Fabio Aru has been attacking on the Puerto de la Morcuera and opened up a gap on race leader Tom Dumoulin. Helped by team mate Mikel Landa Aru distances Dumoulin and rides into the race lead on the penultimate day of the race. This was the moment the race was won.
The race began in Marbella with a coastal team time trial that was raced but times did not count towards the overall classification after rider protests about the course. The playa haters found the route too dangerous as it crossed beaches and boardwalks. BMC won the stage and Peter Velits took the race lead, a brief reappearance from a rider once touted as grand tour podium contender.
The race proper got underway and the climb to the Caminito del Rey was instructive, especially with hindsight. Esteban Chaves bridged across to Nairo Quintana and rode away for the stage win, dispatching a surprise Tom Dumoulin. “It’s a short climb and Dumoulin paced himself up that” was the refrain, often chased with “he’ll crack in the high mountains” but watch again as the Dutchman dances on the pedals, accelerates and demonstrates an aggressive, entrepreneurial style. Nicolas Roche was third and would be a regular presence in the race with a stage win later on. Meanwhile Quintana was left looking weaker than expected and the other contenders were scattered down the road. The missing rider was Vincenzo Nibali and he was soon excluded from the race after TV footage of a “sticky bottle” seemingly coated in superglue. The Shark was left floundering with excuses on Facebook and now aiming for one last consolatory win in the Tour of Lombardy.
Chaves helped Orica-Greenedge win the first week again thanks to another stage win and a winning smile. The Aussie team got a World Tour first for Caleb Ewan in Alcalá de Guadaíra. Almost a first too for Peter Sagan as he took a sprint win and finally triumphed in a grand tour stage before he was sent home by the race when a motorbike rode into him and sent him flying generating one of many “buzz” moments in the race which set Twitter alight, Sergio Paulinho’s exit would see Oleg Tinkov thinking aloud about withdrawing his team from the race in pointless protest that would have denied Rafał Majka a podium place.
The first real summit finish came at La Alpujarra and like much of this year’s race we got some close racing from a breakaway and then the overall contenders. Bert-Jan Lindeman won the stage, outsprinting Ilia Koshevoy and a fallen Jerôme Cousin whose accidental crash on the final slopes summed up Europcar’s Vuelta: active but empty-handed. Fabio Aru was the best of the rest with Dumoulin last in the lead group with Chris Froome dropped, on a bad day, and Tejay Van Garderen looking out of contention already.
Kristian Sbaragli got a stage, profiting from Giant-Alpecin’s messy leadout for a surprise win. This proved a common theme with Giant-Alpecin’s leader having to wait for Madrid to win a stage and no sprinter went on a winning stream. Sbaragli justified his MTN-Qhubeka’s invitation in one go although they did more including Louis Meintjes finishing 10th overall. He’s signed with Lampre-Merida, a loss for the African team and perhaps jumping before Mark Cavendish arrives. Among the other wildcard teams Caja Rural thrived and Omar Fraile took the mountains jersey. Cofidis flopped after Nacer Bouhanni crashed out, in past years they’ve managed to salvage something like a stage win by Navarro or Nicolas Edet winning the mountains jersey but it was a blank Vuelta this time. Europcar and Colombia didn’t get a big result either.
Andorra was supposed to bring the “toughest stage ever” and it was a hard day on many counts but didn’t meet the hype. Mikel Landa joined the early break against team orders and won the stage, the squad were celebrating in the evening in case you worried about Astana’s internal cohesion and had more than one reason for the joy given Fabio Aru had just ridden into race lead. The Sardinian got the better of his GC rivals in Andorra with Tom Dumoulin limiting his losses to finish ahead of Nairo Quintana, ill and Alejandro Valverde who faded although he still managed to win the points jersey by Madrid to add to his stage win. A decent haul but below what they wanted. That day Chris Froome crashed and would leave the race after breaking his foot and Nicolas Roche crashed to 22nd overall, ending his GC hopes and having to focus on a stage win instead.
The series above shows the GC standings of the podium finishes plus Tom Dumoulin over the course of the race. As it suggests Majka finishes third and pays for his time loss on the first day while Tom Dumoulin might have been managing his lead in the mountains but this was a gradual defeat, his collapse on Saturday extinguished his chances but time losses prior to this in the mountains probably gave enough confidence to Astana to execute their plan. So if there was a winning moment it of course was part of a chain of events.
Fabio Aru gets his first grand tour win, helped by his team including Nibali’s exit which settled political concerns. What next? He’s just turned 25 delivered plenty already and cohabitation with Nibali seems to be the only cloud on the horizon as the two are not best pals and will have to decide who challenges for the Giro and Tour. Aru probably needs to go to the Giro again armed with more experience and improved time trialling. With his loose, fluid style on the bike he still looks like a junior at times and there’s room to improve. The Vuelta was only his fifth race this year after Paris-Nice (invisible), the Volta a Catalunya (6th), the Giro d’Italia (2nd) and the Tour of Poland (5th) as he prefers to spend time training at altitude, a very selective approach.
