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.
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.
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?
Inevitably predictions have a horrible habit of returning to bite the lightly informed pundit on his chamois; and so it proved to be the case on the opening stages of the 2015 Tour de France.
My pick of Alex Dowsett for the opening stage, a short TT around the centre of Utrecht, was some way off but Alex’s reaction afterwards suggested that he had left the starters hut thinking he was in with a chance. I was reminded of the head to head with Bradley Wiggins at Knowsley Safari Park in the 2013 Tour of Britain over a ‘classic’ 10 mile TT stage. The battle promised much but the outcome was rather more one sided as Wiggins delivered a masterclass in the conditions. I was further reminded of Dowsett’s breakthrough ride (prior to this year’s hour record success) in the 2013 Giro. In the hot seat for much of the stage Dowsett had the beating of Wiggins (in what was probably his best day of an otherwise nightmare week and a half in Italy) and Vincenzo Nibali on that Saturday. Dowsett described feeling in awe of the sheer scale of the Tour last weekend but I also feel that there was a certain weight of expectation on him to get a result that wouldn’t have been there two years ago at the Giro. Movistar will want their rider to deliver in TT’s if they select him for grand tours; he will (no doubt) get better at coping with the unique pressures of races like the Tour just as he dealt with the mental challenge of the hour. It’s a measure of his character that he got on with his ‘other’ day job shepherding Nairo Quintana over the windswept polders and dykes on stage 2.
The Peloton left Utrecht on Sunday in fine weather with the locals doing the best to out do the crowds that lined the Buttertubs and Jenkin Road last year in Yorkshire. I suspect that everywhere that hosts a grand tour start look to Yorkshire’s 2014 grand depart as the template now. While they basked in sunshine the TV cameras kept cutting to the finish line where the recently assembled promotional furniture was being dismantled all over again in case a sudden gust took it into the North Sea. In some ways it was good that the wind did blow on stage 2 as the it looked as if the finishing straight had been situated atop of a vast sewage sluice gate. It looked brutal and somewhat dramatic but if there hadn’t been an ever changing wind to contend with the stage might have ended up fast but dull to watch. As it was things did blow up and in another throw back to 2013 Movistar found themselves caught out by poor positioning and an opportunistic attack by Etixx Quick Step. Quintana and Valverde lost time on the day and further compounded the time lost on the previous days TT. Vincenzo Nibali wasn’t immune to the dangers either; he was gapped after getting caught behind a crash.
So that’s that then. Bradley Wiggins final race in Team Sky colours ends in 18th place in Paris Roubaix, nine places lower than his finishing position last year. Should this be seen as a failure? Many will answer “yes” but I’m not sure I agree with that. When the mainstream media show any interest in a cycling story the hyperbole is cranked up to maximum level and and Wiggins found himself cast in the role of favourite as anything less wouldn’t have sold the story. Of course Wiggins himself had talked up his chances for the race and it has often proved to be the case that he will get a result in an event that he ‘targets’. With Paris Roubaix falling at the end of the cobbled classics a review of what has transpired over the last few weeks left me thinking that whatever Wiggins thought of his own chances; no matter how well he and the Sky classics squad had prepared and considering the results so far this year, he would need to ‘go long’ to win.
In my last post I talked about how the order of things in this year’s cobbled races had been upset by injuries to riders like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara and the improvement in the fortunes of Sky and Katusha. Boonen and Cancellara between them have dominated the recent history of Paris Roubaix (and last week’s Tour of Flanders) and Cancellara’s absence in particular has had a huge impact on how each race has evolved tactically this year. I don’t think that Alexander Kristoff would have been able to win in Flanders if Cancellara had been fit and I think that rival teams have struggled to adapt their race plans to the emergence of the Norwegian as a factor. With Kristoff in the form of his life I felt that the best way for Wiggins to counter his threat would be to attack at any point between 50 and 20 kilometres to go off the end of one of the cobbled sectors and time trial everyone off his wheel.
There was the briefest of flashes that Wiggins might do this with 32km to go when he broke free from the peloton and overhauled Stijn Vandenbergh who was ahead at the time. Although the remains of the breakaway were still further up the road I think if Wiggins had pushed on this point he could have won. Of course this is just one of several ‘what ifs?’ but Wiggins had enough left in the tank to attack again (by the time the race was effectively lost) at the roundabout outside Roubaix where Niki Terpstra went away last year. So if Wiggins had the legs; what else let him down?
