The Vuelta is putting on a magnificent show
The Vuelta a Espana has provided a fantastic first fortnight, and is poised for a scintillating final week battle between Joaquin Rodriguez, Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde.
Rodriguez has a narrow lead over Contador, but with three summit finishes remaining (stages 16, 17 and the epic stage 20), the fat lady isn’t even tuning up yet.
This Vuelta has beaten the pantalones off the Tour de France for excitement, and the formula of plenty of summit finishes but not making the stages too long has produced a brilliant battle for the general classification.
It shows that if you want riders to attack, you don’t want them getting to the final climb half-dead with fatigue.
It gets better: as I write before stage 16 (which will have been raced by the time you read this), there are plenty of opportunities for Contador to continue his relentless attacks on Rodriguez, and he only has to crack him once to assume the lead.
Contador’s frequent accelerations have brought plenty of excitement to the race, but haven’t yet managed to dislodge his Katusha rival.
Contador looks slightly underdone to me, which is no surprise after sitting out the first half of the season, but his ability to maintain his attacks has been dulled. He still has the wonderful dancing acceleration, but he hasn’t been able to carry the acceleration through and really open up gaps.
Indeed, Rodriguez has repelled Contador’s attacks masterfully so far, letting him throw everything and the kitchen sink into multiple attempts at breaking clear, before reeling him in and shooting past within sight of the finish, to claim stage wins and time bonuses.
Rodriguez has nailed Contador inside the last kilometre in stage 14, stage 12, stage 9, stage 8, stage 6, and stage 3. Those time bonuses and handfuls of seconds are the reason why he’s still in the lead, despite coughing up 59 seconds to Contador in the individual time trial.
Valverde has also looked really good, and if he hadn’t lost 55 seconds to a crash on stage 4, he would be well and truly in the hunt.
The sight of the three Spaniards attacking each other on the climb to Lagos de Covadonga (one of the jewels of the extremely scenic province of Asturias) on Sunday was one of those beautiful, brutal cycling moments that we all love about this sport.
Until Chris Froome slipped off the back of the leaders’ group on that climb it was shaping to be a magnificent four-way duel for the overall win. Unfortunately for Froome, fatigue seems to have taken its toll after a gruelling Tour de France and Olympic campaign, probably leaving him too much to do in the remaining stages.
Fortunately, there is even more excitement to come: there are three more mountain-top finishes, and the race won’t be decided until the penultimate stage on Saturday.
Stage 16 from Gijon to Valgrande-Pajares will be decided by the time this piece is published, but has two Cat 1 and an HC summit finish. Gijon is a seaside city famous for its apple cider, which is poured from a height to aerate it and enhance the flavour.
It’s a shame the riders won’t have the chance to sample it, but if you’re ever visiting Asturias, I recommend you do.
Stage 17 from Santander to Fuente Dé is also summit finish, but only a category 2 and at a gentle average gradient of 3.9%, which probably won’t cause time gaps. It will be a good chance for another breakaway to succeed.
Stages 18 and 19 are flat, which will give the sprinters some consolation after a tough couple of weeks.
Stage 20 is the toughest stage of the race, featuring three category 1 climbs, and a summit finish on the 11.4km, 8.6% gradient Bola del Mundo. The whole shebang will be decided on these slopes, before the race cruises into Madrid on Sunday.
It should be a cracker. I think Rodriguez looks the goods to hold on.
Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. A former A-grade club athlete, and now a keen recreational cyclist and roller racer, he once rode very slowly up Mont Ventoux. Tim tweets about sport at @timehhh_sp.
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