How far can Tom Dumoulin go? Once seen as a time trial specialist he’s proven versatile, aggressive and surprising. But as much as he’s been underrated by many this year the high mountains seem too much.
It’s been a week of surprises with a collection of riders finally getting the wins they’ve been promising whether Dumoulin, Esteban Chaves or Caleb Ewan. Even Peter Sagan found winning ways again.
The race started with the farcical team time trial course which made a buzz but was quickly forgotten. There could be a longer term impact given the precedent of only a few high profile riders need to take to Twitter to express displeasure for the story to gain momentum.
Normally the opening week of a grand tour is the most sprinter friendly part of the race but this Vuelta’s had just three sprint finishes in ten stages. There’s been no clear pattern with Peter Sagan winning one, Caleb Ewan another and Kristian Sbaragli finally getting a win. If anything the consistent theme has been John Degenkolb’s defeat but there’s time for him to correct this and anyway Giant-Alpecin have been having a great time of things so far. The German-branded team stands out for its record of rider development.
Dumoulin’s won his Vuelta already. Not that’s got the red jersey wrapped up, far from it. It’s simply that he doesn’t have to do any more, he’s taken a stage win and wears the leader’s jersey. Everything else is a bonus and if the high mountains are too much then he can treat it all as a test and look forward to the upcoming time trial stage which in turn will be useful preparation ahead of the World Championships. To respond to the question in the opening paragraph surely the high mountains are too much, especially the repeated climbs. He has been in the top-10 of mountain stages before, notably 10th in the Tour de Suisse’s climb to Sölden this year but even if he can improve this to, say, fifth place in tomorrow’s stage then he’ll lose time and the race lead.
Esteban Chaves had a bad day on Sunday but that’s been his only mistake so far after two stage wins and days in red. Like Dumoulin he’s had a great opening week and succeed beyond expectations already. It wasn’t that long ago that he was nursing severe crash injuries that meant he couldn’t move his arm thanks to nerve tissue problems, merely racing again was a triumph. Now we all want to see how he fares in the high mountains.
Of all the other contenders it’s hard to grade to them all and the first week has resembled a game of snakes and ladders, no sooner has one rider risen up the rankings then they’ve had a problem and vice versa. Despite several uphill finishes there’s no pecking order; the upcoming stages will do this starting with tomorrow’s six climb tour of Andorra. Joaquim Rodriguez sits second overall after a steady first week but the “Purito” of the past would have taken a stage win by now on one of the uphill finishes. On Sunday’s climb up Puig Llorença he placed third after avoiding the early attacks. Fabio Aru has been the fresh pick but hasn’t benefited much from the zip in his legs over those who rode the Tour. Sky have two cards to play in Nicolas Roche and Chris Froome but the Briton looks like the ace for the mountains, especially if he’s had his jours sans already. Froome is back to that disturbing pacing strategy of letting himself get dropped and then pacing himself back into contention as if he’s in a handicap race. It’s disconcerting because it’s unusual but an effective idea in theory and, so far, in practice. The Sky rider is one of the few in the top-10 who will look forward to the time trial.
Movistar still have two chiefs in Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. Some wonder who is the team leader and the answer is the rider in the lead in the team leader. Since the two sit on identical time there’s no need for the team to choose yet. Rafał Majka is one to watch, he’s been discreet but the Pole led to the chase to Fabio Aru on the summit finish at La Alpujarra and looks strong right now. Last in the top-10 is Domenico Pozzovivo who’s had a quiet opening week, he seems able to hang with the front group but hasn’t shown signs of being to get ahead.
|Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, Fabio Aru|
|Joaquim Rodriguez, Rafał Majka|
That’s a revised look at the riders for the win in Madrid with Majka and Chaves joining the table. If those are the contenders, who were the pretenders? Pierre Rolland is doing what he usually does as in losing loads of time in the opening week and given his very low win rate he’s an odd signing for Cannondale-Garmin. Both Sky’s Sergio Henao and Astana’s Mikel Landa were potential podium picks but they’re well down on GC and reduced to support roles and maybe a stage win.
The opening week has seen more crashes than Chinese stockmarket and Tejay van Garderen has been the main GC victim. Dan Martin was featuring in the stage finishes and if Joe Dombrowski could still win a mountain stage from a breakaway, Cannondale-Garmin look down on their luck as Andrew Talansky rides on but all year he’s looked nothing like the rider who could track Froome and Contador in the Dauphiné last year. For spectacular misfortune see Nacer Bouhanni he’s only finished one grand tour in his career despite after starting seven. There are still serious concerns for Kris Boeckmans who lies in an artificial coma.
A motorbike took out Peter Sagan and he left the race the next day with his injuries and frustration too. It’s not just a matter of leaving Spain, this puts participation and preparation for the world championships in doubt. There are calls for the UCI to do something but it’s hard to legislate against accidents although there are measures to think about.
One measure the UCI has taken is excluding Vincenzo Nibali after that most adhesive of sticky bottles. The Sicilian is a driven man keen to salvage something from the end of the season whether by going to the world championships or racing the Tour of Lombardy, the problem is he’s not got much opportunity to race before and if he rides the world’s he’s got a week to get home and over the jetlag.
If we’ve had 10 stages of surprises, variety, drama and polemics it sounds like a great start. But there’s a shallow feel too, rather than a feast we’ve had ten stages of tapas. Yes there have been some great finishes but that’s it, the action is concentrated late in the day. This site’s daily previews regularly recommend tuning in for the final 30 minutes and half of the suggested viewing time is so you can settle in for the finish. This upcoming stages should change this and the continuing uncertainty over the ultimate winner is there to be enjoyed.