The 2014 Vuelta could have got off to a real ‘flying start’ if the organisers had had the sense to switch the Prologue Team Time Trial with the showpiece Stage 3 beginning – which took place on the deck of the Spanish aircraft carrier LHD ‘Juan Carlos I’. Despite this obviously missed opportunity the Grand Tour’s take-off salvo was reasonably impressive none-the-less as local lads Movistar jetted across the 12.6km course in the best time and Cannondale upset the expected order by coming in second ahead of more favoured teams such as Orica-Greenedge and Team Sky, who suffered yet another ignominous day in the saddle to only manage 11th.
Stage 3’s village départ was fairly spectacular.
The Movistar team looked united throughout with Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana both coming across the line in the time-setting group. It fell to Jonathan Castroviejo to claim the first leaders’ jersey though as he led the seven intact riders home. Judging by what we have seen since, this might have been the first and last show of unity within the team. Valverde got on the wrong side of a seven second split on the aforementioned Stage 3 and since then he has appeared to be looking to initially regain parity with his younger team mate and then push on beyond him.. It’s unlikely to be the spectacular enmity of the 1986 Tour all over again but it will be interesting to see if he commits to supporting Quintana or just doing his own thing. On Stage 4 he attacked on the final downhill and, though only ever gaining a maximum 14 second gap, forced teams to chase him. Tellingly, Quintana brought the rest of the team to help the chase. It was becoming apparent that nothing in this Vuelta was going to be straightforward.
Before those fireworks in the GC battle got started, the sprinters in the race had a couple of days in the sun. And what sun! Temperatures soared as high as the bearded vultures of the Iberian peninsula and also looked to pick off any under-hydrated riders. Teams fought the conditions just as much as each other in the opening stages. Trek Factory Racing’s Fabian Cancellara shed 4kg on one stage alone and whose bronzed thighs must have been like well-roasted crackling by the days end with the combined effects of heat and salt from all the sweat. Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) showed he thrives in the heat as he took the first sprint win with a strong finish but it was Valverde who ended the first open-racing day in red by dint of coming in ahead of Castroviejo. His podium appearance in the leader’s jersey may have set something off in his mind about ‘letting the road decide’ who was the Movistar team leader.
I can’t see this Vuelta ending in smiles for both Valverde and Quintana
Alejandro is another who is said to thrive in hot conditions but he couldn’t repeat the trick the following day when, on a finish that looked well suited to his old Liege-Bastogne-Liege winning skills, he got caught in that split which cost him seven seconds. Michael Matthews (OGE) showed great strength and even greater timing to overhaul another favourite for the day Dan Martin (GRS) to sneak the win and, thanks to those time bonuses, the leader’s jersey as well. Matthews is becoming something of a first week leaders jersey specialist having worn pink for six days in May during the Giro and now holding onto red for three days in Spain. Giant-Shimano took the stage win reins next as they looked to remind the cycling world that they don’t necessarily need Marcel Kittel to win Grand Tour sprints. Kittel’s fellow German John Degenkolb took two wins on the bounce to first challenge and then overtake Matthews in the green jersey competition.
The usual hustle of the GC contenders to get to the front of the pack in order to avoid the chances of being held up in a crash at the end of each days racing provided some early indication about how much credence we should be giving to Alberto Contador’s words about only challenging in the final week. ‘Not much’ would seem be the answer as the Spaniard was well to the fore in every stage and marshalled his troops to ensure that he was always in contention. He looked far more competitive from the off than Quintana whose usual first week impression of an invisible man was particularly impressive this time around. So good in fact that when he had transponder issues on Stage 7 and didn’t show up in the final standings, the general consensus was that he had been dropped and lost a whole bunch of time. In fact he had finished 12th but no-one had noticed. Neat trick.
Chris Froome was having a more visible first week than the man who was being touted as his main rival for the overall. He too was often at the head of affairs and, after the disappointment of the TTT, Team Sky performed much more like we would expect them to. Having crashed (yet again) earlier in the day and had to chase back for 15km, Froome powered away in the final metres of that same Stage 7 finale to grab a couple of seconds back over the others but he and Valverde had done more damage the day before when they broke free from a stellar five strong group also containing Quintana, Contador and Joaquin Rodriguez (KAT) on the final metres of the 1st Cat Alto Cumbres Verdes to contest the victory. Valverde edged out the Briton, reclaimed the red jersey and leapfrogged Quintana on GC with same blow. It was a riveting finish to an intriguing stage but one which, in the end, asked more questions than it answered. What are Valverde’s intentions exactly? How bad was Contador’s Tour injury really? Will Froome fade and Quintana bloom towards the end of the race?
