While 2012 will be remembered as the year Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France, it will also be remembered as a year of rebirth for the Vuelta a Espana.
For the first time in recent memory, the Vuelta has outshone its Italian and French counterparts. The Tour de France remains cycling’s flagship race, and rightly so, but this year’s edition lacked the excitement and drama that a Grand Tour should demand of its riders.
Not so the Vuelta.
With a well thought-out parcours consisting of short stages, hill top finishes and time bonuses, the Vuelta has put on a show worth staying up late for and Tour organisers would do well to take note.
Watching Joaquin Rodriguez and Alberto Contador duelling it out on the vicious slopes of Cuitunigru at the end of stage 16 brought back memories of Andy Schleck and Contador having a similar battle on the Col du Tourmalet at the 2010 Tour.
On that occasion, Schleck and Contador were by far the strongest climbers in the race, and had soon burnt off all the pretenders to find themselves alone for much of the climb.
Schleck’s lean and gangly body was perfectly conditioned and he looked strong and dangerous every time he rose from the saddle. Contador’s form was perhaps the lesser of the two, but he danced on the pedals in his distinctive style and was the Luxembourger’s equal as they pushed through the mist that was shrouding the summit.
It was a fascinating climb, but it soon became obvious that neither rider would be able to drop the other. Maybe it was more a case of neither rider wanting to risk blowing up by pushing into the red in a bid to gain an advantage but, either way, it was a disappointing end to what had been a great stage.
Contador was content to follow Schleck to the finish and the two riders passed over the line together with no further hostility. They, of course, both recorded the same time. Imagine though, that time bonuses had been on offer.
Would the ending have been so anti-climatic then? No way. Only eight seconds separated the two on general classification and we would have seen a fight to the death to secure the stage win, not the gentle love-in that eventually transpired. With margins in Grand Tours trending towards the minuscule, every second counts.
Contrast the finish of that stage to the Vuelta’s Cuitunigru battle. Rodriguez and Contador belted each other senseless as the road pitched upwards of 20 per cent. They had long since dropped Chris Froome, and Alejandro Valverde, although still lurking nearby, had been suitably gapped.
The stage win wasn’t at stake, that honour had already been taken by Dario Cataldo, but his effort, and that of Thomas de Dendt who came second, was overshadowed by the war being fought out behind them for third. Of course there was more than just a podium spot on offer, there were the last precious seconds of a much sought-after time bonus.
Would Rodriguez and Contador have fought so fiercely if those seconds weren’t up for grabs? Or, having already disposed of Froome and Valverde, would they have been content to ease up a fraction knowing that they would receive the same time if they crossed the line within a bike length of each other?
I have never been a fan of time bonuses, preferring to see the leader board reflect the actual time taken to ride each stage, but I can’t argue with how exciting the fight to the line can be when extra time is at stake. This year’s Vuelta has produced memorable stages and dynamic racing, and the time bonus has been one of the contributing factors.
Valverde pipping Rodriguez on the line at the end of stage three, Valverde and Rodriguez swamping Contador at the end of stage eight and Rodriguez’s efforts to claim third ahead of Contador on stage 16 are just three examples of time bonuses adding just a little more spice to the day’s conclusion.
Even Contador’s brilliant, race-stealing ride on stage 17 was partially inspired by time bonuses. The Spaniard made his move just before the intermediate sprint to claim the small bonus on offer there, before dancing his way to victory.
It is refreshing to sit back and watch the heads of state scrap and claw for every inch of road rather than be content to sit back in the pack and cross the line, safe in the knowledge they will receive the same time as everyone else.
Maybe it’s time for the Tour de France organisers to reconsider their stance on time bonuses. It wouldn’t have blunted the might of Team Sky this year, but it could add to the intrigue of Tours still to come.