Thirty-two years ago Robert Millar was poised to become the first British cyclist to win the Vuelta a España when, on the penultimate day, in horrendous conditions, the home teams combined against him.
Yesterday, on the penultimate day of this year’s Vuelta, also in horrendous conditions, Chris Froome was poised to do what Millar couldn’t quite manage in 1985. The route had been designed to serve up late drama, with a finish on the Angliru, possibly the hardest climb in Spain. And the drama was duly delivered by Alberto Contador, who scored a swashbuckling stage win – incredibly, the first by a Spanish rider in this year’s race – in his last race before retirement.
But if Contador won the battle, Froome won the war. As the Angliru steepened to 20 per cent he clung to his team-mate, Wout Poels, to finish third on the stage, increasing his advantage over second-placed Vincenzo Nibali.
It means that in Madrid this afternoon Froome is set to become the first cyclist to win the Tour de France and then the Vuelta a España in the same season. The wording is important because the double has been done before, though not since Bernard Hinault in 1978. Before Hinault, only one other rider, Jacques Anquetil, did it in 1963.
But back then the Vuelta was in April, before the Tour de France. In 1995 it moved to its current slot, a few weeks after the Tour. And since then no Tour winner has gone on to win the Vuelta as well. More curiously, only two riders have even tried – Carlos Sastre, third at the Vuelta after winning the Tour in 2008, and Froome.
He went close last year, finishing second to Nairo Quintana, one of three occasions on which he has been runner-up. The first of these second places, in 2011, was such a shock, even to his own team, that many believed it would prove a one-off rather than a sign that the then 26-year-old would emerge as his generation’s great stage racer.
Yet that, unquestionably, is what Froome is – and more, given that he is about to join Anquetil and Hinault as the only riders to do the Vuelta-Tour double, which is about the only thing Eddy Merckx, cycling’s greatest of all time, didn’t manage.
Froome’s first breakout performance, when he ended up usurping Team Sky’s designated leader, Bradley Wiggins, was six years and four Tour de France wins ago. Yet he is still regarded by many as a curiosity; a rider whose politeness off the bike and ungainliness on it doesn’t fit, somehow.
Much about Froome doesn’t appear to make sense – his unconventional path to the top, his late development, the aggression and grit in races that is at odds with the Froome we think we know.
But perhaps most of all it is his style on a bike – we expect great riders to be silky smooth, but Froome is all arms and elbows: a cycling equivalent of Emil Zatopek or Paula Radcliffe. It might be one of his weapons – because he always looks like he’s suffering, it is impossible to tell when he is actually suffering.
Much has been made of the phenomenally strong team Sky brought to the Vuelta. They have snuffed out dangerous attacks from Nibali and Contador, and Froome has used his team-mates cleverly. But when he has needed to, when he has been isolated, he has dug deep into those reserves of strength and determination. In the end, it is Froome who has won the race, not his team, who wouldn’t be so committed to helping him if they didn’t have such confidence in their leader.
On two occasions, at Calar Alto on stage 11, and Alto de Los Machucos, towards the end of Wednesday’s 17th stage, Froome looked in difficulty. It was in these moments that he showed how much he wanted to win. The question for many was why? After all, the reason so few Tour winners have tried to win the Vuelta is that it lags so far behind the Tour de France and even the Giro d’Italia in terms of prestige. When asked during this race why he was so keen to win, Froome gave a version of George Mallory’s response to the question of why he wanted to climb Everest. “Because I’m a bike racer,” he said. “I want to win.”
The question now becomes what next? A fifth Tour de France title will be Froome’s priority in 2018, but with the Vuelta itch now finally scratched, on the sixth attempt, a tilt at the Giro could be on the cards, and a place in the pantheon, if, with this win, he isn’t there already.