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He’s behind you!

Thought this one was a bit strange…

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Gritty racing pleases at the Vuelta

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.

Image: Andy Schumacher (https://www.flickr.com/photos/andyschumacher/14879733437/)
Image: Andy Schumacher (https://www.flickr.com/photos/andyschumacher/14879733437/)

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.

 

Matthews shows the need for speed at La Vuelta

The Vuelta is feeling the need, the need for speed this week after stage 3 started on a Spanish aircraft carrier.

Cue Instagram shots of top gun riders in flight helmets looking ready to write cheques their bodies couldn’t cash, lots of jokes about borrowing one of these jets for the sprint lead-out, and does anyone else reckon John Degenkolb bears an uncanny likeness for Top Gun’s tragic hero Goose? Maybe it’s just the moustache.

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Launching the sprint a tad different today I think

A post shared by Koen de Kort (@koendekort1) on

View this post on Instagram

Catch me if you can!! #vuelta #cadiz #procycling?

A post shared by Manuel Quinziato (@manuelquinziato) on

Anyway, never let it be said that cycling doesn’t love a gimmick.

Australia’s Michael Matthews hit the afterburners and won stage 3 overnight, he also took the leader’s red jersey. It’s the same feat he managed in the Giro d’Italia earlier this season – winning a stage and wearing the leader’s jersey is becoming a habit for him.

This was his third career Vuelta stage, after winning two in his 2013 debut.

Matthews is becoming a specialist at winning sprints at the end of hard stages, and everyone in the peloton knows it. It’s gratifying that when he aims for a particular stage, he delivers remarkably often.

It’s certainly doing his reputation no harm, although being photographed before the stage wearing sandals and socks might.

Michael Matthews is lucky his legs do the talking, not his fashion sense.

For all Matthews’ talent, these successes are built on the strength and depth of his Orica-GreenEdge team in the team time trials, which gets him within striking distance of the race lead.

It’s no accident that the Australian team is consistently taking the leader’s jersey in Grand Tours, and the team was open about its goal for the day before the stage began. The team worked all day for Matthews, and will do so again tomorrow. He’s a leader worth working for.

The disappointment of missing the Tour de France after a crash in training just before the race will be eased by success in Spain, but Matthews clearly has unfinished business in France next season.

It’s a measure of Matthews’ ability and rapid improvement that Orica-GreenEdge’s erstwhile top gun sprinter Matt Goss has hardly been mentioned this year, as he battles through a winless season.

The Vuelta is in Spain’s deep south, not far from the Straits of Gibraltar and the short ferry crossing to Morocco. Stage 2 began in Algeciras, a port city where travellers can make the crossing to Tangier, the scene of centuries of trade (not all of it legal), international espionage and a seedy underbelly.

Southern Spain is sweltering country, in late August the summer is barely waning and sunburnt British tourists flop through the heat haze in states of barely coping.

It’s lucky then, that the Vuelta keeps the mountains under control this week. Not entirely absent – stage 3 had a series of four Cat.3 climbs; stage 4 has a Cat.2 – but the first real climb doesn’t come until Thursday.

The expected melee for the overall victory is still a few days away from any serious skirmishes. Movistar’s Colombian sensation Nairo Quintana is sitting pretty in second on GC, Spanish favourite Alejandro Valverde is third,and Alberto Contador and Chris Froome are a handful of seconds back.

Image: Sean Rowe (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sjr-images/14162178575/)
Image: Sean Rowe (https://www.flickr.com/photos/sjr-images/14162178575/)

Handing the race lead to Matthews is almost the ideal scenario for Movistar, which faced a decision about how much energy to spend defending it. When you’ve got two riders who are expected to be high on GC in two-and-a-half weeks’ time, a few days chasing breakaways in the wind and heat just so the sprinters’ teams can clean up the stage wins probably seems less than appealing.

That said, relinquishing the leader’s jersey in Grand Tours seems to have gone out of fashion, and a Spanish team in its home race has extra pressure to keep its sponsor’s logo on the evening news. Matthews is no threat to Quintana or Valverde, but as he showed in the Giro, he might be strong enough to defend the jersey for a few days and let Movistar save their legs.