Chasing the Tour in 2013 – Auvergne, Languedoc and Tours
In the week that Team Sky controlled the peloton in the Pyrenees and Bradley Wiggins tightened his grip on the 2012 Tour de France GC I was waiting to board a flight at Alicante airport with Mrs VCSE. We were returning from a summer trip to Barcelona and the Costa Blanca, taking advantage of the expansion of our local airport that now offered flights to many European destinations less than five minutes from our front door. We would be back home to see Wiggins claim the yellow jersey in the penultimate stage TT and Mark Cavendish take his fourth win in a row on the Champs Elysee (this time in the world champion’s rainbow stripes), but first we had the small matter of a flight to board.
We were making the return flight to the UK with the same mix of luggage that we had flown with internally from Barcelona to Alicante a week previously although I was about to find out that this was no guarantee that the next flight would be as straightforward. The gate staff showed less interest in my boarding pass than in the holdall that I was using as hand luggage. We had bought the bag in Barcelona. I had long cherished the idea of purchasing one of the various upcycled items that an enterprising Barcelona retailer made out of the vinyl posters that line the streets in the Catalan capital. Imagine something made out of various off cuts of multicoloured sail cloth and you will get the idea that my choice of cabin bag was hard to miss. It was also apparently to big for me to carry onto the plane and the unsmiling agent at the gate relieved me of 50 euros for my indiscretion. As I caught up with Mrs VCSE on the gangway I announced that it was the “last f**king time I’m flying!”. Adding insult to injury (and these are ‘first world problems’ I appreciate) on boarding the plane the cabin crew didn’t bat an eyelid at the offending, supposed oversized bag and contrary to what I had been told at the gate it wasn’t unceremoniously removed to the hold!
The point of all of this preamble is that the ‘unfortunate incident of the bag that was too big for the cabin’ was the catalyst for the first of the two cycling holidays described here. When the 2013 Tour de France route was announced in October we looked at where we could base ourselves to take in some stages while doing some riding of our own. The 2013 edition of the Tour would start in Corsica before making its way back to the mainland and across the south of France from west to east and into the Pyrenees. The initial plan was to try to find somewhere in the Alpes with the double ascent of Alp d’Huez stage on Bastille Day as a potential centrepiece of the trip. We wondered if we would be able to afford anywhere but price didn’t even come into it as we struggled to find anywhere to stay where we could take the bikes too. We started to look for some alternatives. Having a base around Bordeaux or Brittany was ruled out as we wanted to try to guarantee some sunshine. With one stage finishing and starting (the following day) in Montpellier we set a 50km radius from the city and scouted the ‘net to see what was available. A villa in a small village outside the town of Pezenas was right on the limit of our search area but fulfilled the criteria of private with pool and somewhere secure to store our bikes.
Pezenas is in the Herault department of Languedoc-Roussillon and is best known for its association with the playwright Moliere; the principal (early 19th century) theatre in the town is dedicated to him. Today Pezenas is a thriving centre for antiques and the arts within the largely pedestrianised old town. The VCSE base in Nizas is around 10km from town surrounded by local vineyards. With the plan to drive to the south from the UK we also looked for a couple of places to break up the journey in each direction. On the outward leg we found a chambre d’hote (or B&B if you prefer) near Clermont Ferrand and on the return journey we could catch another stage finish/start in Tours. Cross channel travel was via Eurostar as we had a car full of luggage and nearly £3000 worth of bikes on the car.
A quick sidebar here. If you’re travelling any kind of distance by car with more than one bike a rack is essential (there are few cars that can take two bikes inside). I prefer to use a towbar rack if more than one bike is concerned. There are benefits to this type of rack from a number of points of view. They are generally a better choice from an economy perspective although that has to balanced against the upfront cost of the rack and towbar and depending on the model chosen tow bar racks are more secure from theft. Budget around £250-300 for a two bike rack (ours is from Thule) and around £400-£500 for a tow bar and fitting. I have also used a (Thule) roof bar set up and while these are cheaper I have had some bad experiences with damage to bikes with these in use.
