Apologies for lack of pictures this week but I’m writing this on the road (rail actually). Will add some later.
For a week which included what is being widely touted at the “Most Boring Grand Tour Stage in the History of the World. Ever”, we’ve actually been treated to a hugely enjoyable set of races in the last seven days. We’ve had high’s, lows, slows and blows as the race has taken a more solid formation ahead of the final week.
First up was the ‘up and down’ Individual Time Trial that saw race leader Nairo Quintana crash in spectacular fashion. After cresting the mid-point climb he began adjusting his rather unique, shin height overshoes as he picked up speed on the downhill. Whether it was taking his eyes off the road for a moment is uncertain but he took the wrong line into a corner and a worse one out of it and met the roadside barrier with sickening force. The cameras initially picked him lying flat on his back and the thought was his race was over. He managed to get up and finish some three minutes down and, though I had said that the Vuelta would not end in smiles for one of Quintana and Valverde, this was not what I had envisaged. Worse was to come though for the Giro champion the following day when he would be involved in an early mid-peloton tumble and suffer a similar fate to Froome and Contador did in the Tour. He climbed into an ambulance and was spirited away for an operation on a broken shoulder.
The expected TT charge by Chris Froome failed to materialise, lending more weight to the theory that he is not riding at 100%, with the Team Sky leader coming home way down in 11th place, beaten by people including his team mate Vasily Kiryienka. Tony Martin (OPQS) won of course but a great ride by Alberto Contador put him into the race lead and a surprising second overall for Rigoberto Uran (OPQS) suggested that he would be a force to be reckoned with as the race headed towards the mountains of the North.
The Stage 11 summit finish was won by Italian youngster Fabian Aru (AST) but the real talking point was what had gone on behind the main bunch of GC contenders rather than off the front. TeamSky had approached the final climb with their standard operating procedure of high tempo, massed ranks pulling hard. Only difference today was that Froome was off the back and apparently falling away. As the gap increased it became apparent that, unable to follow the initial attacks, he was riding his own race and hoping that an even tempo would get him to the top in roughly the same time. Time and time again he slowly reeled the leaders in, only to be distanced again. With what looked like a race-defining effort he caught them once more and finished alongside them.
Then we had the aforementioned stage from hell. A purgatorius eight-lap circumnavigation of a town called Logorno. It wasn’t so much a case that John Degenkolb (GIA) won but that everyone else, including the viewers, lost..
The following day the Vuelta organisers took everyone to the zoo – presumably to make amends for the boring city tour of the day before. I’m surprised that the riders weren’t given an ice-cream each as well to appease them a little more. With a sharp climb right at the end of the stage, which finished in a nature reserve complete with elephants and (hopefully caged) lions and tigers and bears, it looked like the kind of profile that would suit Dan Martin or Alejandro Valverde. Valverde did manage fourth on the stage and Martin ninth with the same time but Spaniard Daniel Navarro, riding for the French Cofidis team took the win with a well timed attack. Most of the GC contenders had held station, knowing that there were tougher days coming ahead. Three massive mountain days beckoned and the stunning Asturian outcrops provided the rocky background against which the riders would have to smash themselves.
Stage 14 to Le Camperona saw a repeat of the Chris Froome tempo show. Again he was left, apparently for dead, on the lower reaches of the incredibly steep Vallee de Sabeo climb and again he arose, Lazarus-like, to come back to the fore in the latter stages. Indeed he broke away in the final metres to eek a few seconds over Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez, who were all consolidating their top four places. Froome had been moving up place by place and now lay third as Uran shipped time on the first of a number of bad days. Ryder Hesjedal (GRS) won the stage from the break, either heartbreakingly overtaking Oliver Zaugg (TKS) just 100m from the line, or expertly judging his effort depending on your point of view.