Is Contador playing possum at the Vuelta?

Alberto Contador is back for the Vuelta, and this changes everything.

Hang on a second, does it? Can the Spanish superstar really be expected to be competitive only a few weeks after fracturing his tibia?

Let’s wind back a bit. You may recall Contador crashed out of Stage 10 of the Tour de France in spectacular fashion, hitting the deck at 77km/h while trying to eat on a descent. He fractured his leg, and rode another 10km on adrenaline and emotion (Australian rider Zak Dempster describes it in his Roar interview with Felix Lowe) before the pain became too much.

Initially he planned to return for the Vuelta, causing journalists and fans to begin salivating over the Spanish race like a hungry rider might over a fat, juicy chuleta.

But on July 23 Contador tweeted that his wound was healing too slowly and that his Vuelta hopes were gone:

“Bad day,the wound healing gets complicated,I’ve no date to take the bike.Goodbye to the Vuelta.”

https://twitter.com/albertocontador/status/491854508004474880

But by the 8th of August, Cycling Tips was reporting sightings of Contador out training near his home in Lugano in late July (http://cyclingtips.com.au/2014/08/contador-recovery-moving-quicker-than-rider-and-team-have-claimed/).

The training must have been going well, because this week he announced that his tilt at the Vuelta is back on, albeit in a different capacity than usual:

“I know it’s a Tour of Spain that I’ll have to take in a very different way than I had thought earlier in the season, or as I planned the Tour [de France], but I think it can be very good for me thinking on the end of the season and either to start next year with guarantees, and perhaps in the last week I could be fighting for a stage win. Now I’ll try to do my best in this last week until the start, see you all in Jerez!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJNc8CEmqo4

So, Alberto Contador, el Pistolero, a man who can win Grand Tours when he’s not even in top shape, is going to the Vuelta for pre-season training.

Can you believe it?

I must admit I am struggling to see it. Whatever you think about him (and mentioning that he “divides opinions” is an understatement on par with “Gee, these American cops are enthusiastic about crowd control”) he always – always –  races to win.

Most years you could reasonably expect Contador to turn up to the Vuelta slightly off his best levels, but still carrying all the training he put in to peak for the Tour, and still be a real podium threat.

Remember when he won the 2012 Vuelta, defeating Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez in one of the most gripping GC battles in recent years? He’d hardly raced all year after coming back from his clenbuterol ban. Still took the win.

But this Vuelta is absolutely stacked. Can a recovering Contador match a determined Chris Froome, a Nairo Quintana brimming with confidence and rested after a commanding Giro d’Italia, or a fresh Rigoberto Uran?

These three are all going to come in red hot, although Froome has had his own injury concerns, he’s been training in the US and is reportedly moving pretty well.

Judging from Contador’s public statements, even he doesn’t think he can match the favourites for this race.

What do his words “a very different” way imply? That he’ll be content to roll around with the grupetto logging miles for the first two weeks, dropping enough time that he’s given freedom to attack in the hectic final week?

That he’ll be drilling it on the front as a super-domestique for a different leader? Tinkoff-Saxo’s preliminary Vuelta squad doesn’t have any obvious GC leader apart from Contador himself.

Or will he hang on to the leaders for as long as he can, and hope he comes good at the right time?

It just doesn’t sit square with me that Contador, as proud and aggressive as he is, will be happy to creep around Spain mid-pack, riding his legs into shape in between pressing the flesh for his sponsors before and after every stage.

The first week is pretty flat, and he’ll have some time to find his racing legs. By the time the serious mountains arrive, he’ll have nearly two weeks of racing covered and all the training he did before the Tour should be kicking back in. If he’s still in the race by then, I feel that things could be more interesting than Alberto is willing to let on.

What do we think? Are his public statements a true representation of his goals, or is Alberto playing possum?

Is Cadel back in the hunt for the Vuelta?

I don’t want to alarm anyone, but Cadel Evans has ridden himself back into excellent form just in time for the Vuelta a Espana.

