The third Grand Tour of the season, The Vuelta a España, got underway today. And if it seems like no time since the Tour ended, that is because it isn't. A quick vacation for myself, a week or so to get back to normal and bang, another big race.
The third Grand Tour of the season, The Vuelta a España, got underway today. And if it seems like no time since the Tour ended, that is because it isn't. A quick vacation for myself, a week or so to get back to normal and bang, another big race.
What an incredible week at the Vuelta, accumulating in an extraordinary weekend in which the balance of the race ebbed and flowed before dropping right into the lap of Nairo Quintana, as Chris Froome was finally isolated when Alberto Contador threw all his cards onto the table as he is always apt to do when struggling to make up time by conventional methods.
For several days it seemed though Froome was going to survive what Quintana had been throwing at him and would limit the Colombians lead to around a minute before the stage 19 time-trial in which the Sky rider would then surely overhaul that deficit and set up the first Tour-Vuelta double of the decade.
On Saturday Froome had stayed on the wheel of Quintana in the kind of way the Movistar rider had done to the Sky man the entire Tour de France last month, but managed to lose no time on a grueling finish, one that seen Alejandro Valverde crack and make this Vuelta a two-horse race.
But then came the kind of stage yesterday that should have seen red flags go up before the starters flag had even come down. At just 118km in length but with three hard climbs including a summit finish, all eyes should have been on Contador and what he might try. He was far enough back overall not to panic about too much but when he launched his move and Quintana followed, Froome needed to react.
He was left with a split second decision to either put his team on the front and slowly bring the move back, or to go with it. He chose the former, but the only problem was that his team were nowhere to be seen, or at least no longer had the legs required to do their jobs. So Froome suddenly found himself with only a couple of team-mates and a group of others unwilling to do much work. Quintana and Contador in a group of 14 disappeared up the road and Froome’s GC ambitions began to shatter.
For the final 50km it was a giant pursuit…or a race of damage limitation. Astana chipped in for reasons not quite clear, and Froome may thank them for it, as the damage could have been much worse. Froome limped home 2min 53sec behind Quintana, who finished second on the stage behind Gianluca Brambilla after earlier cracking Contador himself, and while he remains second overall the Sky rider is now 3min 37sec behind. The onus is now on him to try do something similar to Quintana in order to bring down the deficit before the time-trial.
The odds of that seem unlikely given it is clear Froome is not the man he was at the Tour, though those odds may be increased slightly by the fact that he still has a team around him at all. You see, the gruppetto ambled home a massive 54 minutes behind the stage winner and all outside the time-limit. Indeed, Froome was the only Sky man to make the cut and in theory everyone should have been eliminated, reducing the field of this Vuelta to little more than about 70 men. Traditionally however race organizers will overrule the time cut if it means the field would be dramatically reduced and did so in this case though it has created a stir of controversy given the kind of men involved.
In theory, Sky’s domestiques have been given a day off and an entry back into the race, and with fresher legs could yet help Froome to hurt Quintana on a later day. Should that happen you get the sense there might be uproar.
It’s hard to know where to come down on this? Lose more than half the peloton on one stroke and you do make a mockery of the race, but should Sky put the hammer down in the days to come it could equally make a mockery given all but Froome technically shouldn’t be there. There is president for eliminating large groups outside the time limit, but not to this extent. It would seem that race organizers made the common sense decision but it has to have been awkward and it must surely lead to some kind of shakeup on how the time limit is set up and interpreted.
Then again, wouldn’t it have been fascinating to see how it might play out with just 70 or so men line up for the start today with Chris Froome by himself? I get the impression sponsors, TV and others with financial interest might not have been so impressed however. Not to mention fans who are planning to go watch their heroes on a stage this week if they suddenly find out half the field is now missing.
