Madcap Vuelta the unpredictable anti-Tour

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Movistar riders at the 2013 Vuelta a Espana (Image: Team Sky)

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After ten stages of the Vuelta a Espana, naming the race leader feels like watching a Spanish football team in full tiki-taka mode.

We’ve had Janez Brajkovic, Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Horner, Nibali, pause… Nicholas Roche, Daniel Moreno, and by the time you read this, probably a new leader again.

It may be true that the Vuelta is the neglected third child of the Grand Tour family, but it’s certainly not for a lack of excitement.

The marvellous unpredictability and madcap action of the first ten days of the race has made for compelling viewing and, with the top six general classification contenders all within a minute of each other before stage 10, it’s likely to continue.

And all of this before the first official mountain stage!

I write this as the race prepares for the first ‘big’ climb of the Vuelta. It feels odd to say that, given the sprinters have hardly had a chance to flex their legs in anger, but so far the race has favoured shorter, punchy finishes.

Stage 10 is a genuine monster, and should see significant time gaps form. The question is, where will they appear?

The surprise packets thus far have been Katusha’s Daniel Moreno, RadioShack-Leopard’s Chris Horner, and Nicolas Roche of Saxo-Tinkoff.

All quality riders, but probably not in most people’s list of major favourites before the race.

Horner in particular has exceeded expectations. At 41, most riders aren’t talking about winning their first Grand Tour, but the American seems to be doing it with a straight face, despite being short of race days after recovering from knee surgery earlier in the year.

Roche is another rider who showed promise for years, without ever taking the next step towards living up to his father’s famous name.

The move to a supporting role at Saxo-Tinkoff seems to have lifted the pressure from Roche, and he’s riding better than he has for a long time.

Of the main favourites, Giro champion Vincenzo Nibali is best placed, but hasn’t done anything particularly impressive yet, and indeed has lost time on a couple of stages.

To me, he looks underdone after a couple of months away from racing after the Giro. Nibali has stated that his major aim is the world championships, so he probably aimed to come in slightly fresh – you’d expect him to improve as the race progresses.

Not having raced the Tour may prove a bonus for Nibali, particularly given the difficulty of the third week of this race.

Team Sky’s protected riders Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao have struggled to impose themselves.

Before stage 10, Uran sat only 1’24” behind race leader Moreno, but lost 49 seconds on the steep ramp to the finish at Valdepeñas de Jaén. Henao performed better on that stage, but lies 3’28” down, and almost certainly out of contention.

Speaking of Colombians: has there been a more disappointing rider than Carlos Betancur? The effervescent sensation of the Giro looks hopelessly out of form, finishing stage nine in 187th place out of 194 riders, on a stage that should have had his name stamped all over it.

Betancur is wallowing in the bottom ten places on GC, nearly 90 minutes off the pace. No doubt his Directeur Sportif at AG2R-La Mondiale will be furiously scribbling in his notebook that under no circumstances should his errant climber be allowed to spend several months at home mid-season in 2014.

Fortunately, there’s plenty to focus on at the front of the race.

How long will the red jersey keep pinging around until a chance opens on goal? Who will be the man to take the chance? Will it be a long-range shot or will someone pass it to the goal mouth?

Astana seems happy to leave others in control, but handles impeccably when possession falls at its feet, only to pass the jersey away and hope it can regain possession later in the match.

Katusha sits on the ball for now, courtesy of some determined teamwork and a dash of solo brilliance from Daniel Moreno, but is this a dummy run for another striker?

Can the South American imports in the big-budget British team create chances, or is an Irish underdog going to upset his more fancied rivals?

Can the wily veteran Alejandro Valverde pull off a shock result for his team, and win with a late attack?

This Vuelta is the anti-Tour. It’s chaotic, frenetic, unpredictable and happening at breakneck speed.

The winner could come from a big pack of riders. It changes nearly every day. Nobody is truly winning.

20 days to go, and everything is still to play for.

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.