Vuelta a Espana: History-hunter Froome no longer the sacrificial lamb

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Chris Froome heads into this year's Vuelta a Espana safe in the knowledge that he will never again have to play the role of dutiful lieutenant as he chases another piece of cycling history.

Last month, Team Sky's leader completed a remarkable fourth Tour de France victory in five years, all the more impressive considering he did not win a single stage of the 2017 edition.

Already assured of his place among the sport's pantheon of greats, Froome still has one piece of unfinished business to attend to.

On three occasions, the Kenya-born rider has finished runner-up at the Vuelta - in 2011, 2014 and 2016 - but it is the first of those nearly-moments that will grate the most.

After 10 stages of the race, Froome led a Grand Tour for the first time in his career. But he knew it would not last, as his orders were to support Sky team-mate Bradley Wiggins in his bid for the red jersey.

All was going to plan as Wiggins still donned red with seven stages to go until Froome was forced to wait for his colleague up the devastatingly steep Alto de Angliru.

Juan Jose Cobo attacked, won the stage, and held on to the general classification lead until the bitter end, with Froome unable to make up the time on a course that suited him.

But six years on, Froome has no such concerns over playing second fiddle.

This time, he is the man receiving the full backing of Team Sky as he looks to become just the third rider in history to complete the Tour-Vuelta double in the same year, after French legends Jacques Anquetil (1963) and Bernard Hinault (1978).

Those two men make up half of a select group that can boast more than Froome's four Tour wins - Eddy Merckx and Miguel Indurain the others - but all members of that iconic quartet can point to victories in at least one of either the Vuelta or the Giro d'Italia to further underline their legendary status.

Froome will undoubtedly join them in the conversations concerning cycling greats once he pushes his final pedal, but Vuelta glory in the same year as a Tour triumph would provide added weight to any arguments in his favour.

It is far from a foregone conclusion, of course - this is Grand Tour cycling, after all.

Froome is without two key team-mates from his latest Tour success, Mikel Landa and Michal Kwiatkowski, and the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru and Alberto Contador - with five Vuelta GC titles between them - are likely to challenge strongly again.

This year's route is particularly punishing and, with the race held at the height of the Spanish summer since its swap from April in 1995, Froome knows the size of the task ahead of him.

"The Vuelta is a race I love doing but it's relentless," Froome said. "The course is always a lot more mountainous than the Tour de France and the conditions are tougher.

"Being mid-August in Spain, it's quite common to have temperatures up in the mid-40s - it's brutal. Absolutely brutal.

"One thing that really sets the Vuelta apart from other races is where it is in the season - towards the tail end. You have this mixture of riders who have targeted the Vuelta specifically, and they are in fantastic shape.

"You have other riders who are coming off a big season already, and hanging on to whatever condition they've got, and people who possibly have missed their goals earlier in the season and the Vuelta is their chance to salvage what could have been a tough year for them. Typically, it makes it a very aggressive race."

Significantly for Froome, the final stage before the procession into Madrid culminates in a climb up Alto de Angliru - the scene of his sacrificial sorrow six years ago.

But this time Froome can plough on, secure in his status as top dog as he aims to cement his place in history alongside luminaries Anquetil and Hinault.