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?
It featured the highest quality cast of all the Grand Tours, and the most thrilling general classification battle, but what else did we learn from the 2014 Vuelta a Espana?
Having covered each stage for Eurosport over the course of the last month, I feel I’m in a good position to weigh up the key talking points from the final stage race of the season – even if I did predict a lowly fifth place finish for Alberto Contador and (cringe) a top ten for the outgoing Cadel Evans.
Contador surprised even himself with his form
Or did he? To perform at such a commanding level Contador must have had a suspicion he was far stronger than he’d let on.
Not only has it become clear that his fractured shin was not as bad as doctors first felt, but also that Bert’s pre-Tour form was – as he always claimed – immensely impressive, not to mention built upon by some misleadingly rampant training in his Swiss base in Lugano.
The cynics are having a field day: in the past four years the gruelling Vuelta has now been won by a forgotten journeyman in Juan Jose Cobo, a post-banned Contador, a post-leg-break Contador and a 41-year-old unable to defend his crown because of a cortisone-related incident.
But those with more level-headed skills of objectivity will look at the reality: that, like Vincenzo Nibali in the Tour, you can only measure Contador’s success by those he came up against. With the man most likely to mount a challenge crashing out while in the red jersey, the Spaniard’s main challenge came from two ageing compatriots shanked from their own Tour exertions and Chris Froome, recovering from injury and devoid of both the confidence and acceleration that served him so well in 2013.
Froome will build on yet another second place
The Team Sky leader has now finished runner-up in three of the past four Grand Tours he’s completed, but this might well be the most satisfying.
His 2011 Vuelta was soured by knowing that had he not been riding for Bradley Wiggins he might well have pipped Cobo to the crown, while Wiggins’ 2012 Tour saw Froome once again rein in his output in favour of his more illustrious teammate.
Psychologically, the Vuelta we have just witnessed could prove problematic for the 29-year-old: the rival he so comprehensively out-performed in the 2013 Tour has been let back into the fold and will grown in confidence from topping the podium in a new era supposedly earmarked for the likes of Froome, Nibali and Nairo Quintana.
But finishing second to an unexpectedly resurgent Contador at the end of the kind of season Froome has had can only be a positive.
Whatever anyone claims, Froome’s main priority over the past month was to ensure that he enters the 2015 season with a full Grand Tour from the previous year under his belt.
Sure, his performances lacked the pizzazz of both Contador and himself in his pomp, but they did improve steadily and will put him in good stead to bounce back when their rivalry resumes next summer.
Even before his crash, something didn’t seem quite right with Quintana
Despite his victory in the Giro d’Italia, the Colombian played down his chances of an overall victory and seemed happy to play second fiddle to Alejandro Valverde at Movistar during the opening week.
When he did move into the red jersey it only took some unorthodox fiddling with his boot straps during the descent of the time trial for everything to come apart.
The acrobatic crash that saw Quintana summersault over the broken frame of his bike before landing in a crumpled heap may have not been the incident that ended his Vuelta, but it played a huge part in his demise.
Just as Froome was not undone by the cobbles in northern France but by the fear of riding those cobbles with wrists already damaged by his earlier fall, Quintana’s confidence must have been all over the place when he rode out of Pamplona and, 20 kilometres later, suffered the pile-up that broke his collarbone.
Still, at 24, Quintana is the youngest Grand Tour winner since Jan Ullrich. He has time on his side, and you’d like to think he won’t have to confront (or partake in) the same medical snafus as the young German in his heyday.
The prospect of Quintana having to overturn a 3:25 deficit in the mountains was mouth-watering, but to the prospect of watching Quintana in the mountains of any race is appealing, so fans will not lose too much sleep.
Next year he’ll be back – and hopefully riding against a fit and healthy Froome, Contador and Nibali.
Fabio Aru is the real deal
He may have finished below Spaniards Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez in the overall standings, but the Italian youngster is a star in the ascendency rather than a fading light flickering ahead of extinction. That may sound a bit harsh on Rodriguez and a man who this week signed a new three-year contract at Movistar, but the reality is that they will not get any better – whereas Aru can only improve.
Following up his third place in the Giro with two compelling stage wins that showed maturity beyond his years – plus a solid fifth place on GC – will give Aru’s Astana team much food for thought going forward: namely, can they accommodate both their swashbuckling Italians in the same Tour de France team.
The young Sardinian will want to make his maiden appearance in the Tour sooner rather than later, and he would be an automatic team leader anywhere else.
But Aru is still not at the same level as Nibali, and we’re not yet in a situation that mirrors the Wiggins-Froome imbroglio at Sky. That said, continue performing as he is doing and Aru will cause his countryman a few problems in the future, whether it’s in the same baby blue jersey or in the colours of another team.
Another wake-up call for Colombian cycling
Following Quintana and Rigoberto Uran’s one-two in the Giro, plus Julian Arredondo’s stage-winning and King of the Mountains cameo, it was always going to be an uphill struggle for Colombian cycling to continue on the crest of the wave throughout the season.