The only way around it, that I can see, is to change the time-limit margins on certain stages so that it isn’t quite as tight as it was today (albeit even relaxing this, the 54min coughed up today still may not have gotten this group inside a more relaxed limit) and then make it a hard and fast limit with no exceptions so that everyone knows were they stand. It seems clear that when the hammer went down on yet another brutal day of hilly racing in this most brutal of Vuelta’s (a level of extreme difficulty that must also surely be factored in when setting time limits), that a large group gathered at the back and decided to take it easy in the knowledge that the race officials wouldn’t have it in them to kick them all out. You can’t blame the riders given how hard this race has been…the organisors in many ways asked for a day like this when they unveiled such a route…one that we all love, mind you, and one that they themselves might even have been delighted with given the spectacle regardless.
But we’ll see how this impacts the race in the days ahead.
And what of Quintana’s form in general? What do we make of his sudden upturn in form from the Tour to the Vuelta? He’s clearly improved dramatically whereas Froome has fallen away. Yes Froome won the Tour, but he only beat Quintana by 4min 21sec, or by just 0.08% of the total time. Of course, Froome then went to a couple of post-Tour criteriums, he completed the Ride London classic, and then flew to Brazil to compete hard in both the road race and individual time-trial, whereas Quintana took a break and turned his focus entirely on the Vuelta. That in itself is possibly the difference.
Or, the Colombian was never targeting the Tour all along despite what he said. Perhaps deep down he knew that he wouldn’t be able to beat Froome when Froome was on top form and instead decided winning the Vuelta held the greater opportunity for a return on his efforts over the season?
We’ll never know what has made the difference for sure, but one thing is certain: Froome is having to dig very deep and hope desperately that his form arrives late just to keep a new and fresher Quintana within sight.
It’s going be a fascinating final week.
As it is, the general classification after 15 stage is as follows:
1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in 61h36’07”
2. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 3’37”
3. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExhange) @ 3’57”
4. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) @ 4’02”
5. Simon Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) @5’07”
6. Samuel Sanchez (BMC) @ 6’12”
Rider of the week
He’s been in fine form throughout this Vuelta and yesterday he put several nails into the coffin of his final rival and baring disaster will surely go on to win this Vuelta. So who else but Nairo Quintana.
Rider of the month
This was hard. Nobody has dominated the month. The Vuelta is still very much on going and still to be determined what direction it might take whereas different people have stepped up to win single day races. As a result I’ve looked at the most prestigious of the lot in August, the Olympics and gone with Greg Van Avermaet for his superb win on a course that nobody expected to suit his style of riding…so much so that Peter Sagan skipped it altogether. Yes the British athletes were superb on the track this month, but Van Avermaets road gold was the standout individual performance.
Up to and including today, the Vuelta a España has seen its red leaders jersey change hands seven times between six men. From Peter Kennaugh back on day one to Nairo Quintana today after the Colombian won the first high mountain stage to retake a lead he had coughed up a day go and put time into his closest rivals heading into the first rest day.
Until today this Vuelta had been one of multiple hills, with a handful of short-sharp summit finishes. The kind of steep climbs that suit you one day and punish you the next. The kind that some climbers love and some hate. It seen opportunities for breaks to survive (hence the race leadership changes) and for small chunks of time to be exchanged among the leaders while those left in contention are whittled down daily.
So much so that after this first week and a bit of racing, only a handful were left in contention. Even Alberto Contador found himself minutes adrift to the likes of Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde and the Colombian pair of Nairo Quintana and Esteban Chaves. Froome looked good one day gaining a few seconds, Valverde would lead the group in a sprint another day, and then Quintana set off and took time on both of them over the weekend. And this was after Quintana himself had looked frail on one of the short hard climbs earlier in the week.
The upshot however, was that coming out of the weekend and into the serious mountains today, from which a new picture would emerge as to who truly was on form, the four contenders were separated by less than a minute. David De La Cruz was the morning leader having taken the jersey off Quintana on Sunday, but at 19 seconds to the Colombian was his team-mate Valverde with Froome at 27sec and Chaves at 57sec. Alberto Contador was 1min 39sec back and looking a shadow of his former self, but these longer climbs bring out a different kind of rider and with a season of racing in all their legs, it was still a journey into the unknown despite what we had seen through the first nine stages of racing.
