Sky settle for second* – 2014 Vuelta & Tour of Britain reviewed

Vuelta a Espana 2014 final week 

Just as VCSE questioned the lack of stage wins from the leading contenders for this years Vuelta a Espana and up pops Alberto Contador to bookend the final week with two convincing victories. If it had ever been in doubt that Contador was the class act of the GC field in this years race, these were dispelled by the two results he achieved in the final week. On stage 16 and the penultimate stage 20 Chris Froome was the only one of the main protagonists who could stay close to the race leader but the proximity was strictly in Contador’s gift. He hovered on Froome’s wheel as the two ascended the final climnb to Puerto de Ancares with Purito Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde long since dispatched, before delivering the coup de grace to the Sky team leader and winning by 16 seconds.

Alberto Contador - Vuelta 2014 winner
Alberto Contador – Vuelta 2014 winner

Froome finished the race just over a minute behind Contador in second, having overhauled Valverde earlier in the week but the bare facts are that after stage 16 Contador was unassailable. With the exception of Valverde’s stage win during the first week and the few seconds that Froome gained (only to lose them again the following day) on stage 14 Contador didn’t look like he was in any danger of losing the race lead he had inherited from Valverde’s Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana.

As is the case with every grand tour it seems the final stage, a short time trial around Santiago de Compostela, proved to be anti climatic in more ways than one. The GC is normally long settled by this point and for the 2014 Vuelta the stage descended to near farce as a sudden downpour left the course near unrideable for the sharper end of the peloton. Contador was able to concede more time to Froome in 10 kilometres than he had allowed in the preceding three weeks without any fear that he might actually lose the race lead. This years edition of the Vuelta has had some fantastic stages and the organisers can hardly be blamed for the weather, but final stages are almost becoming an irrelevance as far as GC is concerned. It’s hard to imagine that the events of the final (TT) stage in Paris for the 1989 Tour could be engineered, but organisers and fans alike must all wish for a final day that is worth watching for more that just the final seconds of a bunch sprint.

Contador should (rightly) be viewed as the strongest rider in this years Vuelta, but inevitably questions remain as to whether he would have been able to beat Quintana had the Colombian stayed on his bike. With the absence of a particular rider (for whatever reason) from each of this years grand tours and, furthermore, some riders crashing out during an event we have been denied the opportunity to confirm which rider is the ‘best’ in 2014. Should it be Nibali, Quintana or Contador? Of the first two, both made winning their grand tour victories look relatively simple in the absence of the strongest opposition. Quintana started as a favourite for the Giro, rightly so, but it’s harder to make the case that Nibali started this year’s Tour as a shoe in for the maillot jaune however convincing his win appeared to be in the end. Contador showed flashes in the Tour that he was in great form, a short attack to distance Nibali the day before he (Contador) crashed out in the Vosges for example. We were denied a similar comparison between Contador and Quintana during the Vuelta, but gut feel is that Contador is probably the rider who was the strongest this year. All of this is based on speculation and relatively uninformed opinion. It’s hardly likely that Contador and Froome would have ridden this years Vuelta unless they had crashed out of the Tour, in which case we could have been looking at a Quintana, Valverde, Rodriguez podium.

Which leads us to who will be challenging in the grand tours in 2015. Chris Froome has the biggest point to prove. Whichever way Sky spin things, this has been their worst year since 2011, perhaps even since their inception without a single major win in one day or stage races. Not all of this is Froome’s fault as such, although it can be argued that his bike handling did contribute to his early exit from the Tour. The suggestion was that Froome’s performances improved as the Vuelta went on, but conversely it could be said that his main rivals (bar Contador) faded as the race went on. Froome seemed almost a caricature  of himself at times; his fixation on his stem is now a staple for television commentators as much as satirists. Sky’s ability to set the pace for the peloton has waned from the beginning of this season to the point where it almost isn’t a factor anymore. This doesn’t spell the end of the team or Froome though; he was always going to struggle where changes of pace determined by gradient was a factor. It is interesting that Sky have signed, or been linked to, riders who will be able to bring some tactical insight to the team next year. Capturing Nico Roche from Tinkoff will be a real coup if Sky are going to learn how to deal with Contador next season. Worst case scenario for Sky would be that Froome cannot adapt to the new challenges he has faced this year as his rivals had to change to be able to overcome the dominance of Sky last year. He will also benefit from the return to full fitness of Richie Porte and it will be interesting to see if the Tasmanian will be asked to put his grand tour ambitions on hold for another year to ensure that Froome is best equipped for the 2015 Tour de France that will surely be his and Sky’s main target.

Vincenzo Nibali is rumoured to be considering a Giro Tour double in 2015 and VCSE would suggest that the Giro is locked on as the Astana rider ‘gets’ the symbolism of his home grand tour. His team have options now, following a strong performance by Fabio Aru at this years Vuelta to go with his fine result from the Giro earlier in the year. Contador will be at the Tour, with Movistar more likely to back Quintana next year despite resigning Valverde for three(!) more years this week. VCSE will make the bold assertion now that Alejandro Valverde will not win a grand tour in the next three years, even though he will target the Vuelta again next year. Another rider who will not win a grand tour is Joaquim Rodriguez. The Katusha team leader has probably beaten Froome by a nose to the rider who’s had the ‘worst’ year, but this has slipped below the radar due to lower expectations. Admittedly dogged by injury ahead of the Giro, the fact is that Rodriguez has looked out of sorts in every race he has ridden since then. Can he bounce back in 2015? He’ll try for the Giro again, but it’s hard to see the circumstances in which he could beat Nibali.

