• Magnanimous... Chris Froome congratulates Nairo Quintana atop the Alto de Aitana. (Tim de Waele/Getty Images)Source: Tim de Waele/Getty Images
It's easy to be a good winner but at the conclusion of this year's Vuelta two men stand out for their elegance in the throes of defeat, writes Anthony Tan.
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Cycling Central
12 Sep 2016 - 6:07 PM  UPDATED 12 Sep 2016 - 10:22 PM

You probably think I have some sort of man-crush on Chris Froome but let me ask you this: how many runner-ups have you seen congratulate the overall winner so soon after being defeated?

It's piss-easy being a gracious winner but for me Froome's magnanimous gesture as he crossed the line Saturday on the Alto de Aitana said more about the Kenyan-born Brit than what he said or showed at this year's Tour de France.

"No wonder that for Spanish cycling aficionados, no other athlete thrills quite like Contador."

It also proved something that, before the race began, I didn't think feasible in the modern era: with the necessary recovery and right preparation, it is possible to win the Tour and Vuelta in a single season. "I definitely think (the double) is possible. I've finished second here and I won the Tour. So I came close, and I'll have to be back again in the future to try again," said Froome. "Maybe that could be my objective for next year."

Of course that will be his objective.

If you take out the Olympic Games that Froome did and Quintana did not; if key stages were recced; if Team Sky came with a stronger line-up that, against Movistar, was clearly underpowered; and if you remove that stage to Formigal that turned the race on its head, then we would most likely have been saluting a different winner Sunday in Madrid. "I think we learnt a lesson on stage 15 and we weren't prepared at the beginning of the stage," said the Team Sky leader. "Inevitably that cost us the race."

Froome was not alone in being a good loser. The man who suffered arguably the harshest defeat was Alberto Contador, who had nothing to show from the Tour de France and everything to gain from the Vuelta a España, perhaps his final chance to nab an eighth Grand Tour victory. Crashing heavily at the end of the seventh stage it appeared another ignominious exit was on the cards but Bertie being Bertie, he was far from done.

Certainly, Froome's Formigal nightmare would not have occurred if it was not for Contador and his Tinkoff team. Unfortunately for him, however, the favour was not returned the day to Alto de Aitana and thanks to superior tactics from Orica-BikeExchange the most combative rider of the Vuelta would fall 13 seconds short of the podium. Saturday's stage capped off one of his least satisfying seasons but instead of unloading with a plethora of ifs and buts he said he learned from the loss: "When you lose you learn more and in this Vuelta I learned a lot. When you win you barely learn anything; when you lose you learn more," he said.

"There were a couple of stages where I learned a lot when I had to work on my own at certain moments. It's simpler if you have a strong block, like Sky had at the Tour de France, but when you don't have this, you have to work in a different way. I'd like to congratulate Nairo Quintana on his victory, Froome for his good race, and Orica for their good tactics."

Do you still hate him for what he's done?

When the Vuelta concluded Sunday he added: "I could say I am satisfied overall with the way I raced and we lived a few days of incredible cycling that thrilled the crowds.

"I will now discuss with the team what the schedule is for the end of the season. We will see what we can achieve in terms of WorldTour Team ranking. This being the final year of Tinkoff it is important to close the curtain on a high note. Last but certainly not least, I would like to express my gratitude to the Spanish public. Their support made me hang on and not abandon. In every village and town we went through it was amazing to hear them cheering me. I feel fortunate to be able to live that."

No wonder that for Spanish cycling aficionados, no other athlete thrills quite like Contador.

Likewise, Froome was equally gracious towards the roadside public: "The fans are one of the reasons why I love coming to the Vuelta," he said. "The people make the race really special. The passion of the fans, and the way they cheer for all the riders, not just the Spanish riders, makes it really special and enjoyable. At the same time it's one of the hardest races on our calendar, but enjoyable at the same time."

When you're a team leader it's so easy to be narcissistic and get caught up in yourself - especially when things go wrong. Contador and Froome showed this Vuelta they're bigger and better than that, and cycling is richer for it.