By now it was clear that Froome’s antics were a pre-defined tactic; designed to limit his underprepared body from debilitating effort and to allow him to race himself into fitness and form whilst maintaining a strong GC position. The tactic was again on show in the second of the three mountain stages of this middle week, though with slightly less success than the days before, Again he hung back as Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez forged ahead and again he came back to them in the final kilometre of the famed Covadonga climb. Contador had repeatedly looked back for him throughout the climb, using every switchback to measure the distance between himself and the dogged Team SKy rider, making it obvious he views Froome as his main rival and threat. But this time the three Spaniards had the measure of the Briton and a Valverde attack a couple of hundred metres from the line – after he had contributed his usual little to the pacemaking – won him 5 seconds over Contador and a second place bonus whilst it cost Froome 7 seconds over the race leader when he couldn’t match the finishing pace. Przemyslaw Niemiec (LAM) just held out for the win, giving Lampre a second stage win of the Vuelta.
And so dawned the Queen Stage. Contador leading Valverde by 31seconds, and both Froome and Rodriguez by 1:20. The race winner would certainly now come form these four men and probably the podium too. Aru lay a distant 5th at 2.22.. I had thought that this would be the day for Froome to attack the Possum/Phoenix tactics of the week were becoming played out and his strength and confidence were visibly growing. Pundits were noting that there seemed to be no love lost between the three Spaniards and that there was none of the collusion that the race has seen in the past. With four Cat 1 climbs (including the summit finish) and a Cat 2 in a short 150km stage it seemed certain that the pattern would have to change. Again Team Sky drilled to the front on the approach but this time Froome was firmly in position and attacked a good 5km out. Only Contador could go with him and the pair raced up the climb, quickly mopping up the breakaway riders and look to contest the stage win. Contador never looked in trouble but the question remained whether Froome would have a second kick. When Contador attacked in the final kilometre it was obvious that the answer was no but he stayed well clear of the chasers to end within three seconds of Valverde’s second place.
We’ve seen a different side of Chris Froome this week. We should know that he is a fighter, a sufferer, a grinder when it is needed. He has not really had the chance to show it to date. If he wins this Vuelta – and I’m afraid I don’t think he can overcome Contador from here – it could just stand the test of time to be his greatest of his career.
In other Vuelta news we had worrying reports and sights of riders plunging over the edges of steep descents. Whilst Quintana luckily managed to stay on the Tarmac side during his acrobatic brush with barrier, Garmin’s Dan Martin and Movistar’s Jose Herrada both had to extricate themselves from the trees during treacherous descents. Both were able to continue with Martin coming in not far off the leaders. Not so Uran, who completed a miserable post TT week with a 15minute plus deficit on Stage 16 alone.
Not able to complete Stage 16 were Tinkoff’s Ivan Rovny and OPQS’s Gianluca Brambilla who brushed with each other on stage 16. The pair exchanged blows during the latter stages and as Brambilla went ahead in the break he was summarily ejected from the race by the commissars who, in the certainty that they would have done so after the stage, were worried that he would have a major bearing on the days outcome. Rovny was then subjected to the same public ejection in order to balance the books.
Fighting in the peloton has a long and varied history – we saw some quality ‘handbags’ earlier in the year and there was a bit and to and fro between Niki Terpstra and Maarten Wynants in the Eneco Tour – but it is usually confined to a bit of elbowing/head butting/bottle throwing by the more het up of the sprinters. Hearing the following day Phillip Deignan accuse Joaquin Rodriguez of a similar full faced punch is worrying. As yet no action has been taken against the Spaniard who seems to have escaped by dint of being not caught on camera.
The final week lies now lies ahead of us with a massive pair of cycling shoes to fill. It’s not in Froome’s nature to settle for second – we know that all too well – but can he really take the fight to Contador and give us that dream showpiece – the final day Time Trial upset – that we foresaw before the race began??
- 1 CONTADOR, Alberto (TINKOFF-SAXO) 63:25:00
- 2 VALVERDE, Alejandro (MOVISTAR) + 1.36
- 3 FROOME, Chris (SKY) + 1.39
- 4 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin (KATUSHA) + 2.29
- 5 ARU, Fabio (ASTANA) + 3.38
- 6 MARTIN, Dan (Garmin Sharp) +6.17
- 7 GESINK, Robert (BELKIN) + 6.43
- 8 SANCHEZ, Samuel (BMC) +6.55
- 9 BARGUIL, Warren (GIANT-SHIMANO) + 8.37
- 10 CARUSO, Damiano (Cannondale) +9.10