None of the above three riders, nor Paris-Nice winner Carlos Betancur, featured in July’s Tour and so expectation was high for the Vuelta.
The sight of an overweight Betancur struggling on the back of the peloton in Stage 2 was clearly a bad omen for the days to come. Sure, Winner Anacona showed Lampre-Merida there was life after Chris Horner with a superb solo stage win, while Orica-GreenEDGE’s young Colombian Esteban Chaves performed with promise in the opening week.
But in between Quintana crashing out and Uran withdrawing with bronchitis, both Anacona and Chaves tumbled down the GC, Arredondo quit without so much as a whimper, and Betancur stayed pretty much rooted to the bottom.
We shouldn’t forget that the mercurial Betancur did finish 126th in last year’s Vuelta – after taking fifth in the Giro and before winning Paris-Nice this year. That he went off the rails and ballooned in size this season probably says more about his negative entourage and mindset; he certainly brought nothing to Ag2R-La Modiale’s table bar a knife and fork.
Bouhanni is exactly what Codifis needs
After making some disparaging comments about his soon-to-be former team in the French press, Nacer Bouhanni has been told by FDJ manager Marc Madiot that he will not ride again for his outfit this season. That things have disintegrated so badly between a rider who has picked up five Grand Tour stages this season and his team is quite incomprehensible, especially seeing that the rider who kept Bouhanni out of the Tour, Arnaud Demare, was so lacklustre in France.
FDJ’s loss is clearly Cofidis’ gain, for in Bouhanni they have a rider who can finally deliver them consistent wins throughout the season. Cofidis did ride an aggressive Vuelta: the likes of Guillaume Levarlet, Christophe Le Mevel, Jerome Coppel and Dani Navarro attacked relentlessly in the mountains, and Navarro picked up a stage along the way. But having a sprinter of Bouhanni’s calibre may be the ticket that gets the French second-tier team back into the big time.
Degenkolb can seize the rainbow stripes next week
The Vuelta is the Grand Tour least suited to sprinters, primarily because of the presence of numerous uphill finishes at the expense of routine bunch sprints. But John Degenkolb now has nine Vuelta stage wins from two appearances – and the way that he kept in touch with the race favourites over the punchy Cat.2 climbs ahead of two of his victories suggests that he is very much the man to watch next week in the world championships road race at Ponferrada.
Hansen and Hesjedal rewarded for their gutsy riding
If at first you do not succeed, take a leaf out of Adam Hansen’s book and go on the attack again. Riding his tenth consecutive Grand Tour, Lotto-Belisol’s Hansen tried a trademark pop-out-of-the-pack on numerous occasions before he surged clear inside the final five kilometres in Stage 19 – a stage seemingly destined for bunch sprint and Degenkolb’s fifth win.
Talk about staying true to yourself and your strengths: ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ goes the adage – and Hansen, at the fifth or so attempt, finally struck gold.
As for Ryder Hesjedal – not only did he have to deal with quite ridiculous claims of having a motor concealed in his frame after his bike was seen spinning our of control following his crash from the break in Stage 7, he had to juggle his own ambitions with some seriously selfless riding for Garmin-Sharp team leader, Dan Martin.
He also found the time to do a Mick Rogers and win on the steepest peak of the race – doing to La Camperona what the Aussie veteran did to the Stelvio back in May.
For all the uphill finishes the course still left a lot to be desired
The one plus point coming from the few negatives surrounding the race route this year is that we shouldn’t have to sit through a closing day time trial or a criterium-style city circuit in the middle of the race for quite some time.
It may have been to pay homage to Saint Francis of Assisi’s pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela 800 years ago, but the idea of finishing the race with a time trial so short that – had it not rained – the time gaps would have been minimal, was baffling.
Meanwhile, the Logrono circuit stage wasn’t much of a success when we first saw it back in 2012. The fact that it was pretty much just as uneventful – and resulted in exactly the same outcome: a Degenkolb victory – perhaps suggests that Unipublic, the race organisers, will do away with the idea of a loop race during a Grand Tour.
Goodbye Cadel – and thanks for all the memories
The Australian veteran was perhaps being a bit generous to himself when he complained that the downpour that soured most of the final individual time trial in Santiago ended his chances of going out with a bang.
Cadel Evans was never really in the race in the first place. We hardly ever saw him alongside the rider who is meant to be his successor at BMC – the equally under-performing Rohan Dennis, who did, to be fair, at least star in a break and the final time trial.
Although he’s yet to announce his retirement from cycling, you sense that will be the next declaration coming from the Evans camp. A former Tour de France winner and world champion, Evans has had a superb career – and has done so during a testing time in which he was battling both riders and their doctors.
But the last two years have not been kind to the man they call Cuddles. If we saw flashes of his capabilities during the Giro in May, we really saw nothing of merit from Evans in Spain – almost as if he looked at the star-studded field in advance and, mentally, took his retirement from the sport a few weeks early.
Fair play to him, mind. He’ll still have obtained far more sporting high-points on the bike than I will literary landmarks as a writer throughout our contrasting careers.
So bravo, Cadel – and enjoying putting your feet up.