Vuelta a Espana 2017
Two incidents – a mechanical and a subsequent crash – on the final descent of the 160km stage in Andalusia severely hampered Froome’s quest to win the first Vuelta crown of his career.
The Team Sky rider battled to the finish in Antequera to limit his losses to 20 seconds to his main rivals – most notably, the Italian Nibali of Bahrain Merida – but the chaotic conclusion to the stage brought down the apparent wall of invincibility that the 32-year-old had built during his otherwise textbook start to the 72nd edition of La Vuelta.
Collisions between motorcycles and spectators, high-speed riders bunny-hopping over roundabouts, and a somersaulting escapee added to the drama of an otherwise sedate stage – to the extent that Marczynski’s superb second win seemed a mere footnote.
Froome’s double scare happened while the group of main favourites were chasing an earlier attack by Trek-Segafredo’s Spanish veteran Alberto Contador, who had danced clear of his rivals on the second of two categorised climbs in the final third of the stage.
With the race very much on, Froome was forced to switch bikes after apparently dropping a chain at the start of the final descent. When the four-time Tour de France champion continued on a new steed, he crashed on a tight right-hand bend just moments later.
Despite Nibali’s sporting attempts to quell the attacking instincts of those who sniffed blood, the threat posed by Contador further up the road meant the main pack gave Froome no favours – and the red jersey was forced to chase back on with team-mates Mikel Nieve and Wout Poels to the bitter end.
With the bit between his teeth, Contador came home 22 seconds to the better of the chasing pack to cement his place in the top ten and move within 3’13″ of Froome, who crossed the line a further 20 seconds back to see his lead over second-placed Nibali fall to just under the minute-mark.
Besides Contador – whose swashbuckling attack yet again saw the Spaniard animate his final race as a professional – the man of the day was Lotto Soudal’s Marczynski after his second victory of the race.
The Polish veteran proved the strongest of a 14-man break after attacking on the final climb of the day to win by 52 seconds over Spain’s Omar Fraile of Dimension Data, who led home a chasing group of four riders.
Rewind a few hours and there were no signs that Stage 12 would be so thrilling. A fast start to the race produced temporary splits in the peloton and a high average speed that hindered any break forming – but when 14 riders did eventually open up a gap, the race eased up.
Team Sky controlled the tempo with a full quota of riders on the front of the peloton, which trailed the break by a maximum gap of nine minutes.
Joining Marczynski and Fraile on the front of the race were Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo), Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar), Pawel Poljanski and Andreas Schillinger (both Bora-Hansgrohe), Julien Duval (AG2R-La Mondiale), Brendan Canty (Cannondale-Drapac), Michael Morkov (Katusha-Alpecin), Stef Clement (LottoNL-Jumbo), Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates), Anthony Perez (Cofidis), David Arroyo (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) and Peter Koning (Aqua Blue Sport).
Rojas led the leaders over the summit of the first of two climbs, the Cat.1 Puerto del Leon, before the Dane Morkov tried his luck on the descent. A winner from the 2013 Vuelta, Morkov opened up a small gap over his fellow escapees and was joined by Dutchman Koning ahead of the final climb.
The two leaders were quickly reeled before the Cat.2 Puerto de Torcal saw the break splinter inside the final 25km as Marczynski, Fraile, Polkanski, Rojas, Clement and Canty rode clear.
Marcznyski clearly had good legs – and the 33-year-old journeyman-come-stage-winner zipped clear of his rivals with 22km remaining.
Eight minutes behind, the battle for red intensified when Contador and Irishman Nicolas Roche (BMC) broke clear of the pack despite Team Sky’s efforts to control the race for Froome.
While Roche struggled to continue his effort, Contador dug deep to open up a gap of 30 seconds over the peloton as he neared the summit.
There followed the first of a string of incidents that turned the stage on its head: a spectator appeared to fall in front of the neutral support motorcycle following Contador – causing the bike to swerve and cause other motorcycles to take evasive action.
It later emerged that the incident perhaps occurred after a policeman tried to tackle the animated spectator – instead pushing him into the path of the vehicle.
Meanwhile, on the front of the race, Cannondale-Drapac’s Canty went over his handlebars on the descent while riding in a group chasing down the lone leader, Marczynski. The Australian managed to remount and finish sixth in spite of his eye-catching fall.
Contador picked up his Trek team-mate Theuns going over the summit – and the pair combined to heap the pressure over his rivals. It was here that Froome suffered the mechanical which prompted a bike change and the subsequent crash.
As Froome chased back with Nieve and Poels, the Nibali group ahead almost stalled when a few riders were forced to jump over the curb and onto the grass centre of a roundabout inside the final four kilometres.
By now, Marczynski had already savoured his second victory of the week – with Fraile beating Rojas, Poljanski and Clement in the consolation sprint for second place.
Canty was next to cross the line before the remnants of the break arrived in dribs and drabs ahead of Contador, who came home 7’25” down – but 22 seconds to the better of his GC rivals.
Froome – battered, bruised and his bib shorts torn – completed the stage 20 seconds later to retain the red jersey while reminding both viewers and, crucially, his rivals of his own immortality.
The Briton leads Nibali by 59 seconds and Colombia’s Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) by 2’13” with Spain’s David De La Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) and Dutchman Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) completing the top five a further three and four seconds back.
La Vuelta continues on Friday with the 198.4km Stage 13 from Coin to Tomares which includes some rolling terrain along the Andalusian coast ahead of a largely flat conclusion and a possible chance for one of the sprinters to regain some of the limelight.