Team Sky's top mountain domestique
, Chris Froome, has taken over the mantle of team leader in the Vuelta a España, closing the gap on the race leader, Juan José Cobo, by winning the most difficult finish of the final week with an audacious double attack in the finale on the Peña Cabarga climb above the port of Santander in northern Spain.
Meanwhile the rider who has been the Sky No1 since the start of the race, Bradley Wiggins, lost 39 seconds on both men, effectively ending his challenge for the overall title, although the Olympic champion remains in third overall. It was a reversal of fortunes that was not entirely surprising, given that Froome had been the stronger of the two Sky men on the race's toughest mountain-top finish at the Alto de L'Angliru on Sunday.
Froome finished only a single second ahead of Cobo on top of the short, brutal ascent but he earned a 20-second deduction in the overall standings thanks to a time bonus awarded to the stage winner. After putting Cobo under immense pressure in the final 1500m, the Sky rider looked to have failed when the Spaniard caught and passed him but he had the presence of mind and reserve of strength to take the inside line on the final corner, yards before the finish line on the top of the hill, catching the race leader by surprise. Cobo also gained a time bonus, 12 seconds for finishing just behind Froome, but with further bonuses available before Sunday's finish in Madrid, and more hills in the next three days in the Basque Country, the suspense is set to last to the end.
It was surprising that the Kenya-born Froome was able to think clearly, given the intensity of his initial attack on the steepest section of the climb, which rears up at one-in-five in the final part. It had taken him around 15 seconds to dislodge Cobo, who initially marked the Sky man's pace, before Froome opened a gap of about 15 bike lengths entering the final kilometre and briefly raised the prospect that he might deprive the Spaniard of the race lead in front of his home crowd.
But Cobo sensibly opted to ride at his own pace, gradually closing the gap and eventually looking as if he might be able to take the stage. Instead Froome rode to the finest win of a career that began in mountain biking in South Africa, where he was brought up, and then saw him turn to the road with the Barloworld team in 2008, when he took British nationality.
"That was indescribable," Froome said after the finish. "It was one of the hardest days on the bicycle of my life. It was the last mountain-top finish and both Bradley and myself came into the stage trying to do as much as we could. But as you could see, Cobo was so strong."
His performance on Wednesday is bound to prompt questions about Sky's decision to use him to set the pace on several occasions during Wiggins's tenure of the red leader's jersey, the more so as Froome had finished ahead of his leader in the race's only individual time trial, on stage 10. He finished second to the German Tony Martin, 23 seconds ahead of Wiggins, which was enough to put him in the race lead before he ceded the red jersey to Wiggins on a mountain-top finish 48 hours later.
The last Briton to contend for overall honours in the Vuelta, Robert Millar, said that he wondered about Sky's tactics. "They've stuck with Brad as team leader because he has the pedigree and the proven successes but there is the question Froome's performance raises of what if the tactics had been different. What if they had used him differently, for example the day Bradley took over the red jersey [stage 11] and Froome did a massive amount of work despite being race leader because that's been the only occasion where he lost any time to his team leader."
Tour of Spain Stage 17 (Faustino V – Pena Cabarga, 211 km) results
1. Chris Froome (GB/Team Sky) 4:52:38"; 2. Juan-José Cobo (Sp/Geox) +1"; 3. Bauke Mollema (Neth/Rabobank) +21"; 4. Daniel Martin (Irel/Garmin) +24"; 5. Igor Anton (Sp/Euskaltel) +27"; 6. Mikel Nieve (Sp/Euskaltel); 7. Marzio Bruseghin (It/Movistar) +29"; 8. Jurgen Van den Broeck (Bel/Omega Pharma – Lotto) +31"; 9. Denis Menchov (Rus/Geox); 10. Benat Intxausti (Sp/Movistar) +35"