Froome, Valverde, Contador and Rodriguez made time on the Alto Cumbres Verdes
The answers were supposed to be put on ice for Stage 8 with a flat day that had ‘bunch sprint’ written all over it in store. But as we have seen before those pesky crosswinds put paid to the idea of a relatively calm approach to the line for the sprinters to frenetically contest. Echelons exploded across the peloton with around 15km to run and, although the first group initially contained all the favourites, Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo put the hammer down again and split the still large group again. This time Quintana was found wanting and it required the worried Giant-Shimano team, desperate to deliver Degenkolb back up to the front, to bring him back into contention. This time it was he, rather than Valverde, who was isolated and without the support of his team. Nacer Bouhanni won the ensuing sprint – albeit with an almighty wobble at the very end that seemed to put Matthews off his own effort and which divided the race jury 2-2 as to whether he should be punished for a irregularity. It was pretty ironic given that Bouhanni had made a great noise of complaining about Degenkolb’s line a couple of days earlier.
Someone making a conspicuous lack of noise has been Peter Sagan (CAN). Inevitably touted as a strong contender for the green jersey and with some early stage profiles suiting his all-round explosive style, finding him languishing down in 25th with only 17 points by Saturday (Degenkolb led with 87 at that stage) would prove a mystery to most onlookers. ‘Slightly overweight and ‘totally uninterested’ has been the professional pundits’ verdict; the cause of which has been assumed to be mainly his now-confirmed switch to Tinkoff for next season. Perhaps he is acting ‘honourably’ by not wanting to earn any more World Tour points this season as they will only benefit his new team. Or perhaps he just can’t be arsed.
The Stage 9 showdown – ahead of the rest day and the first individual time trial – proved to be as thrilling a finish as Stage 6. With a large break ahead for most of the rain-sodden day, the selection process on the approach to and up the final climb of Aramòn Valdelinares played out in two places almost simultaneously. As the magnificently monikered Lampre-Merida rider Winner Anacona struck out from the disintegrated break in an attempt to snatch the stage win from Bob Jungels (TFR) and then Javier Moreno (MOV) and the overall race lead with a bold solo ascent, Dan Martin was lighting the peloton’s touchpaper after more solid work from TeamSky to half the break’s advantage from over six minutes to hover around the point where Anacona – lying 2′ 50″ back at the start of the day – would take the red jersey. Martin could not make his attack stick but his initial foray goaded the others into action and when a visibly bouyant Contador shot past the Katusha riders who had ferried Rodriguez et al back up to Martin, few could follow. Valverde and Froome certainly could not bridge the gap and immediately went into damage limitation mode. Sky’s dominance of just a few minutes earlier when Kennaugh, Deignan, Nieve and Cataldo were all making good on the usual mammoth stint from Kiriyenka was washed away with the standing water coursing across the mountain road. As Quintana and Rodriguez battled their way back towards the dancing Contador the race for the GC lead was inexorably clawed away from Anacona, who had already crossed the line as stage winner, to whether Contador could hold off Quintana for the three seconds he would need to leapfrog him. As remnants of the break still staggered over the finish, the Colombian Giro d’Italia winner, aided by Rodriguez, caught Contador on the line to secure the same time and deny El Pistelero the leader’s jersey. Sadly in doing so he also denied a fair few cycling sub-editors the chance to dust off their ABBA puns and declare that “The Winner Takes It All”.
But it was Quintana who finished the first week in the leader’s red jersey
Froome and Valverde toiled in a further 23 seconds back with both trying to sound positive afterwards. Froome looked towards Tuesday’s 36.5km trial trial as a place to recover his 28 second deficit time whilst Valverde – though acknowledging it was good that the lead had stayed within the team – still only trailed by eight seconds and made statements about the road deciding who will lead “Team” Movistar. With the top six within 30 seconds of each other and five summit finishes included in the next block of racing after the time trial we really do seem set for the ding-dong battle that we have all been wishing for.. This ‘Spanish Feast’ does keep on delivering.
- 1 QUINTANA, Nairo (MOVISTAR) 35:58:05
- 2 CONTADOR, Alberto (TINKOFF-SAXO) + 3
- 3 VALVERDE, Alejandro (MOVISTAR) + 8
- 4 ANACONA, Winner (LAMPRE – MERIDA) + 9
- 5 FROOME, Chris (SKY) + 28
- 6 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin (KATUSHA) + 30
- 7 ARU, Fabio (ASTANA) + 1:06
- 8 GESINK, Robert (BELKIN) + 1:19
- 9 URAN, Rigoberto (OMEGA PHARMA – QUICK-STEP) + 1:26
- 10 BARGUIL, Warren (GIANT-SHIMANO)