The Moment The Vuelta Was Won

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.

Spanish Rainbows
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.

The Verdict
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?

44 thoughts on “The Moment The Vuelta Was Won”

  1. Wonderful summary and coverage as always. Greatly appreciated here. Loved the race. In terms of overall quality, where would you put Wiggins team of 2012 TdF compared to Froome’s in recent Grand Tours? Interesting fact about Movistar finances too.

  2. “…he was riding at home in Switzerland just days after his post-Tour de France hospital visit”.
    He was riding for the first time (and not training) some eleven days after the fall, as it can be seen in the articles from his Spanish doctor, Manuel Leyes, posted elsewhere by me and another reader of this blog.
    What he did “after five days” was trying if he could stand being on the bicycle and pedalling, but this (“coger la bici”) is way far from what can be called “riding”, just as “riding” – as he did from the 25th of July to the 1st-3rd of August – is way different from “training”.
    As it’s especially clear when you consider that “the ride” he had on the 25th of July was 90′ long and one-legged.
    Everything is even more evident when you look at the photos of the injury, whose link I posted here, too.
    Thus, even if it’s true that “eleven days” are “days” and not, for example, “weeks”, I find that “just days” is quite deceptive, without being false. It reminds me some newspapers’ headlines about how many people were there in a demonstration…

      • That’s for sure. Neither is there any doubt about the game that Contador and his entourage were playing with all the story in terms of PR (coloured kinesio-taping, pointing at the knee in Ancares, ambiguous tweets and so); just as we saw – in a different team – with the “playa” story before the Giro 2008. That said, I think that both elements are factual and interesting: an impressive recovery… and the blatant boasting about that.

  3. Did anyone else notice the similarities to 2012? A Movistar win in the TTT, Castrovejo in red to give way for a short stint by Valverde, 4 stages to Degenkolb, as well as the same top 4 with Bertie on top, with his form beforehand uncertain. Eerie to see more of the same

    • Similar but different in some ways: everyone expected Contador to win the 2012 race after his ban ended but as the race went on we got used to Joaquim Rodriguez being in control… until the Fuente De ambush.

  4. Always the best summary of the races. Worth noting that although Fabian pushed Tony Martin close in the TT (would have been closer except for his drafting penalty!), he’s not riding the worlds TT, instead focusing on the RR.

  5. A few points;

    Richard Moore made the point recently on the cycling podcast, that if you have a good base of fitness then a few weeks off (or days?) means that you can still fall back on the base of fitness accrued. ie his point was that Contador has in general had a good solid year of fitness whereas Froome has been up and down, so makes sense that Contador was able to sustain his fitness although both had injuries and probably roughly the same amount of time off the bike.

    There’s a criticism above of the repetitiveness of the stages, then when mentioning the circuit race that it was dull, yet maybe that was thrown in to put a bit of variety into it? Personally I thought the stages were nicely judged and a decent amount of variety.

    And as JB says above, don’t think Spartacus is doing the worlds TT, unless he’s changed his mind?

  6. And the message is: Don’t let Sky get the upper hand. Once they have it, it is too difficult to get it back. On the other hand: If you have the jersey, Sky is forced to work and wear themselves out. Bertie read that just right and took the jersey when Froomey was still tuning himself to racing again.
    (Not saying defending a jersey is is, though)

    • I agree, and I think that this year both Contador and Nibali (judging from the way his team had prepared and in fact managed the mountain stages) had tried to prepare themselves not to allow Sky play the game the British team had drawn beforehand.
      On the *third hand*: don’t let Contador get the upper hand! I read somewhere (maybe in this same blog, but I’m not sure) that in his career whenever Contador took the leader’s jersey, he never let it go. I wonder if it is accurate information, it would be quite impressive.

      • AC was in yellow at thew Daffy and lost it to Talansky on stage 7.

        Not sure he would have won the TdF. Nibs put big time into AC on the cobbles. It is easier to defend than overtake a race leader.

          • No… Not any rider nor any team has the physical and/or mental strength to cope with the responsibility of handling the race. On the other hand, sometimes you only can win when you’ve got the freedom that the leading figures allow to those who they consider at a disadvantage.
            For Talansky, it sure was better to let his opponent get the upper hand, in order to win Dauphinée! 🙂

            PS Thank you, TDU, that confirms what I supposed: now we need some good fact-checking about Contador’s GTs.

          • Not sure it’s as simple as that. Contador’s lead looked unasailable so it was Froome and Sky having to defend second whilst trying to gain time on Contador.

            In the Tour, Nibali’s lead was unasailable so it was a fight for second and Nibali got a relatively easy ride, while the other teams fought over the podium places.

            In 2013 Froome was so far out front that when Porte had that shocker and there was no other Sky support, the other teams didn’t mount anything like a successful attack on Froome, too busy fighting for second and protecting their podium positions.

            always more nuanced than simply leaders needing to defend and everyone else ‘attacking’

          • Possible difference between having the race lead and having the upper hand? So in the case of the Dauphine, while Contador may have had the lead, he was so preoccupied by Froome and Sky that he never really had the upper hand over Talansky?

