The only thing that’s predictable about the Vuelta is its unpredictability

Vuelta a Espana week 2 review

I left off the 2015 Vuelta a Espana on the first rest day and ahead of the stage that many of us thought would point towards the rider most likely to take the overall this year. Last week we had long since lost Vincenzo Nibali from the race. Entered as ‘detention’ from his Astana team after failing to offer the expected heroic defence of his Tour de France title, insult was added to injury after he was disqualified for taking a wing mirror tow from his team car. Nibali’s early exit was forgotten as the first ten days racing witnessed the emergence of two riders to challenge the status quo among the GC contenders. Astana hadn’t made too much fuss about Nibali; they were geared towards Fabio Aru taking a first grand tour victory. Lining up against them, albeit not so ‘fresh’ from the Tour were Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana. The Vuelta’s knack of throwing up a surprise or two was evident in the relegation of the star names of the peloton to supporting roles as first Esteban Chavez and the Tom Dumoulin were the story of the first half of the race.

Fabio Aru - chance gone?
Fabio Aru – chance gone?

Chavez and Dumoulin had shared the race lead between them and taken three stage wins. Chavez was the ‘winner’ as far as quantity but Dumoulin was arguably the most impressive overhauling Froome to win stage 9 on a short but steep hill top finish near Calpe. It was Dumoulin who wore the leaders jersey after the race had transferred from the southern Spain to Andorra but with the sharks tooth profile of stage 11 ahead you would have been forgiven for thinking that if anyone’s luck was about to run out it would be Dumoulin’s.

Instead the first casualty and second big name to exit the race was Froome. There have been enough incidents on this years edition of the Vuelta to satisfy the lawyers for years but the exact circumstances of what caused Sky’s team leader to break a bone in his foot aren’t crystal clear. The official version is that another rider collided with Froome causing him to hit an obstacle at the side of the road. That this rider hasn’t (yet) been identified suggests that it might have  been what insurance companies call a 50:50 accident but that shouldn’t detract from an extremely gutsy performance from Froome to ride to the finish when it was clear afterwards that just walking a few steps to the car was difficult. We won’t know if he was able to challenge for the GC but it does look like the riders who went well at the Tour are struggling here, albeit for different reasons. Geraint Thomas gave Froome a wheel to follow and pretty much ended his chances of being a factor in the race but Mikel Nieve has emerged from their shadow and looks likely of delivering his best ever result in any grand tour.

Nieve wasn’t the best Sky rider on stage 11, that went to Ian Boswell who looks a far better rider than when he was hanging off the back of the peloton in Paris Nice in 2013. Otherwise the top ten was compiled with the names you would have expected to see at the sharp end of a very difficult 158km stage. Dumoulin did lose the race lead to Aru but by less time than many would have predicted. In fact Dumoulin came in just over a minute and half back on Aru in company with Chavez who had pretty much wheel sucked the Dutchman up the final climb. While Aru took the jersey he didn’t win the stage. Sky bound Mikel Landa stuck a metaphorical finger up at his current employer by turning a deaf ear to requests that he should wait for his team leader and soloed to victory. The result saw Dumoulin drop to third behind Aru and Purito Rodriguez the ‘designer’ of the stage if you were to believe Carlton Kirby on Eurosport.

Aru kept the lead until yesterday (stage 16) but the narrative of the race has been less about him and his successor on GC Rodriguez than about Dumoulin. Only 30 seconds down on Aru following stage 11 Dumoulin has become the story to the extent that the other teams seemed to change their respective strategies to one focused solely on putting time into him ahead of the TT (stage 17). Under ‘normal’ circumstances the stage might have been in two parts with Dumoulin and (say) Fabian Cancellara putting down a marker for the world championships and the GC guys attempting to gap their rivals. Instead we have the prospect of Dumoulin assuming the race lead once more and potentially holding it to win the Vuelta overall.

This has as much to do with Dumoulin being the surprise package on GC as for the fact that Aru seems to missing the last few ingredients that would have allowed him to get a grip on the race. With only a one second lead over Rodriguez ahead of yesterdays stage Aru had his ‘worst’ day out of the last three as Dumoulin was having his best. Rodriguez had done the damage on stage 15 with a 15 second advantage over Aru plus a 10 second bonification on the line to allow him to touch the hem of Aru’s leaders jersey. A day later it was on Purito’s shoulders as Aru had to come from behind to try and limit his losses.

And so we have the prospect of a watchable TT stage. Of course now that Dumoulin is no longer a surprise the talk is of not will he win the stage but by how much. With Nibali and Froome long gone there isn’t a decent tester in the top 10 with the possible exception of Quintana (remember him?). The Vuelta may yet have more surprises in store. There are a few more cat 1 climbs for the peloton to get over before the race reaches Madrid but we’re done as far as summit finishes are concerned. The Vuelta in its current incarnation has developed a habit of delivering a curve ball for us. Might this year’s curve ball be a Tom Dumoulin victory?

