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
    Tim Renowden

    Tim Renowden has been following professional cycling closely since Indurain won his first Tour. An ex-runner, now a club grade bike racer, Tim tweets about sport at @megabicicleta.

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    The Crowd Says (13)

    • September 3rd 2013 @ 3:35am
      Al-Bo said | September 3rd 2013 @ 3:35am | ! Report

      I believe Betancur was unwell in the lead-up to the race and has never really got going. Pint-sized pianist-cum-grimpeur, Domenico Pozzovivo is still there or thereabouts though from the AG2R team. He is easily one of my favourite riders if only for his complete inability to do anything but ride uphill.

      • Columnist

        September 3rd 2013 @ 11:48am
        Tim Renowden said | September 3rd 2013 @ 11:48am | ! Report

        He may have been unwell but he’s riding like he spent 2 months sinking beers and doing reality TV.

        I’m with you on Pozzovivo.

    • Columnist

      September 3rd 2013 @ 8:35am
      Kate Smart said | September 3rd 2013 @ 8:35am | ! Report

      I think only a brave person would be predicting this year’s winner after stage 10.

      I blogged last night’s stage and these are the some of my observations, but no predictions!:

      Chris Horner looked strong and comfortable all day. He stayed firmly tucked in Valverde’s hip-pocket all day as the Movistar team perhaps did too much work on the front?

      Valverde did look good for much of the stage after the sprints and until the final climb. But the above question about Movistar’s work on the front may have been to his detriment.

      When Nibali did attack, he looked very strong but his attack was just too late. Horner was riding like a man who had a hot date waiting for him at the finish line!

      Basso couldn’t ride in a straight line up that last climb and Rodriguez didn’t look to have much left.

      Nico Roche rode last night like a frightening stalker ex-lover. Just when his rivals thought they were finally rid of him, back he came. Good to see him having a good tour so far.

      Bring on week 2!

      • September 3rd 2013 @ 8:01pm
        Kathleen Casey said | September 3rd 2013 @ 8:01pm | ! Report

        Kate great blogging! I am a fan! I agree with some of the comments. I have to confess I am a little luckier then you guys being in Thailand I can watch when I have access to the particular channel. I find the Vuelta and the Giro much more interesting then TDF. I particularly admired the riders tackling the the Giro wether and course. Also to say the Vuelta is demanding is stating the obvious but also the constant relocating for the stage start.

        On the nights I cannot watch I read the blog from start to finish the next day even though I know the results. I am now however experiencing a much greater challenge having trying to follow the Tour of Alberta. Aussies in Australia may find that a little challenging but the time in Thailand is the same as you experience for the Vuelta or worse. I will most definitely be reading blogs after the event.

        Anybody covering it ?

    • Roar Pro

      September 3rd 2013 @ 9:45am
      Rob Gremio said | September 3rd 2013 @ 9:45am | ! Report

      I’m just disappointed the Vuelta starts so late on tv, otherwise I would be lapping this up. It’s even late for WA time, so I’m not sure how you folks on the east coast are dealing with the 2am starts to coverage…
      That and I have to go to stupid work (and function), which really gets in the way of watching hours of awesome cycling!
      I probably enjoy the Vuelta and the Giro more than the Tour, because of the unpredictability of the former two over the latter. Plus the mountain stages are way more brutal in Spain and Italy!

    • September 3rd 2013 @ 11:37am
      nickoldschool said | September 3rd 2013 @ 11:37am | ! Report

      Same here, very surprised that Betancur is that far behind. I understand that riders can’t be at their peak all year round but it’s still unacceptable considering he was rested during the TdF.

      The other obvious surprise, a good one this time, is Horner. He has always been a solid rider but never (I think) a top 3 GT contender. Is he really ‘that’ good or are his rivals just under performing?

      • Columnist

        September 3rd 2013 @ 11:47am
        Tim Renowden said | September 3rd 2013 @ 11:47am | ! Report

        I’ve seen quite a lot of discussion of Horner’s performance online. Given some of the teams he’s ridden on, his preparation, and his age, not all of it is positive.

        • September 3rd 2013 @ 8:02pm
          Kathleen Casey said | September 3rd 2013 @ 8:02pm | ! Report

          Kate great blogging! I am a fan! I agree with some of the comments. I have to confess I am a little luckier then you guys being in Thailand I can watch when I have access to the particular channel. I find the Vuelta and the Giro much more interesting then TDF. I particularly admired the riders tackling the the Giro wether and course. Also to say the Vuelta is demanding is stating the obvious but also the constant relocating for the stage start.

          On the nights I cannot watch I read the blog from start to finish the next day even though I know the results. I am now however experiencing a much greater challenge having trying to follow the Tour of Alberta. Aussies in Australia may find that a little challenging but the time in Thailand is the same as you experience for the Vuelta or worse. I will most definitely be reading blogs after the event.

          Anybody covering it ?

        • September 3rd 2013 @ 8:08pm
          Kathy said | September 3rd 2013 @ 8:08pm | ! Report

          I have to say Horner has been a surprise. I just watched a 65 year old woman swim between Cuba and Florida. I guess despite scepticism people do persist and pull something extra out when they want it so bad. I have to confess to being a fan of Jensie. I like to see older riders still involved in the sport. It will be a shame however if occasionally when these people toward the end of their career “pull the rabbit out of the hat” that rumours and whispers always start.

          • Columnist

            September 4th 2013 @ 8:14am
            Tim Renowden said | September 4th 2013 @ 8:14am | ! Report

            Hi Kathy,
            I agree that umm, middle-aged and older people can achieve great feats of physical endurance and perseverance, but you’d have to admit that it’s unusual for a man nearing 42 to still be outclassing some of the best climbers in the world, who are mostly 10-15 years younger than he is. We’ll see how well Horner can maintain his excellent form – his performance on stage 10 was pretty intimidating.

            • September 4th 2013 @ 1:17pm
              Kathleen said | September 4th 2013 @ 1:17pm | ! Report

              Agreed! I was being provocative evrybody dodges the elephant in the room! I guess I wanted to make the point however that the real casualty of the history of doping is that when somebody does do aomething unusual ie out of the normal expectation we all ( myself included) can no longer enjoy the moment we start the chain of cycical thinking. That leads us to potentially discreditting somebody who does pull a one off or extraordinary effort.

    • September 3rd 2013 @ 10:15pm
      tony meadows said | September 3rd 2013 @ 10:15pm | ! Report

      Nice article Tim,a good portrail of what the Vuelta has produced so far and promises to continue till the the end in Madrid.
      The stages are so challenging that no team can control the race day by day ,hence the exhilerating fight almost daily for the leaders jersey.
      The fact that some of the top riders have come from the Tour de France adds to the uncertainty.Some already look cooked whilst there still remains the question of which riders currently looking strong will still have it come week three.The way they are battering each other there any of them has to be a question about ANY of them

      Lee Rogers asked a week ago “Does anyone love the Vuelta”?Have you been watching Lee?Now come on, you have to be enjoying this.

      Lastly,chapeau to the Nett App Team they’ve been up there with the best so far.

      • Columnist

        September 4th 2013 @ 8:18am
        Tim Renowden said | September 4th 2013 @ 8:18am | ! Report

        Thanks Tony.
        The thing that makes it so intriguing for me is that everybody has lost time on one day or another – none of the top contenders look completely in control. And as we know the final week of the race has plenty of opportunities to drop time, in big lactic-acid soaked lumps all over the road.

        Short, sharp stages with summit finishes and time bonuses is still a recipe for exciting racing, after all.

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