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″