Vuelta outdoing Tour on every level
The Vuelta a Espana is not even a week old but already it’s proving to be everything that the Tour de France was not.
We have summit finishes, suspense, multiple wearers of the leader’s jersey – and not merely a robotic Team Sky procession carrying Bradley Wiggins all the way to Paris in yellow.
Don’t get me wrong – I am a Brit and so lapped up Wiggo’s win and Chris Froome’s second-place with relish. Remember how you Aussies felt when Cadel Evans delivered your first ever Tour victory last year? Well, imagine that feeling but throw in the runners-up berth plus a bevy of stage wins.
It wasn’t merely history in the making – but history in the making with an extra huge serving of whipped cream and a bunch of cherries on the top.
Yes, the 2012 Tour de France was a glorious fanfare for British fans, with seven stage wins (the most from any nation) and the top two spots on the podium. But in terms of spectacle and spontaneity, it was severely lacking.
This Vuelta beats it hands down.
With more than 100km of time trials and only three summit finishes in France – Wiggins was always the hands-down favourite for the Grande Boucle, especially with Evans in such shambolic form.
For the Vuelta, it’s rip-roaringly open. So far three different Spaniards have worn the leader’s red jersey – Jonathan Castroviejo, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez – while another, Alberto Contador, is lurking less than 40 seconds off the pace.
There’s also that man Froome: if Britain are going to win their second Grand Tour of the year, they are not going to do it through mollycoddling and grinding down the opposition; they are going to do it with out-and-out attacks in the mountains (albeit it with some Class-A Colombian support).
Lucky that there are 10 hill- or mountain-top finishes in the race, then. Compare that to the miserly three summit finishes in July’s Tour de France.
The Vuelta is just six days old but already three stages have culminated on top of punchy climbs, with Valverde, Rodriguez and Orica-GreenEdge’s Simon Clarke all taking memorable wins. The prospect of seven more of those to come – including the major mountain finishes – is pretty irresistible. At this stage in the Tour, Froome had not yet won the opening uphill finish at the Planche des Belles Filles.
You see, mountains are to the 2012 Vuelta what time trials were to the 2012 Tour. Wiggins won the Tour racing against the clock and wearing down his rivals in the hills; the Vuelta only has one 40km ITT and so all the damage will have to be done over the 38-odd ‘altos’ and ‘puertos’ that fill up the route.
The Tour was totally controlled by one team, with Sky riding so hard that no other squad had a chance. Most of the other teams – including Evans’s BMC – looked like Pro Continental outfits in comparison to Sky, whose performance has probably laid down the definitive marker for Grand Tours in the years to come.
Sky are far from as commanding in the Vuelta. In fact, they are not near as prevalent as the Movistar, Katusha and Saxo Bank teams of the three main Spanish contenders. We have only seen one occasion where Sky have really asserted their authority – when their raising of the tempo in the crosswinds of stage four forced multiple echelons and provoked that controversial crash involving Valverde, then wearing red.
Sky did try and boss the final climb of stage six to the hilltop fortress above Jaca but once their Colombians Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao peeled off and Froome unleashed his muted attack, red-hot Rodriguez still managed to waltz by quite easily to take his first victory of the race.
There is one area of the Vuelta which is perhaps providing less pizzazz than the Tour and that’s the bunch sprints – primarily because they are severely limited in number. Given the demanding mountains-heavy route and distinct lack of opportunity for out-and-out sprinters, most of cycling’s fast men have decided to give the Vuelta a miss.
Where in the Tour we saw a hat-trick of wins for Peter Sagan, Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish, the only sprinter making an impression in Spain is the German youngster John Degenkolb, who could well secure his own hat-trick of wins by taking Friday’s stage seven.
Degenkolb has proven himself to be by far the swiftest man in a race which has rendered bunch sprint riding rather obsolete. The 23-year-old is a joy to watch – especially given that he usually leaves it late to surge through at the death – but the competition is a thin as Froome’s spindly forearms.
And yet the 2012 Vuelta was never going to be remembered for its bunch sprints as much as its gruelling summit slogs.
Rodriguez may have the red jersey now – and he may yet win the whole race – but don’t expect him to do a Wiggins and wear the yellow all the way to the finish, because the jersey will change shoulders on at least two more occasions.
Last Monday’s first summit finish at Arrate – which came just three stages into the race – acts as a fitting barometer for this year’s Vuelta.
Back from his suspension, Contador attacked on seven separate occasions – not because the race was going to be won as early as the third stage; simply because he wanted to lay down a marker, show the world he was back, gain the psychological advantage over his rivals, mark his return with a bang.
That’s the difference between the Tour: here in Spain we have a race which the main contenders not only want to win, but want to win in style. They want stage victories and they seem to be complicit with the fans in making sure that this race is won through attacking and not through dour passivity.
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.
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