The 2014 Vuelta has turned out to be one of the most stacked and hotly contested races of the year, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the roadside with an excited group of guys having a dream holiday.
In Spain, they do things a little differently. Stages don’t start until the early afternoon, allowing for relaxed mornings and typically late evenings in the sun.
For us as spectators, it’s a great change from the frenetic pace of le Tour.
Before the Tour de France, I lamented the lack of support the Vuelta has received from the pro ranks in recent times. Too often the big names either miss it all together, having peaked for le Tour, or use it purely as preparation for the World Championships.
It may have been an accident, but what we are witnessing is far from a second-rate Grand Tour.
It’s apparent to everyone by now that the fallout from Alberto Contador’s Tour de France injuries was greatly exaggerated. Perhaps it was an intentional tactic, but what we’ve seen is one of the best Grand Tour riders of the past decade performing only slightly below his best form.
While Contador has been just short of dominant, his individual time trial in Zaragova was a most important step in defeating his arch-rival, Chris Froome. There has been a little to-and-fro in the hills since then, but I doubt Froome will recover the time he lost that day against the clock.
Froome looks to be getting better and better, but I fear it will be too late for him to accelerate to the top step now. In the mountains, the two have been neck and neck. Contador struck an important blow on La Farrapona and at Lagos de Covodonga while Froome edged back a little time on Mont Castrova and La Camperona.
There has rarely been such a tight battle of favourites in the big mountains. Watching the two from the roadside, I couldn’t say who has looked more consistent. But Contador has the psychological edge to carry him into Santiago de Compostela in red.
One can only imagine how the Tour de France would have unfolded had these two survived the treacherous conditions there.
With two stages remaining, Saturday’s tough course into Puerto de Ancares will most likely be the final test in the general classification battle, with the time trial in Santiago too short to make a difference unless the gaps have already been reduced in the mountains.
It hasn’t just been a show for two men, though. While it was tragic for Nairo Quintana to be forced out of his favourite race, it’s been great to see young Fabio Aru shine on the difficult slopes. We were positioned on the road exactly where he launched his attack on Mont Catrove and had an armchair view. The slopes here are often more vicious than those found in France, and Aru’s acceleration on the steepest gradients was breathtaking. He is a rider to watch well into the future.
Similarly, with all the hard-luck stories to come out of this year’s Grand Tours, it was heartening to see Ryder Hesjedal return to the podium on La Camperona. He can consider his season salvaged with such a gritty victory.
I have my money on Contador to pull through over Froome, but regardless, I’ll be perched at a bar in Santiago on Sunday, indulging in tapas and most probably a beer, happily watching the final stage of the best Vuelta a España I can remember in a long time.
The currently silent and vacant sporting landscape has brought on much reflection. Many Australian competitions appear likely to go to ruin in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and concerns around what our sporting face will look like in a few months are genuine.
Five months have passed since Rohan Dennis abandoned the Tour de France in mysterious circumstances, climbing off the bike seemingly without cause during stage 12, the day before the race’s major time trial.