Who will win the Vuelta a Espańa? We don’t know and the race is all the better for this. Mountain stage repeats have only served to narrow the differences and if Tom Dumoulin has lost time, it’s just right ahead of the upcoming time trial stage.
As Miguel de Cervantes wrote in Don Quixote, “he who is down one day can be up the next, unless he really wants to stay in bed“. For now none of the top candidates prefer to snooze, fitting for the last three mountain stages that have seen several changes with riders up and down each day. The Andorran stage gave us the shake-up on GC with two negative consequences, first the crash of Chris Froome eventually took him out of the race and second was the relative collapse of Movistar and an ill Nairo Quintana and a weaker Alejandro Valverde off the pace. Since then the riders have been scrapping for seconds and the race remains unsettled. Joaquim Rodriguez has been the best but is this because the stages have suited him with their steep finishes or can he hold his own in the time trial and the mountains that are yet to come.
We’re now four stages and the Madrid procession from the end of the race and the GC is almost what you’d design if it was some kind of handicap race with Joaquim Rodriguez one second up on Fabio Aru and Rafał Maja not far behind. The big question is whether Tom Dumoulin is too close, as if the handicappers have been too generous to the Dutchman? The 38.7km in Burgos on Wednesday is his speciality stage but this is not the time trial world championships as it comes midway in the final week of a grand tour where freshness counts for plenty. 1m51s is just the sort of time Dumoulin make up on Joaquim Rodriguez on a good day. Time trials in the third week tend to be won on freshness and the results can often surprise, think Carlos Sastre holding off Cadel Evans in 2008. Rafał Majka’s seen as a climber but he has delivered results in time trials before, ninth in the Tour de Suisse’s final stage this year and the same position in Romandie too; both courses were hilly to help a climber but in 2014 he was 14th in the pancake flat in his native Kraków. He won’t ace the course but this is just to balance the common perception of him as a pure climber only.
Beyond the racing the main transfer news hasn’t been huge but Louis Meintjes’ move to Lampre-Merida matters. Currently in tenth position, the 23 year old climber has been a totemic rider for MTN-Qhubeka, the kind of rider who earns wildcard invitations for them while also representing a strand of African cycling. So his move is more than a sideways switch to another team, it subtracts something more from the team. MTN-Qhubeka are said to be interested in Omar Fraile, the current mountains jersey holder and breakaway busybody. Europcar seem to have found a replacement sponsor but Pierre Rolland’s on the move to Cannondale-Garmin.
Is the grand tour double theme dead? It looks like it but Chris Froome’s exit proved you can’t ride with a broken foot rather than attempt to win the Vuelta and Tour. The Tour-Vuelta double should remain open for some even if the Giro-Tour combo looks out.
For viewers the Vuelta continues to provide daily action but always late in the stage. There have been some good stage battles and Nelson Oliveira’s solo stage win has been the exception among a lot of closely fought stages, the Portuguese rider going solo for over 25km.
Trek have been having a good lap of Spain with Fränk Schleck’s stage win, another for Jasper Stuyven and one for Danny van Poppel too who left John Degenkolb banging his bars in theatrical frustration, a subplot so far has been Degenkolb’s sprint struggles but there’s still time to take a stage win and besides Giant-Alpecin are within reach of winning a grand tour. Who would have said that a few weeks ago?