Chris Froome’s pacing strategy reaps second-place rewards

Vuelta 2016, stage tenWell that was spectacular. Nairo Quintana took the stage and regained the race lead, but it was Chris Froome’s bizarre, ‘okay, you have a head start’ ride that was the most memorable.

The final climb had barely started when Froome was 45 seconds adrift. Assigned two team-mates to pace him up the lower slopes, the leading group was often in sight but the gap never closed. This would be psychological torture on top of the physical, you would think, but apparently it was all part of the plan.

The quickest way to get from the bottom of a hill to the top is via a controlled and generally pretty steady effort. This is hard to do when you’re racing because you’re so aware of your rivals. Put yourself in Froome’s shoes. How can you be sure that Movistar have gone out too fast in gaining 45 seconds on you? Wouldn’t you be worried that maybe the gap’s not them, it’s you?

But on he ploughed, diligently and steadily. If he never actually caught the front group, there was less and less front group to catch. In fact, by the finish, it was only Quintana. This is perhaps the strongest argument in favour of Froome’s approach. How would things have gone for him if he’d tried to match the early acceleration that saw him distanced? Take a look at what happened to everyone else. Ultimately, he passed them all.

It’s interesting to note the order in which people gave up trying to hold the pace and the order in which they then finished. Froome dropped off first, Alejandro Valverde dropped off second, Esteban Chaves dropped off third and Contador was dropped last. Of those four, Froome finished first, Valverde second, Chaves third and Contador fourth. That says something about how the climb was raced, but it arguably says more about how unpredictable and entertaining the racing was.

It was all a bit nuts. They’ve certainly earned today’s rest day. They return to action on Wednesday for stage 11, but I hope by now you’re starting to understand why the Vuelta is my favourite race.

For now, at what is basically the halfway point, let’s have the standings. It’s looking pretty good for Quintana at the minute, but while his ‘at least three minutes’ estimation of the advantage he’ll need ahead of the time trial is an exaggeration, it is a reminder that Froome is still very much in this.

Vuelta top ten

Stage 11

A summit finish, obviously. The final climb’s 5.6% at 9.8%. Gradients are routinely steeper at the Vuelta.

There’s no official stage term for this, but the info does make reference to a ‘karst formation’. I presumed this was a 4-3-3 or 5-4-1 kind of thing, but apparently it’s to do with dissolution of limestone.

Vuelta 2016, stage 11