A Vuelta of what ifs

Vuelta a España 2011 - Stage 17 - Chris Froome of Team Sky wins at the summit finish on Peña Cabarga

..for Wiggins, Froome and Sky.

Amazing to think that any British rider would be standing on the podium at a Grand Tour thinking it could have been better. To have two up there thinking the same thing just shows what a pretty good shape British cycling is in and what, even if they didn’t claim the red jersey, a great Vuelta a España the two Brits and the Sky team had.

It all started so badly as well, over there and over here. As the Sky team completely butchered the opening team time trial in Benidorm the TV coverage was proving to be somewhat lacking compared to the stuff we saw from ITV4 for the Tour de France.

But like the Sky riders the guys at ITV got their act in shape. The latter lot helped by an exciting and exceptional race unfolding through the three weeks. Ned Boulting and Matt Rendell did a top job fronting the broadcasts because unlike so much minority sport coverage on British TV they didn’t do a Blue Peter presenting job, it wasn’t dumbed down. Treating the viewers like they knew what was going on in front of their own eyes instead of the usual patronising idiot’s guide you so often get get. Though they could have done with non of the current riders in attendance. Yeah, definitely and you know don’t add much. So I don’t say it too often about ITV but a quality job.

Amazing to think that two of the what ifs occurred in the two time trial stages – team and individual – that saw Sky and Wiggins lose out, as it’s where he was expected to pick up major time, but the individual also saw Chris Froome come to prominence as he finished second and took the red jersey as race leader.

He didn’t wear it long as Wiggins took over after the following stage as the two Sky teammates rode some quality mountain stages and here’s another what if. What if the pair had more Sky riders around them in the latter parts of the stages, more help and a stronger team. They really worked hard for each other but if they had some of the guys that were in the Tour the likes of Geraint Thomas etc what could have happened, as the eventual winner had a mass of Geox riders around him for quite a bit.

Except for where it really mattered though, the one stage that blew everything open, Juan José Cobo was all alone for the climb up the Angliru. It was a great climb up a monster of a route and seemingly fitting way to really win the race. But as Wiggins, well I don’t want to say lost the red jersey as Cobo won it, it was still a marvelous climb by the Brit, fifth over that climb, less than 90 seconds behind the winner, after having mechanical difficulties before the climb started and then being slowed down by a fans flag getting caught in his wheel. It was amazing ride up sections maxing out at a 23% gradient but it was bettered by Froome with another exceptional performance.

A performance that was only bettered by his win two stages later. Another mountain finish. Another amazing stage that’ll live in the memory. As they ground their way up Peña Cabarga, Froome attacks and initially Cobo was straight on his back wheel but then the Spaniard started dropping back as Froome pulled away. The gap was increasing and it looked like Froome would close the 22 second gap, maybe even enough to regain red. But somehow, and shown perfectly from above by the helicopter camera, Cobo had a burst and shot across the gap, rounding Froome the commentator called it we all thought it Cobo had won the stage and pretty much guaranteed the Vuelta. But we’d seen throughout the previous near three weeks Froome has this ability to power away at the front then drop back a few wheels – to let Wiggins take the lead and grind on for a bit – then show a new lease of life to come back up front, previously to do some more work this time though as he went wide to Cobo’s outside the Spaniard looked inside, no one there – was there a little relaxation in red? – Froome used it to shoot inside with this new burst to take the final corner and cross the line first.

It didn’t regain the red jersey, it pretty much guaranteed Cobo would roll into then round Madrid as the winner but it was a magnificent spectacle of a stage that along with a number of others made this a cracking Vuelta for the watching public. A viewing public that was hopefully enough for ITV to keep things going, adding the Giro would be good next year.

So what if Wiggins and Froome hadn’t lost so much time on the opening stage? What if Wiggins hadn’t had such bad luck with the conditions in the time trail? What if they had had more support in the latter parts of stages? What if Froome hadn’t gone back to his Kenyan birthplace for a visit and caught bilharzia? And for Wiggins what if he hadn’t had that crash in the Tour? He had a strong team around him there, yes maybe he had stronger competition but this form over these Spanish mountains, well it’s all what ifs.

But even with those what ifs they still finished on the podium in one of the Grand Tours, a great result after great rides. Britain hasn’t had too many podium finishers, Robert Millar’s two Vueltas and one Giro back in the 1980s is it, so having two here is great for the sport in this country and when you add in the best sprinter in the world Mark Cavendish and the likes of Geraint Thomas, who had a pretty good Tour, things look bright.

And after all that though the one thing that’ll always stick with me about this race is when ever I see a footballer rolling around with an injury my mind will immediately turn to the thought of the Quick Step rider Tom Boonen riding up that immense final climb of the Angliru after crashing and breaking the scaphoid bone in his left wrist. Here’s a climb that tested the best in the sport and he did it one handed.

You gonna ponce an injury now? Get up you big tart.

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