Mano a mano

8 September 2011

There are times – rare times – when professional cycling resembles nothing so much as boxing, but without the physical contact: two riders, usually at the end of a mountain stage, well beyond their physical limits, slugging it out with each other. Indeed, some of the most famous moments in cycling are about this: Anquetil and Poulidor duelling on the Puy de Dome, of which fragments remain, Hinault and Lemond (on the same team!) battling their way up Alpe d’Huez before eventually acknowledging each other in a gesture of mutual respect and crossing the line together.

Cycling fans were treated to a similar duel yesterday between two relatively unheralded riders, Christopher Froome of Sky and Juan Jose Cobo of Geox, who started the stage second and first respectively, separated by just 22 seconds. The stage was the last mountain finish of the race, so represented the last opportunity for a decisive attack.

I’m not going to spoil the ending, in case you don’t know the result, but Froome attacks with about 1500 metres to go, on a climb that varies between one-in-seven and one-in-five (eight minutes into this Procycling video); he looks as if he’s created a winning advantage; Cobo, the race leader, staring at losing the whole race, digs deep into his reserves and slowly cranks himself up the hill, before launching his own counter-attack.

I was breathless watching it; I can’t imagine how deep into oxygen debt the two cyclists were when they finished, but Froome later said it was the hardest day he’d had on a bike. For the rest of us, only gratitude; days like this are the reason cycling is such a special sport.

(The result is here if you can’t be bothered watching the video).

The picture of Cobo leading Froome just before Froome’s attack was taken by the incomparable cycling photographer Graham Watson, and I hope he’ll forgive me using it. Please go and look at look at his other Vuelta pictures on pictures on Velo News.

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