We set off on the same day as the first stage of the 2013 Grand Depart in Corsica and so we would miss the Orica team bus getting stuck under the finish gantry and more significantly the first sign that Mark Cavendish was no longer the fastest man in the peloton. A year before the opening stage in Yorkshire Christian Prudhomme had given Cavendish a golden (or perhaps or more obvious colour) opportunity to wear the leaders jersey in all three grand tours by foregoing an opening prologue stage in favour of a likely sprint finish. At the time it was blame it on the bus driver, but in hindsight this was the emergence of Marcel Kittel as Cav’s heir apparent.
We chose a route to the Auvergne that bypassed Paris and struck out west and then south via Rouen, Chartres (where Wiggins had triumphed in the penultimate stage in 2012), Orleans and Bourges. The unexpected aspect of the journey on that Saturday was that the weather got worse the further south we went and as we began to climb towards our overnight stay near Thiers (the cutlery capital of France if you were wondering) we entered the clouds in a heavy rainstorm.
Quite a few weeks since the last post wrapping up the Vuelta. It’s not as if there hasn’t been much going on, what with Wiggo’s worlds, the final monument of the season and the final (in the literal sense) Tour of Beijing. There’s a literal and figurative wind down to the racing season in September, certainly post the world championships and that’s true of the ‘site too. Reflecting on the 2014 season it does feel like a bit of an anti climax after the Vuelta. Every grand tour this year has had something to hold the interest and each race delivered a winner worthy of a grand tour victory. The races that followed have all seemed a little bit dull in comparison.
VCSE was taken to task by no less than Rouleur when we ventured the opinion that the womens world championship race wasn’t the most exciting one ever. That might have been tinged with disappointment for Lizzie Armitsead losing a race that looked like hers to win, but from VCSE’s armchair at least the Commenwealth women’s road race had a lot more going for it in comparison. So all in all, everything has felt a little jaded and now that planning a ride has started to involve thinking about rain jackets and lights things blog wise may also go into wind down mode also. There may yet be some kind of end of season review and of course it’s always possible that a story will develop over the off season that provokes a paragraph or two. One of the plans at this point last year was to write about the stay in France around the first couple of weeks of the Tour. That post failed to materialise, but may yet see the light of day in a comparison piece with the time recently spent cycling in Spain. There’s also some long overdue product reviews and following the collapse of our T shirt provider last year, the VCSE apparell brand may yet return. In the meantime, some thoughts on Jens, Brad, Dan and the this years top cycling nation..
Jen’s Voigt is the new ‘new’ hour record holder
In and around the post Vuelta season wind down was the first of a supposed series of attempts at breaking the hour record. Newly retired Jens Voigt had been quietly preparing for his tilt at ‘the hour’ and was finding the time to fit it in before a pre-planned charity ride in the UK that was scheduled to take place just 48 hours later. Here was a rider who if he didn’t appear to have the cerebral qualities a record attempt required, would definitely have the heart for the job. There were large dollops of goodwill to accompany him as well, after all Voigt is a rider famed more for his attacking style, rather than the smoothness that is typical of the strongest testers in the peloton like (Tony) Martin and co (although Voigt is a previous GP des Nations winner).
This was going to be the first go at the hour record since the UCI had clarified (if not outright changed) the rules governing the event earlier this year. Prototype bike designs and equally prototype riding positions were long since banned, but the new ruling went further and created a groundswell of possible record attempts not least because riders would be on something that was recognisably bike shaped. Voigt didn’t appear to be riding a TT machine that differed too much from the kind of thing he would have been riding at the Tour in July this year, save for the now obligatory Jensie custom paint job.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all was that he made it all look rather easy. This was a seat of the skinsuit, will he, won’t he record. From the gun if anything Voigt might have been going a bit too quickly to sustain a record breaking pace. From a few laps in though it was all rather relaxed, metronomic lap times that barely varied and put him on track to not just squeeze over the line with seconds to spare, but exceed 50km for the hour quite easily. Post the record, talk inevitably turned to the sort of distance that we could expect from a Wiggins or Martin. If Voigt could make 51km look relatively easy, surely one of the favourites could go further. Is 60km possible?
For Voigt his record may well be short lived. Martin may feel the need to fill the rainbow striped gap in his wardrobe with the cloak of a raised record during the off season. Wiggins may add it to his list of targets ahead of the 2016 Olympics. This probably won’t matter to Voigt that much. He has enjoyed quite a valedictory year and the hour is the cherry on the cake. Say, he had managed to stay away during his solo break during the US Pro Challenge. Would anyone bar the hardest of hard core fans have remembered a stage win there in five years time compared to Jens Voigt’s place as the first of latest generation of hour record breakers?
