Bratwurst and black forest cake. It wasn’t that long ago that riders showed up overweight and unfit for the early season races in southern Europe. Jan Ullrich got mocked for burying his face in a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte rather than chewing the handlebars over winter. The German had plenty of company as he huffed and puffed his way around the likes of Andalucia and Murcia.
These days Chris Froome and Alberto Contador turn up lean and mean for their very first race of the season, a fierce battle that picked up from last year and promises more for the coming weeks and months.
It’s not just the story of the riders, the recent Vuelta a Andalucia included two summit finishes that would have been unheard of a decade ago, marking the evolution of early season races as they compete for attention.
“The legs feel good. I haven’t done much intensity training but I’ve set up a really good foundation and I think riding like this is proof of that.”
Chris Froome, via cyclingnews.com
Reading quotes like this it’s easy to imagine Froome spent winter doing long, steady distance rides where the only “intervals” marked the distance ridden before each stop for a drink and a snack. Contador too was giving the same signals with talk of a different approach, a gradual build to the Giro. Reality proved otherwise and each of their mountain stage wins in Andalucia wasn’t by fluke, neither achieved by desperate wheelsucking nor crafty ploys, it was the simple application of power.
One tactic for the early season would see team leaders easing themselves in by riding in the service of a team mate hoping for support in the future. It’s not a tactic that’s been abandoned – see Nibali pulling for Guardini in Dubai, for Fuglsang in Oman – but in Andalucia we saw Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo lining up behind their star riders. Tinkoff-Saxo shredded the race as soon as the road ramped up for the Hazas Llanas and Contador jumped away with 7km to go. The tables turned the next day with Kennaugh and Nieve leading for Sky before Froome took over. As such this wasn’t the mano-a-mano duel but team to team clash.
It is not only the riders that have altered their approach but the the race itself has changed. This year’s route included the summit finish of Hazas Llanas, 8km of double-digit gradients. Hard enough to climb alone on a ride, something else when Tinkoff-Saxo team drops everyone and Contador solos away. A gamble by the race to probe the Sierra Nevada – you could see the snow beside the road – but it paid off on Friday. Saturday used the shorter but sharper Alto de las Allanadas, a partially tarmacked goat path. These kind of climbs are scary enough for the Vuelta in August or September and a relative novelty for February but they allow the star names to feature. If you can’t compete with a grand tour, you might as well copy it.
As for the others, their timing suggests they’re weeks off rather than seconds down. Benat Intxausti is third overall at 2m32s, with Romain Bardet at 3m13s. It’ll take many training sessions to close the gap but there’s nothing to worry about. Take Bardet who would have been closer were it not for a puncture just before the start of the Alto de las Allanadas and he’s spent most of the winter training in central France rather than camps on Teide. Wilco Kelderman is looking good too, powerful in the time trials and at ease on the climbs and he’s still 23.
It could all have been so different though with the crashes on the opening day which took out many riders before lunchtime and ruined the overall hopes of others. You make your own luck though by riding at the front when its windy and Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo again showed the discipline to be at the front although Blel Kadri might say it was clumsy at times too. Everyone knows you’re supposed to place your leader but doing it is hard.
Oman has seen the sports TV equivalent of Schrödinger’s cat. There might be a race in the Gulf but it’s near impossible to observe so we have to make assumptions about what’s happening. Rafael Valls won after beating Tejay van Garderen to the finish on Green Mountain. This is a large, open and exposed road, there’s nowhere to hide so Valls didn’t fluke the win nor ambush van Garderen. Valls had long been tipped after an excellent pro debut in 2010 aged 22 which saw him place second a medium mountain stage of the Tour de France and possibly the only time we saw the Footon-Servetto team active in the race. Since then nothing, two years with Vacansoleil-DCM and barely a top-10 placing, he’s been the sort of rider who finishes 44th or 77th.
If that’s not enough racing then there’s the Volta ao Algarve too. It’s only a bike ride away from the Vuelta a Andalucia but in Portugal of course we’ve seen some complete stage race action too ultimately won by Geraint Thomas of Sky. In France the two-day Tour du Haut Var offered something for the punchy riders – as well as bike thieves – with Ben Gastauer of Ag2r La Mondiale winning after taking the first stage, the second stage by Luka Mezgec of Giant-Alpecin ahead of Philippe Gilbert.
The Contador-Froome rivalry resumes in two weeks’ time at Tirreno-Adriatico. It won’t be the same though as the Queen Stage to Monte Terminillo uses a steady climb, hard but the kind of road you can drive a bus up. Expect more “I’m not in top condition yet” quotes as both try to play down their chances. Meanwhile they’ll be joined by a wider cast with a Vincenzo Nibali who was aggressive in Oman but off the pace and Nairo Quintana who should have been in Andalucia but was injured in the Colombian championships. After Contador and Froome will go their separate ways, it’s possible they won’t meet again in a race until the start of the Tour de France. Maybe it’s better that way too, we’ll see other contests and be left guessing for months. In the short term we’ll be talking about Flemish classics and cobbles this time next week.
Lobato comes calling
The race was also significant for the easy sprinting of Juan-José Lobato. He seemed so unused to repeat wins that he deployed the same “I’m on the phone” message for each of his two stage wins, a commercial nod to his cellular phone network sponsor. He was 4G to John Degenkolb’s 3G, the German was beaten but still the best of the rest. Lobato’s now a roaming outsider for Milan-Sanremo.
The Vuelta a Andalucia has been an entertaining race. Compact but with an audacious route including two tricky summit finishes. Froome and Contador were minutes ahead of the rest, aided in great part by their teams. Their dominance makes it easier to view the contest as duel between two riders but Tirreno-Adriatico should bring a more sophisticated race even if the same outcome is possible.