That’s the only conclusion you can draw when the Australian bagged two consecutive stage wins in the Tour of Utah.

Yes, the Tour of Utah (UCI 2.1) is hardly a Grand Tour quality field, but it is raced at high altitude over some genuinely tough climbs. Utah’s mountains are no joke.

Evans won the queen stage (stage 6) which peaked at Guardsman Pass, 2960m above sea level, and had a summit finish to Snowbird (2,440m). For reference, the Col du Galibier, one of the highest passes raced in the Tour de France, tops out at 2,645m.

He backed up with victory in stage 7, in an absolutely masterful display of bike racing. Seriously, it was one of those rides where it looked like he was racing against suburban crit riders instead of experienced World Tour pros. It was a killing.

On the final climb, Evans had a group of four riders ahead of him, including GC leader and eventual winner Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp), 2013 Vuelta winner Chris Horner (Lampre) and his teammate Winner Anacona (a Colombian) and Belkin’s highly-rated Wilco Kelderman (7th at the Giro, 4th at the Dauphine this year).

Evans attacked with US continental pro Carter Jones (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) in his wheel, trying to bridge across. The pair hit the summit 15 seconds behind the leaders, and closing fast.

At this stage the US-based commentators were already convinced the stage belonged to Evans. It was ominous. The best was yet to come.

Evans launched himself down the mountain like, well, the TV commentator described it thus:

“Where is the red comet from BMC? He’s falling from the sky and he’s burning up the atmosphere…”

It was thrilling, and effortless. He reached the tail of the lead group with miles to spare, had time to finish his water bottle, shake out his legs, tighten his shoes, and hang around a few metres behind the group, stalking Anacona like cat toying with a mouse.

Then it was time to win.

Evans accelerated into the final bend as his rivals braked, punched it hard out of the apex, and it was all over, red rover. Clinical.

So, what does this mean for a Vuelta with perhaps its best quality field in recent memory?

Well, it means that Evans has bounced back from the Giro with his fitness and his confidence high. You don’t win at high altitude unless you’re in pretty amazing shape, and two stage wins is a big boost to your confidence.

Now, I’m not going to sit here blowing smoke rings and tell you Cadel Evans is going to win the Vuelta.

Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran would all have to fall off their bikes (again) for him to win.

What I am saying is that Evans might be an outside chance at a podium result in Spain.

Look at the next rung of GC riders, and it’s hard to say that many have had as good a preparation as Evans.

I’m talking about the likes of Wilco Kelderman, Richie Porte, Fabio Aru, Laurens Ten Dam, Carlos Betancur, Ryder Hesjedal, Dan Martin, Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Warren Barguil and Thibaut Pinot.

Half of those riders have the Tour in their legs, and are likely to be tested to exhaustion by three weeks in the Spanish heat. The other half are in the same boat as Evans, returning to Grand Tour racing after riding the Giro.

None of the latter group has yet shown the form that Evans showed in Utah.

Another factor in Evans’ favour is that this Vuelta is not as offensive as previous editions. Although has has a number of summit finishes, it doesn’t hit its really big peaks until stage 15, when it climbs to the Lagos de Covadonga. Stage 20 to Puerto de Ancares has the only other above-category summit finish of the whole race.

Both of these are tasty climbs and they’ll be raced muy picante, but they don’t have the ridiculously steep ramps of the Angliru.

Damage will have to be done with aggressive racing on the various Category 1 summit finishes in stages 6, 9, 11, 14 and 16.

The last week will be the hardest, with summit finishes on stages 14, 15, 16 and 20. It’s by no means easy, but the difficulty seems to be dialled back slightly from previous years.

The 2014 Vuelta also has two individual time trials (one 35km long and mostly downhill; one short and flat) and a team time trial. These should suit Evans.

I don’t expect huge time gaps. It’ll be a scrap for seconds here and there. That suits the veteran Australian.

I’m as surprised as anyone to be sitting here writing this, but I’m really starting to think that Cadel is a chance for another good Grand Tour result. What do you think?

 

This article first appeared on The Roar.