Wiggins wins world title
Another rider falling into the category of someone you want to see do well, even if you’re not sure they will was Bradley Wiggins in the TT world championship. With only a prologue sized stage in the Tour of Britain to point to as a guide to form Wiggins faced off against Tony Martin for the individual TT. It’s certainly the case that Wiggins has looked better this year, with the rider admitting at various times that he felt he was in at least as good condition as his Olympic and Tour winning year of 2012. With the exception of his non-selection for this years Tour, Wiggins has approached pretty much every event that he wanted to enter in the mood to win and by winning his first ever road based world championship Wiggins would, if only be accident be Sky’s biggest success story in a year the team would probably rather forget. Wiggins felt the course favoured him and Martin was coming off two grand tours, but you only had to look at the German’s body language on the podium to work out that this wasn’t just an off day for the rider who had taken the title four times previously.
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.
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.
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.
There’s no such thing as a dull finish at the Vuelta. One of the things that makes the supposed runt of the grand tour litter so exciting each season is that no matter how uneventful the proceeding kilometres may be the finish always seems to spring a surprise with an uphill drag thrown into a stage that’s supposed to favour the sprinters or some other cycling curve ball. Take stage 6 (one of VCSE’s stages to watch) where the final was a relentless climb of nearly ten percent without so much as a curve to distract the peloton that they had only one way to go; straight up.
Stage 6 was, as predicted, the first selection on the GC albeit with an unexpected outcome. Alejandro Valverde may not be everyone’s favourite rider but the roads of southern Spain are what the Movistar joint team leader calls home and he took the stage while retaking the race lead he had held for a solitary stage earlier this week. At the time of this post Valverde has one more stage to contend with another summit finish if he’s to hold on to the number one spot on GC into Mondays rest day. The question of who leads the Movistar team at this years Vuelta has been one of the main back stories to the race with many commentators (including your correspondent) suggesting that Nairo Quintana would be the man to watch. Leaving aside the other contenders for a moment Valverde took 12 seconds out of Quintana on stage 6 and might have gained some more today as the younger rider got caught out in a crosswind effected stage. Valverde himself has said that we shouldn’t write Quintana off; he’s expecting him to “..strong in the high mountains.”
Tomorrows stage (with another summit finish) to Aramon Valdelinares with its 3,2,1 countdown of categorised climbs may mix the GC up again but it’s entirely possible we’ve already seen the protagonists for this years race when we look at the stage 6 top ten. Joining the Movistar pairing were Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez, Fabio Aru and Robert Gesink. At one point it look as if Purito was going to claim the stage win, but it was Valverde who set the pace pretty much the whole way, shedding riders with GC pretensions all the way including Wilco Kelderman and Rigoberto Uran. Of course another ‘story’ that’s been cooked up for this race is the supposed re-match between Contador and Froome. The Sky rider has played down his own chances this week and while he possibly ‘only’ looked at 95% on the stage 6 finishing climb his condition doesn’t look like the issue. What is becoming a bit of a problem is Froome’s bike handling and he came off the bike again on yesterday’s stage. There’s some suspicion that the accidents that have befallen him are a result of his stem fetish; Froome’s constant glances at his power meter can mean that his eyes aren’t on the road (and the rider immediately in front of him) at crucial moments. It certainly looked like the Sky team leader was being carefully shepherded by his domestiques on today’s stage.
Contador as predicted has been low key, but more importantly never far from the action so far. With one stage to go until the rest day the Tinkoff rider lies in third place 18 seconds behind Valverde and two ahead of Froome. Rodriguez, Aru and Gesink also make the top ten with the current surprise package, Orica’s Jhoan Chaves in 5th place.
The early race lead, taking over from Valverde after winning stage 3 was Chave’s teammate Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews. He add’s the race leaders jersey from the Vuelta to the one he gained earlier this year at the Giro and in some way it might make up for his last minute withdrawl before the start of this years Tour. Matthews lead was set up by a typically strong team time trial performance from Orica, but the surprise package from the opening stage was Movistar who won against more fancied opposition. Matthews held the lead until stage 6 and has placed well on the other ‘flat’ stages. VCSE’s sprint pick John Degenkolb has two stage wins so far equalling FDJ’s outgoing sprinter Nacer Bouhanni who just pipped Matthews today. The only ‘surprise’ win in the first week was from breakaway specialist Alessandro De Marchi who gave Cannondale a nice sign off in the current incarnation with victory on stage 7.