  7. It’s also interesting re Nacer Bouhanni, that his relationship with Marc Madiot has now deteriorated to the point that he’s been pulled out of the two one day races that he was supposed to ride as preparation for worlds. The French manager is apparently less than happy about that…

  8. what to make of Dan Martin?… a decent go at being team leader, solid top10 finish… or a little disappointing in that the top5 continually differentiated themselves as the race wore on, and he didn’t appear to be at the at the races?

  9. Would just like to express my thanks for the daily previews! On the subject of next years four way showdown at the Tour de France I can’t see past a fully fit Froome. Wouldn’t surprise me if Nibali didn’t make the podium!

      • … and that’s the beauty of all sports, not just cycling. You could quite easily make a strong case for any of the big 4 for the 2015 TdF. My only hope is that all the major contenders get to the race in peak fitness. Should be quite a spectacle.

        It’s probably a tad unfair to say Froome has “lost” something this year when you consider his year as a whole. Far to stop-start up to and including the TdF what with illness, back issues, multiple crashes. There is now of course a hint of fragility about him although his ride in the Vuelta has probably quelled that somewhat.

  10. And don’t discount Rigo from next year’s Grand Tour podiums. Maybe not top spot but, barring illness, he’s got what it takes to finish consistently high. He also has a talent for hiding unnoticed at the front of the peloton.

    Yesterday’s TT was really anticlimactic and probably would have been even without the terrible weather. Tour of Britain’s final-day formula of short TT plus city centre circuit worked much better, I thought.

    • Hard luck for Uran getting sick, but I agree he will be a contender next year as well. Anthony Tan wrote an interesting piece where he ran the numbers on Quintana’s controversial Giro victory and has showed that the whole race really hinged on Quintana ignoring the race organisers on the infamous stage 16. Had different decisions been made, Uran could have easily been the winner of that race.

      As for the final “epilogue” time trail, well many aren’t fans of the non-GC parade/sprint stage formula either. The routine nature of the stage was more due to the locked in GC. If Chris Froome had put in a competitive TT earlier and was within seconds of Contador as opposed to minutes going in then everyone would have been talking about what a brilliant move the Vuelta organisers it was and how it was reminiscent of Fingon/LeMond in 1989.

      • Thanks for the link to Tan’s piece — very interesting! And yes, in different circumstances the ‘epilogue’ could have been quite gripping, I agree. I’m no fan of the final parade either — much prefer it when there’s everything to race for right up until the final finish line.

        • Cycling is currently my favorite professional sport to follow and I don’t really give a hoot what other folks think about the sport or my hobby.

          The problem, for me, with the largely boring final Tour stage is that I think many non-fans might only tune in for this stage. Yes, the scenery is great, the sprint can be exciting, but lots of folks might think, “Well, this is boring. They just ride around in a pack, taking photos and drinking champagne?”

  11. Many thanks for all the info. I especially enjoyed the ‘Daily Diaz’ which gives an extra dimension to the Vuelta. Looking forward to the Worlds.

  12. Thanks for all the reports on the Vuelta! It’s not covered that much as the tour in the media, it’s great to still read about it here!

    Looking back at the Vuelta, I find it incredible that Giant-Shimano again rode a very very good race with both Degenkolb and Barguil. And it’s even more incredible when you realise how good they did in the Tour and Giro too. It’s a true team as well, seeing Barguil pull hard on the front for Degenkolb.

  13. Doesn’t Contador always ride with double wrapped bars? It always looks like he has the squishy sponge bar pads that used to come on department store bikes.

    Just compare his lead photo bars to Hesjedal’s. Ryder’s are sleek and smooth looking, Bertie’s look like they need to go on a diet.

  14. I agree with the others who thank you, and thank you myself, for the wonderful coverage. I feel like I get so much more out of watching stages when I read your preparatory posts.

    Thanks for such a great site!

    • Thanks… and thanks to everyone else who says thanks.

      I too get more out of the stage if I write a preview. Better still the Vuelta made me visit La Farrapona for a long ride and more, a lot of Spanish geography beyond the Pyrennes and Catalunya is new to me.

  15. Yep, gotta agree with others – the stages are much more exciting after I read your previews. They’re great, thanks for putting in such hard work on them.

  16. Great coverage as always, thanks INRNG!

    This Big Four-era (Froome, Quintana, Contador, Nibali), with Valleverde, Rodriguez, Uran and Aru waiting in the wings in case they fail is really interesting. As long as I watch cycling it usually has been one or two riders that dominate the field: Armstrong vs Ulrich, Hinault vs Lemond, Indurain vs Rominger, Evans vs Sastre or periods were you knew beforehand Indurain or Armstrong would win the TdF.

    Now that there are four guys, that means three will have to lose the Tour de France. Imho this helps the Giro and the Vuelta tremendously, because you cannot put all your eggs in that yellow French basket like Indurain and Armstrong did. The Vuelta has the advantage on the Giro as a backup plan in that it takes place after the Tour, but I think the Giro compensates for this by being just a tad more prestigious and profiling itself as the tour the pure climbers can win.

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