The super supporters – VCSE’s thoughts on Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico

Chris Froome
Settling for 2nd – Froomey (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

Tirreno Adriatico finished with Tuesday’s Time Trail. For Team Sky and Chris Froome there was perhaps disappointment that he was unable to emulate Richie Porte in Paris Nice and win the general classification. 

With talk of a breakaway world series ahead of the start of last weeks races it could be seen that some of the world tour teams were sending coded messages to the UCI by running their A squads in the Tirreno. Sky were led by Froome with most of his helpers from last years Vuelta supplemented by new signings Dario Cataldo and Joe Dombrowski. Froome faced a stellar cast of GC contenders in Alberto Contador (Saxo), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)and Cadel Evans (BMC).

There was plenty of room within the field for other stories to be played out a week ahead of Milan San Remo with the sprinting hierarchy represented by Mark Cavendish (OPQS), Andre Greipel (Lotto) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale).

There were metaphorical raised eyebrows in France that the world tour teams appeared to be placing Tirreno ahead of Paris Nice  with their selections but at the end of both races the teams looked justified as Tirreno led the way for incident and excitement.

Porte had seemed uncomfortable with the leaders mantle to begin with, sometimes looking like he needed to be reminded that he could call the shots. Certainly he had a strong pairing to work for him at the front with the ex Movistar riders David Lopez and Vasil Kiryenka impressing on the climbs also. Sky’s other new signings at Paris Nice Jonathan Tiernan-Locke and Ian Boswell had a tougher time. Brian Smith, JTL’s ex manager suggests that he would be better suited for the classics. but Sky have him earmarked as a GC rider. Other than flashes when the race entered the climbs he cast a rather forlorn figure before abandoning due to illness on stage 5. Boswell was conspicuously out the back on most days and will no doubt be expected to improve.

Porte’s moment of clarity about being team leader probably came at the end of stage came at the end of stage 4 when Andrew Talansky (Garmin) took the yellow jersey and stage win. Porte and Sky were super strong the following day with a summit finish that allowed Porte to demonstrate his superiority on the climbs.

The possibility of Talansky wresting back the yellow on the final day’s TT was demolished when Porte’s time split came on screen. It’s not surprising that speculation about Porte as a potential GC winner at the Giro next year has begun. VCSE wonders if Dave Brailsford can imagine a world where his two GC contenders are Froome and Porte rather than Froome and Wiggins.

As Paris Nice was reaching its climax Tirreno Adriatico was just beginning to warm up. Omega Pharma had Cavendish in the leaders jersey until Saturday after the opening team TT and his consistent sprint placings on stages 2 and 3. Beaten in both, Cav, his lead out, or a combination of the two didn’t appear to be firing on all cylinders. Peter Sagan’s strong start to the season continued with stage wins book ending the summit finish action at the weekend.

Froome had appeared beaten on the climb to Prati di Tivo on Saturday but produced a stunning victory that left his rivals shell-shocked riding up to their wheels, then around, before soloing up to the line.

Sunday’s stage to Chieti with its final kilometres formed of narrow streets and double digit ramps were Froome and indeed Sky’s undoing. As with the Vuelta last year he looks vulnerable to attack on short, steep climbs. As the finish approached Froome burnt all of his supporting ‘matches’ and was spent going too early for the final intermediate sprint. losing out to Contador. Purito Rodriguez rode away from everyone on the final climb which left VCSE wondering about Katusha and ‘ethical reasons’.

Chieti’s climbs were familiar ground. On Monday the penultimate stage visited the 300 odd metres of the Muro di Sant’Elpidio and its 27% ramps not once but twice. The height of the climb was the deceiver in what appeared to be a fairly innocuous stage. The sight of the worlds best riders resorting to walking in some cases and more than fifty abandonments is an indication of just how tough the climb was. RCS, the Tirreno organisers, admitted the following day that yes perhaps it had been too much. Spare a thought for BMC’s Taylor Phinney who at least completed the stage, but at 35 minutes down missed the time exemption.

A second day of this type of climb did for Froome as leader as he again lost his support and even lost out to the likes of Sagan on the Muro. Sagan re bonded with last years team mate Nibali to share the spoils of stage win and leaders jersey ahead of the final days TT.

The Tirreno also saw a renaissance of sorts for Damiano Cunego who starred in a solo breakaway on Sunday and was part of the group break on Monday. His efforts rewarded by the King of the Mountains jersey.

Froome’s challenge at the Tour will be to use his domestiques wisely. While the Tour is unlikely to feature the type of ramps seen in Italy or Spain a double ascent of Alpe d’Huez will not take prisoners. Sky look to have all of the cards with their domestiques this year. Kiryenka and Lopez in Paris Nice and Cataldo in the Tirreno all impressed, looking like the can ride at the front all day and with Porte returning to normal duties in the grand tours Sky’s first six names on the team sheet have probably already been written.