VCSE doesn’t expect the top four to change in terms of riders tomorrow, but the order might do. The good news is that Froome and Contador both look as if they’re going to play their part in this years Vuelta to the full and that could mean a trio of grand tour winners on the podium in two weeks time.
What’s up with this picture?
Maybe a follower from the US can help out with this one? Why is it that so much coverage of US races falls over due to picture break up? During last weeks USA Pro Challenge in Colorado we lost coverage for most of one stage (at least the part that was meant to be televised) and large sections of others. This was blamed on weather conditions and the altitude, but picture break up is a feature at most of the races were coverage is picked up from a US host broadcaster. This is disappointing as much of the rest of the coverage (the on screen ‘ticker’ that shows race position etc.) is excellent. The racing too is very often exciting, save for the inevitable intermediate parts of the stage that have to use arrow straight highways.
Fortunately one of the stages that wasn’t overly effected by transmission difficulties had Jens Voigt in his farewell race in the kind of break that made his name and indeed his ‘Shut up legs’ catchphrase. We were denied a fairytale finish when Voigt was caught within the final kilometre but as may said at the time it was probably fitting that things didn’t quite come off. Voigt leaves the sport undiminished as a rider from the generation that has been most vilified for the doping that signified the period. Voigt, when asked, has always vehemently denied any involvement in PED’s and it’s to be hoped that the rider remains the exception rather than the rule in retirement. As someone who has been such a great marketing tool for Trek worldwide it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine how disappointed his fans would be he turned out to have feet of clay like his erstwhile Trek ambassador Lance Armstrong.
It was interesting to hear that Voigt apparently polarises opinion, with some fans critical of the way this years USA Pro Challenge had been trailed (at least in part) as a valedictory event for the rider. The VCSE standpoint is that Voigt is a character and in an increasingly anodyne sporting world cycling (any sport in fact) needs characters. Compare and contrast Bernard Hinault or Jacques Anquetil with today’s riders and you get the idea.
Brilliant timing from your correspondent means that this Vuelta preview is nothing if not topical. Today it was announced by his Lampre Merida team that 2013 Vuelta champion Chris Horner would not be starting this years edition. Withdrawn due to rules surrounding his cortisol values (he has been suffering from bronchitis), Horner’s non-start caps what has been a pretty awful year for the rider following a serious accident while on a training ride earlier this year. Of course this begs the question; could Horner have defended his title in 2014. The answer is probably no, but it’s terrible news for rider and team as neither have made much of mark this season.
A huge factor effecting a possible Horner title defence in this years race stems from the appearance of a number of riders who under different circumstances would not even have considered riding in Spain. First we have the ‘re-match’ between two protagonists who were meant to duke it out in this years Tour de France. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador both crashed out of the Tour (Froome on the ‘Roubaix’ stage, Contador in the Vosges) fairly early on and while it was clear early on that Froome would attempt to salvage his season at the Vuelta, Contador has had to battle back to fitness from his own accident that occurred later in the same race. It will be interesting to see how Froome goes at the Vuelta. He has good form at the race, finishing second in 2011 where many people thought he could have won if given his head earlier in the race where he had to ride for Bradley Wiggins (the source of some of the enmity between the two riders). After riding for Wiggins at the Tour in 2012, Froome was given outright team leadership duties for the first time in that year’s Vuelta, but struggled with fatigue and against a resurgent Contador who was returning from his clenbuturol ban. Can Froome go one better than 2011? It’s certainly possible. Sky need something from the final grand tour of the year after abject performances at the Giro and Tour and Froome hasn’t added much to his palmares in 2014 other than early season wins in Oman and the Tour de Romandie. If 2014 isn’t going to turn into Sky’s ‘worst ever’ season then Froome will have to do nothing short of winning this years Vuelta. Under different circumstances it’s hard to imagine the team placing that much importance on the race (Sergio Henao as team leader in 2013 ring a bell?). Certainly since their maiden Tour victory with Wiggins it’s been clear that Sky’s focus is Tour centered and even if Froome goes well in Spain this year it’s unlikely that his team will put as much into next years race. There’s potentially more pressure on Froome to deliver as a result and his form and fitness will surely be a deciding factor as much as the route and the competition from other riders in the peloton. Nevertheless, VCSE still picks Froome as one of the favourites for the GC in 2014.
