Vuelta a Espana 2014 week 2
American Football has been described as ‘a game of inches’ such is the fine margin between victory and defeat. This years Vuelta may yet be decided on the seconds that have ebbed and flowed from Alberto Contador’s lead during the second week of the race. Contador took over the leaders jersey from the somewhat battered Nairo Quintana following the stage 10 individual time trial. Quintana, who lost enough time to fall out of the top ten altogether, crashed heavily enough to wreck his bike and reinforced the theory that 2014 is not a good year to be a race favourite in a grand tour. The Movistar rider was gone the following day (with echoes of Chris Froome’s depatrure from the Tour) following a in peloton accident early in the stage that added broken bones to the broken bike Quintana had suffered the day before. For a rider who only seems to have one facial expression to call on, Quintana showed emotion as it became clear he would need to abandon, although it was incongruous that he appeared to be grinning maniacally at the time.
So Contador took the lead and the questions now surrounded his form and fitness following his ill fated Tour. The suggestion that he had been sandbagging about his chances in the Vuelta, perhaps even returning earlier that reported to riding are superfluous as long as he is able to hold on to the race lead. The difficulty for the Tinkoff Saxo team leader is more so that he has not been able to make the most of the opportunities to put time into his key (remaining) rivals; Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez and the aforementioned Froome. On more than one occasion during the last week Contador has attacked but he hasn’t been able to sustain long enough to break anyone. Is this a question of his fitness? Perhaps, but you can’t help feeling that Contador is lacking in the team stakes here. In particular, VCSE thinks that Contador would not be quite so isolated at the death of each stage if Mick Rogers or Nico Roche were around. Rogers, of course, has already got two grand tours under his belt this year and the Sky bound Roche is at the Tour of Britain. Compare and contrast the Tinkoff squad with Movistar, Sky or Katusha and it’s clear that Contador’s rivals have at least one or two trusted lieutenants (if not genuine contenders) in their line ups.
Writing this ahead of today’s stage (16) it feels like a disaster would have to befall Contador for him to lose the lead ahead of the final rest day, but the fact remains that his lead is a narrow one with three riders all capable of winning within two minutes of his jersey. Chris Froome has struggled at times, most obviously in the TT where he is one of the few GC riders who can genuinely put pressure on Tony Martin. The typically dizzying ramps of the Vuelta have upset him as he is not able to maintain the steady cadence that forms that basis of how Sky (still) ride most of the time. Froome has shown real determination though and every time he has looked dead and buried he’s managed to get back to and sometimes even in front of Contador. If he can remain within striking distance of Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez after today’s stage he’s got to be good for the podium, if not challenging for the win that Sky need so desperately to salvage their season. Rodriguez has been a bit of surprise package in week two and shares the same time as Froome on GC. He hasn’t looked like the best of the four at any time though and it’s hard to see him standing on the top step next weekend. Valverde has to be the main threat to Contador, in second place currently and less than a minute behind. There’s been much talk of Valverde needing to take a pay cut next season due to budget restrictions at Movistar. If he could take the Vuelta it would strengthen his hand considerably and in Quintana’s absence he has (and more importantly his teammates) the motivation to go for the win. The risk for the Spanish triumvirate is that game playing of the sort they indulged in yesterdays stage to Lagos de Covadonga will allow Froome to sneak through and take the prize from them. Sky looked at the formidable best when the delivered Froome to the foot of the climb on stage 14 and they need to be able to do this again in the final week if he’s really going to be in with a chance of victory.
What we haven’t seen much of yet is the GC guys going outright for stage wins (unlike Quintana at the Giro and Vincenzo Nibali at the Tour). Nibali’s Astana teammate and 2014 Giro revelation Fabio Aru has already claimed one stage win, That along with a likely top ten (if not top five) placing is probably already job done for the Italian. Lampre have some consolation that they have been unable to defend Chris Horner’s title from last year with a second stage win. It’s an indication that Horner would at least have had strong support, even if the idea of repeating his 2013 success seemed as unlikely as last years win was at the same stage a year ago.
Dan Martin survived an off road excursion yesterday to maintain his solid top ten performance. After his Giro debacle and missing the Tour, the Vuelta is the Garmin riders opportunity to salvage his season and potentially restablish himself as a GC contender in the eyes of team boss Jonathan Vaughters. Martin has gone for the win on a couple of stages and while these attacks haven’t delivered the result consistent high stage placings translate to (currently) 7th on GC, that could have been higher save for yesterdays crash. Garmin do have a stage win to their name though, thanks to a determined ride from Ryder Hesjedal on stage 14. Hesjedal crawled over ramps that the he had no business doing so and as the road finally began to level off overhauled his final breakaway companion to take the win.
With Nacer Bouhanni’s exit, John Degenkolb should be a shoe in for the points jersey. He’s still two short of his tally of five race wins in the 2012 Vuelta but Michael Matthews may yet spring a surprise. Both riders are better equipped than most sprinters to get over the climbs and it may come down to who is less fatigued next Sunday.
Tour of Britain 2014
This years edition got underway yesterday in Liverpool. Short of a time trial it’s hard to imagine a stage that could do less to capture the imagination watched live. Following a circuit that would have been better suited to an hour long crit the inevitable sprint finish went to Giant’s Marcel Kittel in his first match up against Mark Cavendish since stage 1 of the Tour. Cavendish seemed pretty philosophical afterwards and maybe he’s accepting now that for 2014 at least Kittel is the stronger rider. No doubt, the Omega Pharma rider will spend the off season doing further evaluation to find a chink in the armour of Kittel. There will be other opportunities in this race of course, but it’s really hard to see beyond Kittel at the moment.
Sky defend the race with last years winner Bradley Wiggins. He was conspicuous at the front of the peloton as the race approached the 3km to go marker yesterday and with a number of riders from last years winning effort returning this year there’s a sense that Wiggins might be serious about repeating the win on GC. Is he as motivated as last year? Guess would be, not quite. However, if Froome cracks in the final week of the Vuelta Wiggins might want to put down another marker to his current employer about his future value. If Wiggins does the double in the Tour of Britain it will be one of only a handful of stage races that Sky will have claimed this year and in terms of profile Wiggins potential win here and earlier this year in the Tour of California are by far the biggest.
Things have been rather quite on the Wiggins front as far as his future in concerned, but expect him to sign for another year (if not two) with Sky in the off season. In the build up to the 2016 Olympics he will probably fulfil a similar programme to this year targeting the classics and week long stage races.
The race follows a slightly different format this year with lengthy stages between now and the weekend where a short TT will precede a circuit sprint stage around central London. It will be up to Sky to try and keep Wiggins out of trouble and far enough to the front of the race to give him the best chance of cementing a win in the penultimate stage next Saturday.
The Jensie targets the hour
Jens Voigt announced last week that he would be making an attempt of the hour record in Switzerland. With the UCI clarifying the position (literally and figuratively) around the hour in the last year Voigt’s tilt at the record could break the ice for further attempts from riders like Bradley Wiggins and Tony Martin. One rider it’s hard to see having a go now is Fabian Cancellara, who remains an at least semi detached teammate of Voigt’s at Trek.
The question of course is how much is this a glorious publicity stunt or is Voigt genuinely serious. The determination is clear, but no matter how often he tells them to “shut up”, will he have the legs?