And as it turns out Quintana still looked sharp. He won the day and retained his race leadership with Chris Froome being best of the rest among the GC men. For a while though it looked as though the Sky rider was in deep trouble when, with about 6km to go, he dropped off from a hard pace being set by Movistar before Quintana and Contador reduced the lead group further with respective attacks. Was this the Contador we all know; better suited to these longer climbs? Was this Quintana staking his claim to bury Froome from contention? Or was this Froome measuring his effort in a way that only he seems capable of, before reeling in the gap?
Froome has made a habit of that in recent years and seems to know his body and his limits more so than anyone else. Call it the computer on his bike giving him out wattage readings, but the rest have one too and yet he often seems to know where his red zone is best. The gap went to almost a minute at one stage before slowly coming down again. And then Contador dropped away from Quintana and soon Froome had him caught. Contador with a power metre on his own bike must surely have seen the signs and known that he was overextending himself. Froome’s catch only confirmed it and you could almost sense it happening before the Spaniard cracked. Then Froome was off in pursuit of Quintana, though the the younger Colombian wasn’t going to fall apart so easily. The road ran out and he took the victory and Froome was left limiting his loses, rolling home third a second behind Robert Gesink from the early break and 25sec down on the new red jersey.
Contador for what it was worth lost a further 1min 5secs overall to Quintana in those closing kilometres and is essentially left now having to resort to one of those wild exploits he has become famous for to try and shake up the race and get himself back into it. I cannot see it, but expect him to thrill us all by trying. Such tactics are often what the greats turn to when legs alone can no longer sustain them and we’re seeing it more and more often from Contador. Still, I must give him credit for at least trying to distance Froome today when he sensed blood in the water but surely Froome’s rivals must know by now that the Sky man losing a wheel, or even half a minute, isn’t a sure sign of his demise.
Also losing time was Chaves who limped in three seconds ahead of Contador but who drops to more than two minutes down on Quintana. As such this Vuelta is now a race for three. Froome and the two Movistar men. Valverde lost only a few seconds to Froome today and is second overall. Both himself and Froome are 57sec and 58sec behind the Colombian respectively.
A rest day tomorrow, but already looking ahead there is so many questions to ask. Quintana has less than a minute on Froome now, but how much effort is the Movistar rider putting out? Can he sustain it? Can he build on it? Will Froome slowly find his legs, or at least, not continue to lose them at the same rate as others? And most of all, how much time does Quintana require on Froome before the 37km time-trial on stage 19?
Between now and that time-trial there are four summit finishes and a number of other mountain stages and Quintana may need to work Froome over on all of them to build enough an advantage to feel safe for the race of truth. This Vuelta is a week and a bit old and it’s already a race for three, perhaps even two, but it’s going to be a fantastic battle to watch.
Overall standings after stage 10:
1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in 38h37’07”
2. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) @ 57″
3. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 58″
4. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) 2’09”
5. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) @ 2’54”
6. Leopold Konig (Sky) @ 2’57”
Rider of the week:
I’ve got to go with Darwin Atapuma. He didn’t win a stage last week at the Vuelta but he got in the right move and survived to the finish to take the overall race lead from Ruben Fernendez and retain his jersey for four days before his countryman, Nairo Quintana took over. A solid stage racer who has a knack for getting in good moves, don’t expect this to be the last you see of him in this Vuelta, though it would be a big ask to expect to see him again in red.
I’m not sure what the expectation was for Peter Sagan when he entered the Olympic mountain bike race down in Rio, but a medal was always going to be a big ask. Mountain biking is a niche sport that requires a certain type of rider and for the average road rider, road riding isn’t overly beneficial towards it except on the stamina side. Of course, Sagan is no ordinary rider and comes from a mountain bike background and it appears has often gone back to it in his off-seasons, but while the Slovak turned to the mountain bike after finishing the Tour de France, it was still a short time to try and master the event like those doing it year round…those that eventually took the medals.
