What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
After nine stages of gripping racing just nine seconds split first from fourth, as the high mountains loom in what is shaping up to be a classic edition of the Vuelta a Espana.
With the riders putting their feet up for a well earned rest it’s time to take a look at the form, shape and prospects of the main favourites for the red jersey.
Nairo Quintana currently leads the race with a three-second gap on Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador and eight seconds on Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde. Lampre-Merida’s Winner Anacona is fourth, one second further back, while Chris Froome (Team Sky) completes the top five at 28 seconds, two seconds ahead of Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez.
The Colombian moved into the race lead on Sunday after joining forces with Rodriguez to reel in Contador on the final climb to Valdelinares. Quintana would probably have preferred to leave his teammate Valverde in the red jersey – or have allowed compatriot Anacona to take the honour – but Contador’s dig two kilometres from the finish was serious enough to warrant the 24-year-old’s attention.
On the previous summit finish at La Zubia, Quintana had seemingly ridden within himself – happily allowing Valverde to ride ahead with Contador and Froome and take the red jersey. The Giro d’Italia winner has looked largely untroubled thus far, aside from a scare in Saturday’s stage to Albacete after getting caught out in the crosswinds towards the finale.
While the pint-sized climber is sure to lose the red jersey after Tuesday’s 36.7-kilometre individual time trial, you get the impression that he’s barely warmed up on the climbs. By the time the race hits the hors categorie summit finishes at Lagos de Cavodonga (Stage 15), La Farrapona (Stage 16) and Puerto de Ancares (Stage 20), Quintana should be well into establishing the minimum minute’s margin he will need going into the final 9.7-kilometre ‘epilogue’ time trial to Santiago de Compostela.
The Spaniard’s assertions that he was merely at the Vuelta to pick up a stage win reek of understatement following his two strong summit finishes in the opening phase of the race.
In particular, Contador’s attack in Stage 9 saw both Froome and Valverde concede 23 seconds to their main rivals on general classification – a sign that the 31-year-old is further ahead in his rehabilitation than expected following the broken shin he sustained in the Tour.
Question marks still remain. Has, for instance, Contador been attacking on these smaller summit finishes because he knows the larger ones won’t offer him any realistic chance of that stage win – or does his burgeoning form represent a real threat to the favourites?
Quintana seems to think so.
“Alberto’s attack was really very strong,” he said on Sunday. “Froome is the number one favourite for the time trial, but Contador is the number one rival for the Vuelta.”
Keeping things objective – after all, Quintana has made it a habit of building up his rivals’ strengths while underplaying his own – the way Contador is riding right now probably says more about the nature of his tibia break (namely, that it was no gristly compound fracture) rather than his race-winning credentials.
Tuesday’s ITT will reveal a lot more about his condition – as will the schlep to Covadonga. Until then, it’s impossible to gauge whether or not Contador will emerge as the biggest threat to the Quintana’s attempt to land an historic Giro-Vuelta double.
If many thought the Spaniard would be riding his home tour merely in support of Quintana then they underestimated Valverde’s pride and condition.
The critics may say that Valverde winning a stage and taking the red jersey in the opening week was the perfect scenario for Movistar and Quintana for it will keep the Colombian’s main lieutenant onside going into the final phase of the race, knowing he has already done enough to make the race a personal success. But there’s no way Valverde will put his own ambitions aside should he remain within striking distance of the race summit.
A slight and unexpected wobble in Stage 9 saw the 34-year-old lose time and gift the red jersey to Quintana. But make no mistake, Valverde is a ruthless rider and a teammate if only in name: when Quintana was caught out in the crosswinds, the red jersey continued to plough a furrow in the lead group.
Whether or not Valverde will be able to sustain his form into the high mountains of the third week of the race remains to be seen. His later performances in the Tour – where he dropped off the podium after a tricky final week, including a dire perversion of a time trial – suggests his legs are no longer the ones of a rider capable of finishing on either side of the victor of a Grand Tour. Just try telling Valverde that, though.
It’s been an odd race for Froome, last year’s runaway Tour de France champion. Given what happened to the Briton in this July’s Tour it’s easy to see why both he and Team Sky took things easy on the highly technical opening team time trial – particularly in the light of Froome’s crash in training less than 48 hours earlier.
Since then – and despite yet another crash – Froome has been riding very much as if every second counts, breaking clear for two bonus seconds at the intermediate sprint in Stage 7 before putting in a surprise dig towards the finish in Albacete for another two seconds on Friday.
Of course, those minimal gains were somewhat nullified by Froome conceding 23 seconds to Contador, Quintana and Rodriguez at Valdelinares.
The 29-year-old’s time loss on Sunday was unexpected – especially given Contador’s attack came when Sky were dictating the tempo in the main pack, with Froome benefiting from the work of four teammates. Despite this setback, Froome will be favourite to move into the red jersey after Tuesday’s ITT. But if he can’t keep up with the likes of Quintana in the high mountains, then he’ll need more than a couple of seconds here and there to stay on the top of the pile.
It’s been a tricky season for the Spanish veteran but finally the Katusha all-rounder seems to be showing a few flashes of the ‘Purito’ of old. Rodriguez’s ability to ride back onto Contador’s wheel bodes well for the uphill challenges ahead – although it’s hard not to see the 35-year-old dropping down the standings after Tuesday’s ITT.
It says a lot for Colombian cycling that the rider who just months ago finished second on the Giro podium for a second successive year can ghost about the peloton in the largely innocuous manner of Uran.
An attempt to force a gap alongside Omega Pharma-Quick Step teammate Tony Martin on the descent to the foot of the climb to Valdelinares aside, Uran has been an invisible entity so far – which is by no means a sleight (although it may become one should this continue much longer).
The 27-year-old is 1:26 down on Quintana after showing the hardly breathtaking consistency of finishing 19th place in both of the summit finishes so far. Currently ninth, a top-five place is still in the offing – but Uran does seem to be operating on a lesser level to his fellow GC rivals. For now, that is.
Italian Fabio Aru, Dutchmen Robert Gesink and Wilco Kelderman, and Frenchman Warren Barguil have been solid if unspectacular thus far. All but Kelderman sit within the top ten and could remain there until the end – but they probably won’t be posing any threat to the big guns.
The remaining rider currently in the top ten, Colombian Winner Anacona, will be happy with his stage-winning salvo while keeping his feet on the ground. He won’t be challenging compatriots Quintana and Uran just yet.
My predicted top ten prior to the race
1. Quintana, 2. Froome, 3. Uran, 4. Valverde, 5. Contador, 6. Rodriguez, 7. Kelderman, 8. Aru, 9. Talansky, 10. Evans.
What was I thinking tipping such high finishes for Andrew Talansky and Cadel Evans, both floundering at 33 and 22 minutes respectively? With regards to Evans, it was clearly an attempt to pacify the Cuddles-friendly readers of The Roar who have had to put up with me regularly (and correctly, I’m sorry to say) predict the Aussie veteran’s continued demise.
But in Talansky’s case, I have no leg to stand on. Take me away, guvnor…
1. Quintana, 2. Froome, 3. Rodriguez, 4. Valverde, 5. Contador, 6. Uran, 7. Aru, 8. Kelderman, 9. Gesink, 10. Barguil