Alberto Contador attacks on the road to the ski station of Aramón Valdelinares. With early-day escapees up the road this move was more than a test, he took time on all his GC rivals and turned the story of a broken leg into a breakaway, going from crash victim to wounding the hopes of all his rivals.
The opening team time trial seems a long time ago but the Vuelta started before this when Chris Horner was blocked from racing by his team and their commitment to the MPCC rules. With the race underway Movistar won and all seemed well for Nairo Quintana. The Colombian was team leader but it was team mate Alejandro Valverde who took over the race leadership prompting uncertainty over their roles especially as Movistar, a team with a smaller budget than you think, had been concerned about having to pay out bonuses to Quintana in case he won all while Valverde’s still in contract negotiations. Perversely the maillot rojo risked putting the team’s finances into the red.
We got an opening week of sprint stages but with variety in the finishes and the winners. Nacer Bouhanni, Michael Matthews and John Degenkolb each had their day with Bouhanni winning again and Degenkolb eventually winning four stages.
The chart above depicts Contador’s deficit on GC and, once the numbers turn positive, his lead on the second placed rider overall. As we see he was never far from the lead in the first week, took the lead following his strong ride in the time trial and held it with a slim margin in the second week and then boosted his position in the third week. The lead never went beyond 100 seconds but he always seemed to have it under control, it was simply a matter of marking his rivals. On the road to La Farrapona and the Puerto de Ancares Contador knew Froome had to attack early so he followed the moves, benefited from the meagre slipstream and pounced in the final kilometre for the stage win and more time, thus turning defence into offence.
All by himself?
Watching the end of each mountain stage meant seeing the riders isolated but there was plenty of teamwork before. Tinkoff-Saxo used a crosswind to split the field on one stage. Movistar were solid. Katusha’s non-Russian contingent in Losada, Moreno and Caruso were good support for Joaquim Rodriguez. Nieve must be Team Sky’s best signing. Yet as strong as each team looked the decisive moments occurred when the team leader was alone on a mountain.
It’s wasn’t an emergence, more a confirmation. I wondered if Fabio Aru would cruise around after his Giro success and his anonymity in the Tour of Poland suggested as much but he raced as hard as he could and took the glory. Warren Barguil had a great race too, a top-10. No young talent but remember Robert Gesink was in the top-10 too until leaving to be beside his sick wife.
At the opposite end this wasn’t a joyous race for the Colombian resurgence. Rigoberto Uran had a great time trial but not much else before he quit the race ill. Nairo Quintana had a terrible time trial with a big crash to put him out of the race for red and quit the next day. As for Carlos Betancur his presence looked odd and not just for the way he filled out his clothing. Why ride when Ag2r could give a young rider a go in a grand tour? Because Betancur is on a good contract for this year and the next. He doesn’t want to resign because his market value has fallen and the team can’t fire him for being ill or even poor performance. So he’s staying with the team for next year and has shown up for work to get a grand tour in his legs. He should be a force in 2015 because he’s got a new contract to earn. The Colombian consolation was Winner Anacona.
For everyone else there were few chances. With Degenkolb taking four stage wins, Bouhanni and Contador two there weren’t many scraps left for the others. Nobody got lucky, Anacona, Alessandro de Marchi, Ryder Hesjedal, Przemysław Niemiec and Adam Hansen all won by forcing events rather than slipping into a breakaway and playing their cards right.
Rinse and Repeat
The biggest criticism of the race was the repetition of summit finishes and the same repeat storylines. The race director did a good job though in selecting a variety of climbs but reviewing the photos and videos from the race sometimes its hard to tell one stage from another given the same characters in the same order. Unipublic will hardly worry though because it’s been a “greatest hits” edition, seeing Contador in red while Valverde and Rodriguez fight is has been great for TV ratings. The only flop stage was the circuit around Logroño, a poor TV spectactle that didn’t showcase the local vineyards in the way the Giro celebrated Barbaresco and Barolo.
The Three Musketeers
Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador got labelled the “three musketeers” during the race, presumably for their tendency to stick together but forming a trio isn’t really enough to merit a comparison to Dumas’ characters. Certainly the maxim “one for all and all for one” didn’t apply, at times Valverde and Rodriguez especially seemed to be marking each other in the negative sense rather than offering mutual support. This was most notable on Stage 15 when on the final climb to the Lagos de Covadonga the trio had dropped Chris Froome but couldn’t work together to distance Chris Froome for good.
It gave the Spanish plenty to cheer but in a race without a competition for the best young rider you have to scan down the results past 11 Spaniards to find Mikel Landa, the first Iberian rider who’s under 30.
The World Championships are two weeks away and a section of peloton started the Vuelta as prep for Ponferrada. This can seem disrespectful but it brings something to the race. Only 2014 wasn’t rich with insight into who might be a contender; last year when Philippe Gilbert struck twice and Diego “Puff Daddy” Ulissi looked the part. This year John Degenkolb is the obvious pick, a regular winner and at ease on the hilly stages. Similar for Michael Matthews but less so for Nacer Bouhanni, he can scale a small climb but I think 250km around Ponferrada’s hills will be too much. Peter Sagan by contrast hardly showed. We can’t extrapolate too far, the Vuelta’s stages were all relatively short; perhaps the organiser could have thrown in a 230km slog in the final week? The biggest certainty for Ponferrada should be Tony Martin in the time trial although Fabian Cancellara pushed him close. What if the winner came out of Québec or the Tour of Britain?
The Lugano Miracle
What to make of Alberto Contador’s recovery from broken leg to the strongest legs in Spain? In a race that’s made a sporting pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella religious miracles have been made of lesser stories. Perhaps he surprised himself? The performance left others asking questions and it took time for the timeline of his recovery to get pieced together and to learn he was riding at home in Switzerland just days after his post-Tour de France hospital visit.
Summer promised a duel between Alberto Contador and Chris Froome but had to wait for the Vuelta. Nairo Quintana could have changed things in the mountains but there’s a fragility to so many GC contenders this year. With Quintana’s exit the mountain stages became a formality and the third week tended to confirm the hierarchy rather than blow it apart. But it was still good viewing given the propensity for attacks from all the riders.
If something leaves you wanting more, it’s got to be good. Three weeks of the Vuelta is plenty but 2015 already looks promising. Last year’s race didn’t provide much to look forward to, Chris Horner’s win was a one-off, so much so he was still unemployed in January. With this year’s edition we can already project into 2015. Fabio Aru for the Giro with Joaquim Rodriguez on a last chance salvage operation? As for the Tour imagine Alberto Contador, Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana lining up to take on Vincenzo Nibali? Who would you pick?