That said, in the end Sagan didn’t lose out on a medal because he wasn’t capable, but because of a string of mechanical issues including two punctures. And before he had the first of those flats, Sagan had been in the lead group of four and riding well. He had moved up from last place at the start (gridded according points acquired in the World Cup over the course of the season) to a top three position within thirty seconds. A blistering start and suddenly the possibilities were there.
But even then you could see how smooth the likes of Nino Schurter was through the technical sections by comparison and how Sagan would lose half a wheel on the steepest little ramps. He himself admitted afterwards that he didn’t think he could hold on to win a medal, but the fact he was racing in that company before his punctures only highlighted the talent he has. And it would have been nice to have seen him go through the race mechanical issues free to see just how he finished up. I’d like to hope that this isn’t the last we’ll see of Sagan at top level mountain biking…that perhaps he’ll do the World Championships sometime or even a few world cup races if his schedule allows. His team, his sponsors and money might have other ideas of course, but no doubt with a little additional effort towards the sport he could well challenge the best.
It’s no coincidence however that punctures and other mechanical issues come less frequently to the best riders and while others went backwards, Schurter only pushed on from the front. Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) was the last man to crack under his relentless pressure, though he clung on for the silver behind the fine Swiss rider who certainly now assumes the mantle of the worlds best. In bronze was Carlos Coloma Nicolas (Spain) and down in 8th, Julian Absalon. The Frenchman had been expected to challenge Schurter here in one last hurrah before retirement, but it wasn’t to be. Still it’s his mantle that Schurter assumes and Absalon will go out of mountain biking with a palmares of achievements that make him its finest ever rider.
It was a decent race and yet another good advertisement of the sport of cycling as a whole down in Rio.
Vuelta gets underway
Just when you were looking around for something to do now that the Olympics had come to an end, up pops the Vuelta to offer you more viewing pleasure. Just how many people who latched onto cycling over the course of the Olympics will now turn to the Vuelta remains to be seen, and depends on how much television coverage it gets outside the big markets, but for me it’s come at the perfect time.
The race began on Saturday with a team-time-trail in which Team Sky perhaps a little surprisingly took the win and put Peter Kennaugh into the red race leaders jersey. Finishing on the same time and separated only by fractions of a second was Movistar meaning that the likes of Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde remain on a par with Chris Froome. A big(ish) loser was Alberto Contador whose Tinkoff team (perhaps to be his weakest point in this race) came in 52 seconds down.
Stage two was much of nothing. A steady pace and an early break reeled in on time for the bunch gallop. Noticable by their absence was the lack of pure sprinters at the race. No Cavendish, Kittel, Griepel, Sagan or a handful of others either (thanks I would imagine to an extremely mountainous route and few opportunities to spint) and the upshot was someone else getting the chance. Gianni Meersman took it and down in 4th was Michal Kwiatkowski who took enough time bonus to leap into the red jersey as Sky set out to give everyone a turn!
And so earlier today and the first of about a dozen summit finishes. A short one at 1.8km, but a savage one at 13% average gradient with a section touching 30%. Brutal in every sense and shown by how slowly the riders grinded their way to the top. Alexandre Geniez of FDJ and France was the only one from the days early move to hold off the main contenders and take the win, while Ruben Fernandez of Movistar sprung away from his team-mates late to take second and enough time to grab the overall lead. His team had set a searing early pace on the short climb and had distanced everyone, so much so that only Froome and Esteban Chaves could bridge back across. Eventually Froome finished with Valverde with Quintana 6sec in arrears. Again losing out was Contador who limped home 28sec behind Valverde.
This was the first sorting out of men from boys and giving us an idea of how this Vuelta might go in the coming days. That said there is so much climbing to come that it is also hard to get a real handle on what might yet happen as everyone’s from is sure to rise and dip with each passing summit finish. Yes some have lost big time already, but yes others will lose time themselves and many opportunities lie ahead to recover time and get back in to the race. Contador losing 1min 20sec to Froome after three stages means we’re more likely to see the brilliant Spaniard try the unusual stuff he is famous for to try and overhaul his losses so far.
