Chris Froome finds that it’s easy

Vuelta a Espana 2012 podium
Vuelta a Espana 2012 podium - Alejandro Valverde (2nd) - Alberto Contador (1st) - Joaquim Rodríguez (3rd)

being number 2.

But being number 1 on the team, the protected rider, the favourite, the one with the target on their back now that’s just a little harder.

It’s amazing to think that a year and three weeks ago fourth place in a Grand Tour would have been a major success for a British rider in recent times only matched by Bradley Wiggins placing in the 2009 Tour de France, beaten by Robert Millar’s exploits in the 80s – two second places in the Vuelta and one in the Giro. Now it’s almost a disappointment.

Emphasis on the almost.

It’s been a hell of a Vuelta a España this year, then it always seems to be but this year was something else and unfortunately it just looked a race too far for a rider many think has a Grand Tour victory in him. A tough season that’s seen him finish second in the Tour and win a bronze medal in the Olympic time trial, took it’s toll when faced with that northern Spanish course of mountain top finishes.

Have to say Froome never looked well. Looked a bit sickly at times. That added to his style not quite fitting the short sharp climbs the way it did his major competitors for the red jersey. The long grind outs of the Tour not being the order of the day here. Also you felt he didn’t quite have the team around him that Wiggins had a few weeks earlier in France.

While Wiggo had Christian Knees at the start of the last climb, who would hand over to the Aussies Richie Porte and Michael Rogers to see him on until Froome took over for the last push. In the Vuelta Froome seemed to be left with the two Colombians Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Urán very early on and come the final push he’s be on his lonesome, in desperate need for a rider just like himself doing the role he performed for Wiggins.

So while he was grinding, Contador, Rodríguez and Valverde were sprinting away. It looked like his best hope was the time trial. But that didn’t pan out as planned. Needing not only to drag back the time already lost he also had to put on a significant gap to the others. A convincing win required. He ended third on the stage losing time to second placed Contador and not gaining anywhere enough on the other two in the top 4. The biggest winner seemed Rodríguez who surprisingly to many kept the leader’s red jersey.

Another overriding factor is the number one status Froome had in this race. One of the favourites for the title, Sky’s team leader and so a marked man. It was easier for him to blast off at the front in the Tour when everyone else’s eyes were on Wiggins, watching what he did, reacting to him. Without a real number two beside him and a target on his back it was easy for the three Spaniards around him to react to his moves. Except for one occasion. Stage 8 – Lleida to Andorra–Collada de la Gallina (Andorra) – when he went for it in the final kilometre, he finally looked to have broken the three Spaniards but Contador fought back and Froome seemed to just slow down to let him back, almost coming to a track style standstill. If he could have carried that attack on, who knows. He couldn’t and in the end was overtaken by all three, losing more time in the process.

It just wasn’t meant to be. The exertions of the season taken their toll, no surprise two of those ahead of him hadn’t taken part in the Tour, the other had but not as a real contender. But it shouldn’t overshadow a great year for the British rider. from being almost disposed of by his team as someone who hadn’t filled their potential before last year’s race to two second places and a fourth in three grand tours to go with that bronze medal. It’s not bad.

As for the race it was a cracker. With just the wrong results all round.

Last year we were bemoaning the fact Juan José Cobo beat the two British riders and that the time bonuses for stage wins had made such an impact. This year those very same bonuses created a better race than say the Tour was (?). All the mountain climbs were full of excitement, attack after attack, especially from Contador. And every attack countered because the others couldn’t let him get those precious seconds for finishing first. And on every occasion Purito, Joaquim Rodríguez, caught him passed him and not only took the bonus seconds but gapped Contador enough to take time out of him on the road.

Every time but one. The one that eventually mattered. The one that gave Contador the red jersey and meant he kept it. Stage 17 Santander to Fuente Dé. It was a great ride by Contador, match by the slackness of Purito and his team. It was a shame as the previous leader lost over two and half minutes, the red jersey and really the chance to enter Madrid with it.

So the shame that Purito didn’t win. A man who had just come back from a drug suspension did, while another with a doping ban took second and the other two jersey’s Rodríguez held before the final stage.

Oh and nearly forgot even though it was a disappointing race for Sky with sprinter Ben Swift not managing to get a stage win one British rider did with a great move five kilometres out on stage 13 Steve Cummings got himself across the line first.

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