For the other rider crashing out of this years Tour Alberto Contador the pressure is lower. The fact that he will manage to make the start line is an achievement in itself and expectations will be lower for the Tinkoff Saxo team leader. Contador’s team had an outstanding Tour considering the loss of their principal rider with stage wins and the emergence of Rafal Majka as a big star (and KOM). This doesn’t mean that Contador will line up just to make up the numbers at the Vuelta, but if he isn’t in contention for the GC, there is a lot less riding on the race for Tinkoff than for Sky. As with Froome, the key thing will be Contador’s fitness; has the rider recovered sufficiently from the knee injury he sustained in July? If he has and can rediscover the form he showed earlier this year Contador will be locked on for at least a podium, if not the outright win.
There’s another factor in this years GC line up that may reduce Froome and Contador to be fighting over the left overs. 2014 Giro d’Italia champion Nairo Quintana will race this years Vuelta and could be the rider best placed to take victory. Last years Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali was unable to do the ‘double’ fading on the penultimate stage and it will be interesting to see how Quintana manages this year (form and fitness again a question mark?). The Colombian has been almost invisible since his maiden grand tour success so it’s not easy to assess his condition for the Vuelta but a Quintana in the same form as the one who rode the Giro ought to be a favourite for victory here, but for one fly in the ointment in the shape of Alejandro Valverde. Valverde never really threatened the lead at the Tour and faded badly in the final week. It’s hard to imagine Movistar denying him a place in their Vuelta team, but of the riders mentioned so far Valverde would have to be the least likely GC winner and it seems perverse to include Quintana and Valverde in the same squad as this inevitably divides finite resources. This leads to speculation around who leads the team. VCSE’s view is that Valverde is the wrong horse to back for the GC, the teams future is Quintana and the older rider can do more damage to Movistar’s GC rivals by attacking on key stages to tire out the likes of Froome and Contador. Whether or not this comes to pass remains to be seen but Quintana (with the caveats already mentioned) would be the VCSE tip for the win this year.
Among the other contenders is another rider looking to salvage their season. Purito Rodriguez like Chris Horner is suffering from an early season crash and hasn’t really got back into shape since the spring. It’s unlikely that his fortunes will change here. He looked out of sorts at the Tour and it’s really too soon afterwards to imagine him having much more than an outside chance of a podium. There’s further Colombian interest in Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur for Omega Pharma Quick Step and AG2R respectively. Uran will top ten for sure, but there’s the normal composite feel to the OPQS squad and the relative lack of support will most likely deny him a podium. Betancur is altogether harder to predict. After his breakthrough win in this years Paris Nice he’s proved to be something of an enigma, missing the Tour and even ‘disappearing’ at one point. Betancur was poor in last years Vuelta after a decent showing at the Giro. It’s difficult to say how he will run this year, but suspicion has to be that he won’t trouble the top five. Belkin bring a strong team to the Vuelta and should be looking for at least a top ten finish from Wilco Kelderman. With Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam in the squad it’s possible that the team prize will head Belkin’s way with all three riders capable of finishing high on the GC. Astana bring another Giro surprise package in the form of Fabio Aru. Aru has plenty of potential, but it would take a special performance to break into the top five here. Trek could be looking to pinch the leaders jersey on the opening stage team time trial with a strong outfit that includes Fabian Cancellara. MTN Qhubeka have finally secured a grand tour wild card and it will be good to see the African outfit at this year’s Vuelta. Recently announcing a tie up with Cervelo for next year it’s more likely that we’ll see their jersey in the break, but Gerald Ciolek could feature if he can get away towards the end of some of the rolling stages.
Outside the GC the sprinters and points battle should be interesting. Peter Sagan, finally confirmed as a Tinkoff Saxo rider next year, will have his swansong with Cannondale. Sagan faces off against 2014 Giro points winner Nacer Bouhanni, another rider switching teams next year (from FDJ to Cofidis). Giant can pick from any number of strong sprinters in their roster and John Degenkolb should be their go to guy for the flat stages. However, Giant have also selected a bit of a composite team with double stage winner from last years race Warren Barguil in the team also. Barguil has a bit more support this year, but now he’s something of a known quantity it will be interesting to see how he goes. The likelihood is that this years target is a high GC placing rather than outright stage wins, which responsibility will probably fall to Degenkolb who went three better than Barguil in 2012.