Beyond all that the first major casualty was the young Frenchman Warren Barguil who abandoned through illness while Tejay Van Garderen is already 7min 47sec off the lead.
Standings after stage 3:
1. Ruben Fernandez (Movistar) in 9h16’07”
2. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) @ 7″
3. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 11″
4. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) @ 17″
5. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) s.t.
6. Samuel Sanchez (BMC) @ 46″
12. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) @ 1’31”
Elsewhere, in one of the other major World Tour races of the week, Caleb Ewan won the Cyclassics Hamburg ahead of John Degenklob and Giacomo Nizzolo. The win came about when Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni was relegated after a dangerous sprint in which he appeared to swipe across the Australian in the final burst for the line.
Rider of the week:
Too many to single one out thus far at the Vuelta and so I’ll go back to the Olympics one last time. The mountain biking was excellent, but how can I avoid the track achievements by Jason Kenny. The British rider won two of his three gold medals the week before, but it was the addition of his third this past week with victory in the Keirin that gave him his career sixth gold, to tie the most golds for his country with Sir Chris Hoy, that was the most remarkable of the lot.
You know something, I was going to wait until Monday before I wrote again and in doing so review everything we’ve seen at the Olympics so far, but then I remembered the Vuelta a Espana starts this weekend. Yes…and who knew? So a few words on that seem crucial.
It has completely flown under the radar, or perhaps it is I who has simply moved in under a rock with the Olympics being on. It’s the only thing that has been on my television each night and it’s about the only thing I’m doing any serious reading on during the day. With the track cycling thrilling us and the BMX now underway and the mountain biking still to come this weekend, I completely forgot about the Vuelta.
I think in the back of my mind I knew it was coming up and I think this past weekend I seen something about it starting next weekend, but I kind of left it slip back out of my mind until just now when I was flicking through Twitter and seen that the team presentations were underway. Yes, another Grand Tour is upon us and it gets underway in two days time.
It’s surreal in a way to think that there riders at this Vuelta who have already been and returned from Rio. Take someone like Chris Froome who since the beginning of the summer — a summer in which I’ve done minimal cycling, plenty of drinking and lots of relaxing — has spent three weeks racing around France to victory, has gone and done the ride London in England at the very end of July (others like him done the Classica San Sebastian in Spain), flown to Rio for the road-race on August 6, stuck around to take bronze in the time-trial on August 10, and has flown back across the Atlantic to Spain to get himself ready for the Vuelta.
Such is the life of a professional cyclist.
So who all is at this Vuelta?
Well it’s a heck of a start list. Besides Froome, Nairo Quintana is there hoping to redeem himself after a poor Tour by his standards, as is Alberto Contador who abandoned the Tour through injury and who is hoping he’s recovered in time as well as fresher than the rest to mount a challenge. Alejandro Valverde is there too, of course, looking to achieve the rare feat of finishing all three Grand Tours this year in the top ten. In fact, the Spaniard has finished in the top ten of the past four Grand Tours dating back to the 2015 Tour (3rd, 7th, 3rd, 6th respectively) and of the nine Grand Tours out of a possible twelve he’s started since the Vuelta in 2012 he’s finished in the top ten in all with five podiums.
Others looking to shine include Tejay Van Garderen, Andrew Talansky, Robert Kruijswijk, Esteban Chaves, Warren Barguil, Pierre Rolland, and Louis Meintjes.
As for a top 5 prediction, I’ll turn a few heads perhaps and go as follows:
1. Esteban Chaves
2. Nairo Quintana
3. Chris Froome
4. Alberto Contador
5. Alejandro Valverde
Yes, a Colombian battle for the title and a more rested Chaves to turn heads.
