It seems like it happens every year. The Vuelta a Espana shows up as the whole cycling world is staggering out of its post-Tour de France comedown, slightly tattered and battered and swearing that next time it won’t get so carried away.
Suddenly the Vuelta arrives like a tour bus full of university students on their summer break, promising cheap thrills and another chance to get lucky. Wearily, we all agree to climb aboard, and before we know it we’re swept away by the heat, the drama and the sheer bloody charisma of the whole thing.
It’s happening again, the last few days of this Spanish adventure have risen several notches in intensity, as the tried and tested Vuelta method for excitement has properly kicked in.
That method is: (relatively) short stages with several short climbs, on very steep gradients, with summit finishes. Add time bonuses. Sit back and watch the GC contenders try to knock each other out at speeds just above walking pace. Repeat.
It’s working a treat. Even Nairo Quintana’s absence (spectacular crash in the time trial, wasn’t it?) hasn’t damaged the race too badly. The Tour de France crashes that removed Alberto Contador and Chris Froome from July’s reckoning have brought the pair back to the field, and less than 90 seconds separates the top 4.
Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez, still two of the punchiest riders in the pro peloton, have gone at it with gusto, and Astana’s Fabio Aru, revelation of the Giro d’Italia, is showing that his effort in Italy was no fluke.
Stages 14 and 15 were magnificent: Froome pinching seconds from Contador and Rodriguez on stage 14, while Valverde suffered and dropped 30 seconds. The favour was returned on stage 15, as Valverde pounced to grab second on the stage, a fistful of seconds, and some bonus time.
Whenever you put Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez in a Vuelta together, you can expect a ripper of a contest, and this year is living up.
Valverde has bounced back from a disappointing Tour, and Rodriguez’ recovery from an injury-marred start to this season is finally picking up pace.
Beyond the top four, the supporting cast has animated the race wonderfully: Aru, Dan Martin, Rigoberto Uran, Warren Barguil are all there and firing.
The nature of the climbs in the Vuelta means they are raced differently than in the Tour. The climbs are shorter, the gradients are much steeper, and the much-derided tactic of sending a train of domestiques to the front to ride at threshold power until everyone pops is nowhere near as powerful.
Put simply, these are climbs that suit proper climbers, not diesel engines with a month of altitude training under their belts.
The upshot is that most days finish with a select group of elite climbers who proceed to attack each other one after the other until the finish. It’s great racing. You can almost see the lactic acid burning holes in everyone’s quads, it’s that intense.
Stage 15 was one of the best days of racing you will see this season. Australian Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge) was in a two-man break with eventual stage winner Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre), with several minutes’ lead being chewed up at a rapid rate by the chasing group of GC favourites.
With a couple of kilometres to the summit, and a last-minute catch looking likely, Niemiec (a wily veteran at 34) attacked, dropped Meyer and floored it.
Behind him Contador, Valverde, Barguil and Rodriguez traded attacks, shelling Froome out the back.
Niemiec’ eventual victory – by just 5 seconds – was a real thriller, as was the painful battle behind him.
It was an encouraging ride from Meyer, who will be hoping it earns him a place in the Australian team for the World Championships. I would take him – he’s a valuable support rider for the more fancied leaders. He got just as close to succeeding as his compatriot Adam Hansen did the previous day.
Froome has been forced to show huge amounts of grit in this Vuelta. He is clearly lacking some top-end fitness, shown by his inability to match the acceleration of his Spanish rivals, but seems to be improving as the Vuelta progresses.
Where the Spaniards stand out of the saddle and attack in bursts, Froome prefers to sit and spin a high cadence and constant power output, staring intently at his stem (OK, at his power meter), gradually dragging himself back to the leaders.
So far it has worked at keeping him in the race, but when he’s at his peak Froome uses the technique to go off the front, not to cling on at the back.
On stage 14 it worked beautifully, and he was able to sprint past to claim a moral victory on the line. On stage 15, he was unable to reel the three amigos back in time.
For his part, Contador has looked just as almost-there. He leads the race after stage 16, which he won handsomely, but has by no means dominated. His attacks are short, and he looks like a man who is giving everything. It’s been a flinty performance, more than anything else.
Stage 16, a monster stage with four Cat.1 climbs and Cat.2, has probably decided the outcome of the race. Contador’s victory shows he is the strongest man in the race, even if he is slightly off his best.
With only one mountainous day remaining, stage 20, it’s hard to see Contador dropping the 1:36 he holds over Valverde.
Still, only 3 seconds separates Valverde from Froome – close enough for the Sky leader to feel confident in the final ‘epilogue’ time trial on Sunday.
Valverde needs to find more time, whether he does it in the mountains on Saturday, or by trying to crack Froome in the winds beforehand.
Whatever the result, we’ve already been treated to another good Vuelta. It’s not as slick as its French cousin, but the racing is gritty and tough, in close and tight. Keep watching.
A version of this article appeared on The Roar.