Back to the Vuelta, the final week had its high point (for your correspondent at least) with Adam Hansen’s late breakaway to win on stage 19. It’s almost inevitable that Hansen will break the record for consecutive grand tour appearances now and his case for inclusion in his Lotto team can only be helped by the occasional stage win. This victory wasn’t quite the solo ride that saw him take a stage in last years Giro but it was just as enjoyable to watch. John Degenkolb picked up another stage win, but his points jersey victory was only confirmed on the final day as Valverde had been in close attention in the contest.

Reading the various posts and articles written after the Vuelta there’s been some suggestion that it has been the best of the grand tours this year. I’m not so sure about this. There’s surely a tendency to focus on what’s most immediate in the memory and much as this years edition has been enjoyable it’s hasn’t eclipsed some of the things that stick in the mind from this years Tour for example. It hasn’t gone to the wire like last years Vuelta either, no matter what you might think of the validity of Chris Horner’s win in 2013. It’s been a good race, with a worthy winner and an interesting route, but probably not the classic that some are suggesting.

Tour of Britain 2014

So someone we’ve never heard of won the Tour of Britain 2014. This isn’t intended to do a disservice to Garmin’s Dylan Van Baarle who took the overall GC after getting into the break on the penultimate day, so much as an acknowledgement of what can happen with six man squads and no race radio. Jonathan Vaughters was effusive in his praise for the the young Dutch rider after the event and some ‘people in the know’ suggested that he had been one to watch from the outset, but the ToB 2014 was probably lost by Omega Pharma Quick Step’s Michael Kwiatowski rather than won by Van Baarle.

OPQS enjoyed a good race outside of Kwiatowski missing out on the GC with stages wins for the Pole, plus teammates Julien Vermote and Mark Renshaw. Kwiatowski and Van Baarle had the distinction of actually wearing the leaders jersey for more than 24 hours, with Kwiatowski claiming his after his stage win on stage 4. The Kwiatowski and eventual winner Van Baarle race leades bookended a single day in yellow for Movistar’s Alex Dowsett who had seemingly slipped from GC contention during the races only summit finish and then lost out on participating in a break the following day thanks to a double puncture. Anger and frustration seem to be a powerful motivator in this case as Dowsett was able to channel all of this into another break on Thursday and build up enough of a lead to take the lead for a single day. He could have had the stage win too, but was astute enough to make a pact with IAM’s Matthias Brandle that handed the Austrian the stage win in return for his assistance in keeping the break clear of the peloton.

Brandle was a back to back stage winner from a break along with Vermote, with the race hard to control for smaller teams and certainly for Kwiatowski a lack of cooperation from other outfits when it came to chasing down riders who had got away.

Defending champion Bradley Wiggins never really looked like figuring after the first stage, although he was never completely out of contention either on GC. The short TT that took place ahead of the final stage was always going to be a risky foundation to build a GC win on and so it proved although Wiggins did take the stage. It was a shame that the determined rider who rode the peloton off his wheel going up Mount Diablo in the Tour of California didn’t show, he did look like he was making some kind of effort (albeit in a semi-motivated kind of way). An eventual podium place was no disgrace and was some consolation for Sky who lost out on the combined jersey to Kwiatowski on the final day too.

The other ‘big name’ from a British perspective didn’t have much to cheer about. Mark Cavendish came closer to Marcel Kittel on the final stage in London, probably the closest he has looked all season. Cavendish had worked hard for Kwiatowski while he had held the lead and unlike Kittel is returning from injury. It’s another thing to speculate about; can Cavendish overcome Kittel and recapture his crown as king of the sprinters. It would be tempting to think that Cavendish might re-evaluate his targets instead of just attempting to up his game as a pure sprinter next year. Increasing his range and going for some of the classics perhaps? Milan San Remo (of course) has been done before but that isn’t the only one. The alternative? It’s too early to think of decline surely, but Cavendish has lasted longer than many other fast men. More likely is further refinement of his sprint train to try and counter the sheer size, if not strength of Kittel’s Giant outfit.

The success story of the week was event as much as the race itself. Crowds get larger and the race has visited new locations for the first time this year leading to an improvement in the route. The number of genuine stars at this years race was an indictaion of the higher profile it now enjoys as much as the increase in UCI ranking. There will be some fall out as far as the British continental squads inclusion is concerned, but those that were present last week played an active role that justified their inclusion. The next steps must surely involve a longer route / stages and or bigger squads. The only misstep was the ‘clash’ with the Vuelta, although in practice it was relatively straightforward to keep up with both races ‘live’. The finish in London should be a permanent fixture for now, or at least until it feels as jaded as the final day of the Tour. The challenge as far as the route is concerned is to try and include a stage in all of the UK as Scotland and Northern Ireland missed out again this year.

For the riders, some heading now for the world championships, this years ToB has cemented reputations and in the case of Van Baarle made one.

..and third 

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