time trial championship in Norway later this month, victory in which would bring the more traditional triple crown.