Simon Yates leads on the Coll de la Rabassa, he’s been in the race lead for almost half the race but only with a handful of seconds on his rivals, now he’s turning this into minutes.
If generals fight their last war, Mitchelton-Scott’s tactics were also shaped by the Giro and Yates’ collapse with three days to go. He’d ridden the Giro was based on a variant of the Ant and the Grasshopper tale, with him harvesting as many seconds and time bonuses possible ahead of the Trento time trial because of the threat posed by Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome, only the ending wasn’t the same as the fairy tale and he paid for his industry. This time the idea was to conserve energy, to avoid work and it the course helped, there was often plenty of climbing each day but the stages culminated with a variety of short, sharp climbs and it was only in the final week that gaps measured in minutes rather than seconds would happen. The route was even more backloaded than usual, whether in comparison to previous editions of the Vuelta or the formulas used by the Giro and Tour.
The chart shows the top five overall in Madrid and how they fared, it shows the contest between Simon Yates and Alejandro Valverde until the Spaniard cracked in the Pyrenees going from Yates’ challenger to adrift during the final two mountain stages.
Valverde wasn’t meant to be the challenger. Nairo Quintana was Movistar’s the team leader, with Valverde as the team’s captain with an eye on the road race in Innsbruck. Quintana never got into his stride and if Valverde helped him at times later Quintana would become the helper. Perhaps the course didn’t suit the Colombian with two many spiky finishes, as if he needs a Galiber or a Stelvio although even the Lagos de Covadonga didn’t work either.
Astana also tried to challenge but were they after the win? On some days they sent riders up in the road to contest stage wins and Lopez’s form was mixed, three second places on the stages but never looking like he could ride away with the race. He was the catalyst for changes on the final mountain stage, sitting fifth overall his attack to La Comella got him onto the podium and he’s still just 24.
Nine stages were won from the breakaway, more than the Giro and Tour combined this year. Explained by the smaller teams of eight this year? Not really both the Giro and Tour had the same team sizes of course, instead it’s the Vuelta which had plenty of successful escapes last year too. Arguably it’s a function of the course sometimes where quickly many riders were well down on GC and so had room to move, plus a peloton where few teams wanted to chase hard all day and this made ordinary days into thrillers, take Ben King riding away through the cobbled streets of Candelario and Bauke Mollema’s chase on the slopes of La Covatilla on Stage 9; Michael Woods on the incredible climb of the Balcon de Bizkaia which is sure to feature again; or Stage 12 and the way the big breakaway was whittled down and Alexandre Geniez won with a combination of poker and power at Estaca de Bares but feel free to pick other stages too.
Oscar Rodriguez overhauling Dylan Teuns and Rafał Majka at La Camperona was the surprise, his wildcard team’s success was almost unimaginable from such a scenario. Nacer Bouhanni also took another win for the wildcard invitees but his salary alone may be superior to Euskadi-Murias’ entire team budget, a demonstration of how wide cycling’s second tier runs.
As well as Yates, Rohan Dennis was dominant in his niche, especially for the restraint in the way he saved himself for the Torrelavega time trial and the margin of his victory impressed each time.
Elia Viviani was the king of the sprints, demonstrated by his finish in Madrid where he seemed out of the picture only to surge through the traffic for the win. Is he the best sprinter in the world? It’s one of those café debates because he’s won so much but hasn’t gone head to head with the bike names. He was the obvious pick each day.
Thibaut Pinot took two of the three big mountain stages and if he was out of the running for the GC these were still à la pédale as he attacked the lead group but had he not floundered in the crosswinds on the way to San Javier perhaps he’d have been marked more closely.
The lack of Sky changed the atmosphere. Michał Kwiatkowski had a spell in the red jersey but otherwise the big team had a discreet race and without a lead to defend they didn’t try to lock down the race; perhaps they couldn’t have either? Others were quiet too, arguably Fabio Aru’s most memorable moment had him ranting at his bike after crash and his long barren spell continues. Richie Porte was a pre-race pick but didn’t have the form and seemed to be lapping Spain in order to bank a grand tour in the legs. Louis Meintjes had tough time at the Giro, and with a ninth place overall in Burgos in August looked to be getting it together again but was invisible. Vincenzo Nibali did what he could and Ilnur Zakarin went for some stage wins.
Highly enjoyable but not a thriller, the action came more from the daily stage battles than a three week scrap for the red jersey. Probably this was due to the course, it had a succession of uphill finishes but many were so short it kept the GC contest tight but without many reversals, plenty were in contention for a long time but their order barely changed each time. The fight for the overall classification took time to get going and once it did Simon Yates looked unshakeable, his biggest worry was himself and repeating the defeats of Paris-Nice and the Giro. Enric Mas and Miguel Angel Lopez climbed onto the podium late in the race but they attacked and deserve the rewards. As ever the Vuelta is a relaxed race and bar one mishap after the finish line in Estaca de Barès, there were no polemics and in a season where the acronym TUE has been used almost as much as UCI, Yates’s past ban barely got a mention.
We often see Simon Yates as the twin of Adam but sometimes it’s as if he’s got another twin, a Jekyll and Hide aspect with the Simon that rides like a pirate with a knife between his teeth during the race which is compelling to watch; the Simon in post-race interviews who is unassuming, mild and less compelling to listen to. We’ll be hearing a lot more from him and already, such is cycling, there’s talk of aiming for the Giro next year. As the sunsets on the Vuelta projecting into next year is getting ahead of things, the cycling season now takes an autumnal hue, the yellow rays will soon shine on the Worlds and the exciting course in Innsbruck.