Vuelta a Espana 2015 postscript
The dust has well and truly settled on this year’s Vuelta and we are already into the world championships (posting this the day after the TTT). I’m a bit late to the game so I won’t do a blow by blow account of the race post the second rest day; rather here are one or two reflections on this edition.
Just as heart ruling head wanted an Alberto Contador Giro Tour double earlier in the year I was pretty much rooting for Tom Dumoulin to take the overall victory; the prospect of which had been off most peoples radar three weeks ago. Even so when Fabio Aru limited his losses to Dumoulin in the TT I still wasn’t sure that the latter would have enough in his legs (leave alone any kind of meaningful time gap) to hold onto the leaders jersey he now held. If Dumoulin had been the surprise package of the 2015 Vuelta Aru delivered the surprise performance of the TT. No one expected Joaquim Rodriguez to do any more than babysit the race lead into stage 17 and he served up the expected ‘difficult’ result on his time trial bike. Just as Purito was likely to be horrible against the clock Dumoulin was expected to destroy his opposition and up to a point he did; finishing more than a minute ahead of the next rider on the stage. However Aru, who had looked pretty average through the first two time checks must have ridden the final sector like a man possessed (or at least in pursuit of his first grand tour win) and was within two minutes of Dumoulin at the finish. Purito lost the lead and fell to third while Dumoulin leapfrogged everyone and had a three second advantage over Aru.
So at this point I wanted to see Dumoulin hang on; however improbable the chances seemed. The race was already going to be won by one of the undercard as we had lost Froome over a week previously and Nairo Quintana had never really looked like the rider who many (myself included) had tipped as the favourite. Aru had been handed a clear run thanks to the disqualification of Vincenzo Nibali and the lack of the pre-race big names left in the running was giving Rodriguez an outside chance of victory too. The biggest issue facing Dumoulin was that he was riding in a team that had been built around the sprinting ambitions of John Degenkolb (Dumoulin wasn’t even the team leader). On each day in the mountains Dumoulin had been left to find his own wheels to follow once Lawson Craddock (the only other recognised climber on the Giant Alpecin squad) pulled off. Dumoulin had shown he was capable of limiting his losses and the last of the summit finishes had been on stage 16 but could he really maintain a three second lead over Aru with difficult days still to come?
Ultimately the answer was no but on stage 19 Dumoulin was able to increase his slender lead over Aru and the Astana leader was alleged to have needed a shove from a teammate as they approached the finish in Avila. I suppose this was the point where I started to think a Dumoulin overall win might be possible. Away for the weekend I was following the race via social media and race reports as I wasn’t even catching the ITV highlights package. It seemed like Aru might be the one who was cracking and I was working on the basis that any time Dumoulin lost on the climbs he could make up on the descents with non-uphill finishes on the final stages.
That Dumoulin ended up being the one that broke shouldn’t be seen as the inevitable happening either. No matter how valiantly his teammates rode for him to try to offer some protection Astana had perfected the tactic of riding hard at the head of the race at this years Giro and Dumoulin is no Contador when it comes to resisting that kind of attack. He was philosophical in defeat, extremely so considering that he didn’t just fall from the race lead but off the podium altogether. Dumoulin has also been frank with anyone who might have questioned any of his performances post the race; announcing that he will release all of his data lest anybody suspect that what he achieved was in some way other worldly.
The noises off on that subject were fairly muted to my ears although no less an authority as Mrs VCSE did wonder why Dumoulin wasn’t subject to the same scrutiny as a certain Team Sky rider for his performances. The answer to that is that the Tour is Tour and the Vuelta.. well.. isn’t. There’s just not the wider media coverage for cycling outside of the Tour and if there wasn’t much questioning of Chris Horner winning the 2013 Vuelta (another rider who released all of his data) then Dumoulin was far less suspect as a (potential) winner. Another reason why could be that he was pretty good with requests from the media too. Not for him the ‘official’ post race interview only. Dumoulin always seemed to have time for a microphone irrespective of how the stage had gone for him; witness his words delivered to the throng from the car seat of his team car in the aftermath of losing the lead on stage 20. Final thought; Giant’s two ‘star’ riders up until this year Kittell and Degenkolb are both avowedly anti as far as doping is concerned and this extends to the entire team set up.
So we can believe in Dumoulin’s performance in this years Vuelta but is he a grand tour winner in waiting? With Giant Alpecin I think ‘no’. When Horner was winning in 2013 there was another Giant rider (in their erstwhile Shimano incarnation) taking a pair of stage wins and getting touted as a ‘future grand tour winner’. Warren Barguil is a case in point for why Tom Dumoulin won’t be winning a grand tour any time soon with his current team. Although Kittel has had a pretty miserable year Giant aren’t about to morph into a GC team from a sprint orientated outfit. Dumoulin was able to shed weight ahead of the Vuelta (apparently only 2-3 kilos heavier than Froome at the start of the race) but delivering a TT specialist to grand tour win requires very careful team selection, more so than for a Froome or Contador who can look after themselves against the best climbers in the absence of teammates. This years Vuelta is a breakthrough result for Dumoulin but perhaps not in the way initially thought.
So what of Aru’s first grand tour win. I must admit to feeling a bit ‘Meh’ about it all. The Dumoulin story wasn’t the only engaging tale to emerge at this years Vuelta. Esteban Chavez charmed on and off the bike and demonstrates that Orica Green Edge are closer to becoming a GC team than Giant are ever likely to be. Aru did not so much win the Vuelta as Dumoulin lost it; the beneficary of his (Dumoulin’s) lack of support in opposition to a strong group of Astana climbing domestiques. The Astana dynamic will be interesting to watch next year as Nibali seems to have very much fallen from favour but it’s hard to see Aru as a rider who can go pedal stroke for pedal stroke against Contador, Froome and Quintana at their best.