Tom Dumoulin had fought them off for 16 hard stages until he reached the only individual-time-trial of this years Vuelta, at which time he finally turned the tables in his specialised event and seized the Red jersey with four stages to spare. He even doubled his lead from a mere 3 seconds to 6 seconds a few days later and it looked like maybe he had just done enough with just one day and four mountains left to survive. But then the wheels came off. The climb up the Puerto de la Morcuera proved to be a ridge too far for the Dutchman as his legs finally gave in to the relentless pressure and Aru was free to ride off and win the Vuelta.
Dumoulin had cracked, born a generation too late from a time when two long time-trial might have been the norm and would have seen him win here with ease. Indeed, he picked one of the hardest Vuelta’s with regards to climbing in recent memory to stake his claim to win it and the way he went about it was admirable. If only they’d finished the hilly stuff a day before, or indeed on the climb before. If only indeed. By the time all was said and done on the stage won by Ruben Plaza after a brilliant 112km solo ride, Dumoulin had lost 3min 52sec to Aru and slumped right down into 6th overall.
I had felt that having survived the short climb up to the finish of stage 19, and even gained time on Aru, that he had done enough. That with the final of the four climbs on stage 20 coming 20km from the finish, Dumoulin would be able to time-trial back on again even if he were dropped. That we had seen throughout this Vuelta a man able to measure his efforts perfectly, to ignore the gaps the climbers got on him and instead pace himself to the finish without going into the red zone and without losing major time as a result. As it turns out, there is no way to survive it when you’re one man against a team and your legs finally call it quits.
Dumoulin came into this Vuelta on a Giant-Alpecin team that never held general classification success as its aim and as a result never sent riders that could aid in going for the Vuelta victory. The upshot of that was Dumoulin, who suddenly found himself in the form of his life and very much in contention throughout, being left isolated by teams loaded with climbers. He had fought them off superbly but on this day, Aru’s Astana team played it perfectly.
They put men in the early break, men that then sat up to wait for Aru and help pace him once he had cracked Dumoulin. This gave Aru strength in numbers to survive in the valley between the third climb in which he had cracked Dumoulin and the final climb from which he could then put further time into him. Dumoulin got close to getting across to Aru’s group in that valley leading to the Puerto de Cotos, but those extra Astana legs ensured he never got close enough and ensured Aru hit the final climb clear of Dumoulin and could ride on to take the Red jersey on what was his final chance.
Cycling is an individual sport inside a team setting, and vise-versa. Only one man stands on the top of the podium wearing the race leaders jersey come the finish and you must have the legs, the lungs, the talent and the skill to begin with otherwise no team will make a difference, but without that team to set you up, to look after you, to play the tactical game, its virtually impossible to succeed over a three week race. It’s why Aru will, as tradition dictates, split his prize money amongst his team-mates. And never has the importance of those men around you been better highlighted than in this stage.
Dumoulin may have been beaten here, but he won’t go away anytime soon. He has proven his new found ability to compete over three weeks and you can be sure his team, if they wish to retain him long term, will need to provide him with more suitable support for mountain type stages in the future. He too will know his new capabilities and will surely tailor his training even more specifically towards achieving Grand Tour success. Had he, and his team, known three weeks ago that he could go this far in Spain he’d likely be going home the champion.
I hear that next years Giro might well have two individual-time-trials and if that is the case, Mr. Dumoulin will surely have a new target. Of course, his rivals will now be aware of him from the start. They will no longer ride the first week assuming he will crack in the second and not become a risk to their hopes of success. A new contender has certainly emerged.
But lets save the last word for Aru, the man who won. In what looked like being the closest Grand Tour of all time just two days from Madrid, the Italian ended up winning by a convincing 57sec from Joaqium Rodriguez and 1min 9sec from Rafal Majka. Nairo Quintana eventually came home 4th but a man clealy not fully recovered from his efforts at the Tour.
Aru though had targeted this Vuelta and was justly rewarded for his efforts. I don’t know a lot about him personally but Aru comes across as a humble and quiet man. What I do know of him on the bike it’s clear he has talent and at the age of 25 surely has more similar success ahead of him. Hailing from the Italian island of Sardinia, his career path is reminiscent to that of a man from the other big Italian island of Sicily: Vincenzo Nibli, his Astana team-mate. His first Grand Tour win also came at age of 25 and it also came at the Vuelta following a podium at that years Giro.
