Vincenzo Nibali wins Stage 3 in Andorra while Chris Froome takes the maillot rojo on as the race rides into Andorra. Froome never looked back and gradually distanced all his riders. This was an early selection and among those distanced was Alberto Contador who gained the space needed to launch a series of crowd-pleasing attacks.
The race started in France with a team time trial in Nîmes, a city with a Spanish touch but presumably keen on hosting the Tour de France too and so putting itself in ASO’s hotseat. BMC Racing took the opening stage to help divert attention away from Samuel Sanchez’s positive doping-control.
None of the other riders posed much of a threat to Chris Froome. He hardly had to attack his rivals, instead they tended to fall away along the way as the chart above shows in part, depicting the GC standings for the eventual top-5 overall. But the graph doesn’t tell of the implosion of Esteban Chaves or David de la Cruz who were third and fourth overall midway after the stage to the Calar Alto observatory. The mountain is home to Europe’s largest telescope but fortunately it didn’t offer too much of a glimpse into the race’s future. At times past the Vuelta has seen the same riders engaged in the same efforts again and again, a daily repeat of who has the best VAM with only minor variations each day. But this year’s vintage was a bit wilder and riders on what looked like a distant orbit from Chris Froome were able to gravitate their way back into the top-10 overall, for example Steven Kruijswijk or Wout Poels even if they didn’t have a huge impact on the racing.
Froome took a stage win in Cumbre del Sol but was already in the lead and had to contain and mark his rivals. Hardly an easy task with the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Esteban Chaves, Romain Bardet or Rafał Majka but gradually some of these names faded away. Orica-Scott in particular promised plenty with Chaves + Yates² but arguably Jack Haig had their best Vuelta.
Haig was one of many to show promise or even deliver on it. Wilco Kelderman finished fourth overall and was climbing impressively given he’s more of a mellifluous chronoman. Miguel Ángel López crashed out a year ago and broke several teeth, now he was all smiles with two stage wins and a top-10 overall and ended up as Astana’s leader. Ilnur Zakarin was close to the podium in the 2016 Giro before crashing out so we knew he could ride high on GC for three weeks but he confirms this now with his first grand tour podium while Michael Woods showed consistency while his Cannondale-Drapac team was threatening to vanish to deliver an impressive seventh overall and ended the race with his and his team’s future secure. Meanwhile Gianni Moscon, this blog’s pick of the neo-pros for 2016 has gone from Paris-Roubaix helper to Angliru pace setter, as versatile as his near neighbour Francesco Moser in an age where riders are normally hyper-specialists.
The breakaways often had their chance thanks to the hilly course which deterred sprinters and so meant fewer teams to chase all day to set up a sprint. But even the set piece mountain stages were often won by the breakaways rather than closed down by Team Sky with Julian Alaphilippe winning on the Xorret de Catí, Rafał Majka on La Pandera, Miguel Ángel López in the Sierra Nevada and Stefan Denifl’s triumph on Los Machuchos.
The remaining sprints were won by Matteo Trentin, four stage wins for him and often helped by an impressive lead out from the likes of Bob Jungels or Alaphilippe and Quick Step as a whole had a great Vuelta starting Yves Lampaert’s stage win and red jersey for a day.
Alberto Contador’s stomach problems were perhaps a case of “no hay mal que por bien no venga” or every cloud has a silver lining. Yes he lost over two and half minutes on the stage into Andorra but for counterfactual purposes let’s assume this didn’t happen and he finished in the same group as Froome. Based on his times for all the other stages the arithmetic says he’d still have stand behind Froome on GC for the whole race, even his raid to Los Machucos would only correct part of the time lost in the Logroño time trial and the previous day’s result at the Alto Hoya de la Mora. It’s likely he’d have had Sky and other teams working harder to contain him too. So his Andorran problems turned his Vuelta into a three week handicap race where he had the space to try and close the gap and this helped spice up the race.
Talking of counterfactuals and thought experiments, would Chris Froome have won if he rode for, say, Caja Rural? Arguably he lost the Vuelta last year on the road to Formigal because Sky brought a relatively weak team. They made amends this year even if Diego Rosa’s climbing legs weren’t there. Sky aim to asphyxiate the race by having millionaire domestiques set a fierce tempo in the mountains and this was most obvious on the Sierra Nevada where Vincenzo Nibali tried a brief attack only to sit up once it was apparent he wasn’t going to ride away. It helps explain why the Vuelta wants the steepest possible climbs – there’s almost zero drafting benefit on a 20% slope – and why this is the last grand tour to have teams of nine riders, it’ll be eight for all three next year.
The win enriches Froome’s palmarès substantially. Four Tour de France wins is plenty and he’s taken other stage races like the Dauphiné or Romandie but they felt like training races, the means to the end each July. Now the Vuelta – and the Tour double no less, this was not a salvage operation to rescue a sunken season – broadens is repetoire out from a Tour specialist and adds a line on his CV that allows comparisons to be made with the likes of Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil. Comparable? Yes and no. For starters if we want to judge his place in cycling history then wait until his career is over. But playing the game for now, those were different times and the Vuelta used to start in April meaning much more recovery time… even if the likes of Hinault would have been busy racing in May and June too. For more fundamental comparisons Froome is still racing and there’s time in theory, to add, say, a rainbow jersey; the Bergen TT course suits but the legs might be stale, next year’s Austrian bergfest may tempt him. There’s possibly a Giro, maybe even a triumph in Lombardia or Liège too or even the British championships. This may read like picking dishes of a menu and it’s not easy, see how many times Froome has tried to win the Vuelta and besides he’s yet to win a one day race.
Contador only won a single one-day race too, the Milano-Torino in 2012 atop the Superga. This Vuelta was not a victory lap of Spain but certainly a valedictory tour where he got to commune with the crowds and helped attract record TV audiences. Winners write history and Contador’s final chapter is a story of popularity and going out on a high, quite literally, on the Angliru. As Pierre Carey reminds us Contador retires as a popular hero rather than a faded force or under a cloud like others from his generation, for example Samuel Sanchez may end his career.
Contador is gone and a generation changes. Despite Movistar’s discreet race there’s reason for Spanish fans to look forward with Marc Soler, David de la Cruz, Enric Mas and Pello Bilbao having a great race and this time next year we might be talking about Mikel Landa winning thanks to his repeat attacks.
Many stars lined up but most fell away. Froome grabbed the race lead early and led throughout to win, the expected outcome. So much so that even the second placed rider on GC, Nibali, never posed a threat let alone wore the red jersey for a day which compares unfavourably to the Tour and Giro where Froome and Dumoulin at times looked beatable. This sounds like a recipe for a dull race yet the Vuelta offered a lot of action and entertainment, especially if TV viewers tuned in for the final 30 minutes each day. Breakaways were frequently rewarded and the novel climbs were exciting rather than gimmicky. Many days saw two races for the price of one with the day’s escapees contesting the stage win and the GC contenders scrapping for seconds behind them.