Many stages were tactically simple with late charges but Stage 20 saw Astana put a plan together to get rid of Dumoulin and a textbook example of the “relay” tactic. They sent riders into the early move who were allowed to go up the road. Aru then tried to drop Tom Dumoulin and once he got a gap he was able to use Mikel Landa to drive the pace and then Astana called back Luis Leon Sanchez and Andrey Zeits from the breakaway and they kept the pace up, this numerical superiority ensured Tom Dumoulin could not power his way back on the valley section. But even if Dumoulin had been able to get back to the group he was on the ropes and probably would have been finished on the final climb of the day.
A win for Aru means a win for Astana who still bring controversy. The positive tests on the eponymous Continental team last year mean the World Tour team got tarnished and this was compounded by the UCI President saying Astana should have lost their licence only to later accept they should keep their licence. Of course the team doesn’t help itself either with the clumsy MPCC exit and more, they may win races but often match any good publicity with the negative sort although if anything they’re cast as the pantomime villains at times, people boos and hiss at Astana while Katusha score more scandals but keep their heads down.
Dumoulin’s performance was solid, versatile and entertaining. He might have started the race with the “time trial specialist” label but this wasn’t Wiggins-style where he knocked everyone out in the TT and defended his advantage aided by a strong team. Instead he taking risks, going clear with Chaves on Stage 2 or riding clear for the stage win on Stage 9. He was hanging on every day in the mountains and providing suspense rather than inevitability and the race was all the more interesting for it. Nobody thought Dumoulin could win including his team who sent a sprint train to Marbella to help John Degenkolb but with hindsight there have been signs of his abilities. Take the Tour Down Under where he was third on the stage with the uphill finish to Paracombe, the kind of punchy result time trial specialists aren’t supposed to get and 10th on the Queen Stage of the Tour de Suisse above Sölden where he finished ahead of Rafał Majka and team mate Warren Barguil. This was a stage race with 11 mountain stages and the fact he came close to winning was all the more surprising.
What next? It’ll be interesting to see how he fares in a stage race like Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico where short climbs and time trials work well for him. The Tour de France is good for him too with many long and steady climbs but coming close in the Vuelta doesn’t translate into the same riding in July. He could have done with a better team and it’s late for Giant-Alpecin to go into the market for more help. How the team manages Dumoulin alongside the ambitions of Warren Barguil, John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel will be interesting, until Kittel’s non-selection everything has seemed harmonious.
Close but no cigar: Joaquim Rodriguez finishes second, his fourth grand tour podium and his best finish in the Vuelta. He did lead the race once but didn’t throw the race away. He went into the time trial stage with only one second on Fabio Aru and less than two minutes on Tom Dumoulin, too slender a lead. This was his high water mark and if he’d wanted to win he needed to be stronger earlier in the race. The “Purito” of old could have done it with more stage wins and time bonuses but it wasn’t to happen. He even lost the points jersey on the last day and complained that the ride into Madrid should have been a procession.
Pole position: Rafał Majka finishes third and presents a paradox of a rider who never looked like he could win yet he finished just 1.09 down on Aru having lost 1.04 on the Stage 2. In other words had he not lost this time perhaps he could have been more of a contender? More but his constant deficit did mean others allowed him more room, for example he was allowed to ride away on Stage 20. The plan is a tilt at the Giro now but everything else being equal you can see him struggling to contain Fabio Aru.
The Tour-Vuelta double isn’t over because there’s nothing to lose for a Tour de France rider to try again in the Vuelta. Chris Froome didn’t manage it because of a broken foot and Nairo Quintana said he’s still interested. It can be done. The Giro-Vuelta double looks more possible but will it be reserved for younger riders still building experience? This doesn’t make the racing any worse but the sport is shaped such that winning the Giro and Vuelta in one year is still worth less than landing the Tour.
Put aside talk of doubles to offer a triple salute to Adam Hansen for his 13th consecutive grand tour, a record. Just doing all three races in one year is a big deal but to string 13 together is astonishing given the risk of crashes and illness. He was almost of the Tour de France. As well as collecting this record he’s taken stage wins in the Giro and Vuelta before and helped his sprint leaders.
A few other mentions, first for Trek Factory Racing who took three stages thanks to Jasper Stuyven, Danny Van Poppel and Fränk Schleck cameo appearance in a mountain stage. Kris Boeckmans had a horror crash but is out of a coma now and hopefully back on a bike soon. Alexis Gougeard took a stage win, impressive for its solo style but also because he had the strength to do it in the third week. Lampre-Merida are having a good season and took two stage wins.
Grand tour of the year? Comparisons don’t work well, after all this is not about rating one race against another in the way a magazine might compare three frames or cars because you can only buy one. With luck you get to enjoy many races in the year rather than being forced to pick one. But let’s revive the DVD test: if you had to buy a highlights video you’d probably go for the Vuelta.
Certainly there was action almost every day and a script that race organiser Javier Guillén couldn’t have dreamed of. We started with a stellar cast including the first four from the Tour de France alongside others seeking revenge and redemption. It was only by the fourth Saturday that we knew who would win. The only criticism would be that this was tapas television, instead of a feast that lasted hours you only had to tune in for the last 30 minutes of a stage and often less to enjoy the action and this illustrated a certain tactical caution but fortunately we had variety rather than repeat results.