Next year both Aru and Nibali will battle for Astana team-leadership with the younger Italian having now proved himself a winner and surely setting his sights upon Giro success of a first crack at Le Tour, while Dumoulin will go off in search of team-mates that can support him in the high mountains. Until then, the Italian will celebrate a fine win while the Dutchman will lick his wounds and think about coming back stronger.
Final general classification:
|1. Fabio Aru
2. Joaqium Rodriguez
3. Rafal Majka
4. Nairo Quintana
5. Esteban Chaves
6. Tom Dumoulin
7. Alejandro Valverde
8. Mikel Nieve
9. Daniel Moreno
10. Louis Meintjes
|in 85h 36′ 13″
@ 1′ 9″
@ 1′ 42″
@ 3′ 10″
@ 3′ 46″
@ 6′ 47″
@ 7′ 6″
@ 7′ 12″
@ 10′ 26″
Nicolas Roche, often mentioned as the son of Stephen Roche though with comparisons rarely drawn anymore, done something his father never did yesterday…win a stage of the Vuelta, for the second time. Stephen only rode the Vuelta once in 1992 and never won a stage whereas Nicolas is taking part for the sixth time and yesterday escaped from the large break with Haimar Zubeldia and then out sprinted the veteran Trek Factory rider to win Sky’s first stage of this years race.
Roche has carved out a fine career of his own after those early days when comparisons would be drawn with his dad and expectations to repeat his fathers achievements were rife. While Nicolas is never likely to win Grand Tours like his dad, he has become a very good team player and the road captain for Team Sky. And it’s easy to forget he’s now a 31 year old veteran himself — four years older now than his dad was when he completed that Giro, Tour, Worlds triple crown — and riding better than ever. Indeed he has now started the same number of Grand Tours as his dad ever did and, assuming he makes Madrid this Sunday, will have completed all 15 of them to Stephens 12.
There was no change in the GC battle as the final climb came too far out from the finish to make a massive impact. That didn’t stop Aru trying however as he launched a number of searing attacks but found Tom Dumoulin in the red jersey stuck to his rear wheel.
Whether these attacks were meant to test the legs of Dumoulin in the hops of cracking him or just to soften him up for the days ahead, I’m not sure, but even had Aru opened a gap it’s unlikely he would have sustained it to the line given 12km remained when the crossed the summit. Tomorrow’s 2nd cat. climb tops out even further from the finish so dropping Dumoulin there would only see the Dutchman time-trial back onto Aru assuming he retained his composure upon being dropped as he has each time the little climbers have attacked thus far at this Vuelta.
There is however a punchy little cobbled climb up into the walled city of Ávila at the finish and that could allow for a handful of seconds to be gained. Dumoulin will have to be at his absolute strongest and keep his wits about him also not to allow any gaps to appear. In an ideal world for him he’ll remain glued to the rear of Aru and a large break of riders up the road will contest the stage and the time bonuses.
That said, I still expect Aru to try something on the Alto de la Paramera given the desperation we seen creep in yesterday, and why not? He’s got nothing to lose now. It’s it funny though that it has taken this desperation for Aru to gain three seconds or others to gain time for a podium placing to finally see them launch early and daring attacks. In the stages before the time-trial the majority of summit finishes were being fought out in the final couple of kilometres as each man tried to gain seconds without taking the risk of collapse by going for it too far out. They were aware they had to take time on Dumoulin, but they were too worried about being counter attacked by other climbers and the result only favoured Dumoulin and has left the rest now desperate to attack.
It’s made this Vuelta a fascinating tactical battle and one in which Dumoulin has played perfectly. Can his legs continue to allow him to do so? We’ll have to see today and tomorrow but he can no longer afford to limit his loses, he must react to every move Aru makes and keep it tight.