Most would agree this year’s Vuelta a Espana, won by Astana’s Fabio Aru, was a cracker. Some could point out previous great Spanish races- such as Juan Cobo’s defeat of a two pronged Sky attack in 2011- but this year’s race was stacked with surprises and great racing. Whichever way you choose to judge a Grand Tour- attacks, drama, leadership changes- this Vuelta would score high.
Let’s not forget the race followed a widely acclaimed Giro d’Italia and a Tour de France dubbed the most competitive of recent times. When the Vuelta arrived with an unbalanced field and a neutralized team time trial few would have expected it to challenge for the best Grand Tour of the year. Two of the races poster boys- Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali- didn’t even finish. Whilst Froome rode over half the race, Nibali was disqualified on day one for towing along with his team car in what was at best a moment of stupidity and at worst an attempt at cheating. Sympathy can be found for the former Vuelta winner who received the harshest of punishments for something every rider does, but the footage shows Nibali, or indeed Astana, taking the p*** on this occasion. Nibali needs to get out of Astana fast and restore his reputation, which has been dented on a personal level if not as a performer.
This year’s Vuelta seemed to start (really start, not the opening team time dawdle) with the sort of action usually saved for a final week. The hilly course lent itself to aggressors but credit should go to the riders for animating the race. Week 1 belonged Orica’s Esteban Chaves with the smiling Colombian taking the first stage and the red jersey. However, instead of fizzling out as he did in May’s Giro, Chaves was a revelation and one of the riders of the race, eventually finishing 5th. On the finish in Caminito del Rey he grabbed the win and was the race leader until losing a handful seconds to Tom Dumoulin- the second of the race’s revelations. A day later Chaves re-took the lead, winning his second stage in a similar explosive fashion to the first.
The jersey actually exchanged hands seven times and three men- Chaves, Dumoulin and Aru- wore it for two separate spells. Tom Dumoulin’s very realistic challenge was the most talked about story from the race. An impressive but not entirely unforeseen first week was followed by an eye-opening stage win, chasing down none other than Tour de France champion Chris Froome on a sloped finish. At this stage Dumoulin sat at the top of the GC and to everybody’s surprise, and many people’s joy, he did not fall too far during a week of serious Vuelta climbing. Though losing some time, the Dutchman continued to impress as the race approached his playground- the 37.9km ITT. Every day the likes of Aru, Nairo Quintana and Joaquim Rodriguez would kick off up the road and each time Dumoulin would hang tough and remain in the GC top five. There had been a few indications that Dumoulin had this in him- fourth in the Tour Down Under, a good ride up Solden- but he was riding at a new level, dragging his large frame up climbs fastest than many of the smaller specialists.
You had to be in good nick to stay in contention on Stage 11 and the dreaded assault on Andorra. Those who didn’t ride well, like the ill and sub-par Quintana, lost chunks of time that ultimately could not be recouped. Dumoulin again stepped up, finishing 8th on the day and departing with losses of less than a minute to all his rivals bar Aru (who gained 1 minute 37). The stage went to Mikel Landa, adding another giant mountain stage to his collection, with Aru unable to catch his team-mate when he danced away on the final climb. Aru put time into his rivals and it was another good day for the Astana pair. The Spanish/Italian duo have experienced great success together this season despite never looking completely on the same page.
Climbing well in the middle week was Rodriguez and he sat 27 seconds behind Aru after the Andorran stage (which had been based on his own sportive). The Spaniard continued to take the fight to Aru and clearly wanted the leaders jersey on his shoulders. On Stage 15 he gained a chunk of time but missed the jersey by a single second. He finished the job the next day and became the new leader by the same margin. ‘Purito’ will have plenty of pictures of himself in the Vuelta’s red jersey but has never won the race outright. He simply ships too much time on time trials and this year was to be no different.
Even the time trial made for good viewing with Dumoulin doing exactly what he had to do, winning the stage by an immense 1 minute 04. Aru rode fantastic for 10th place whilst poor Rodriguez was over 3 minutes behind. Unbelievably, the Spaniard still finished in 30th place. The ITT has occasionally been phased out of the Grand Tours in recent years but can remain the difference between the top three and top spot. Dumoulin took the race lead that day by just three seconds, increased it to six with a cobbled attack on the brilliant Stage 19, and then imploded on the rolling mountains of Stage 20, ending up sixth in the GC. Dumoulin’s faltering on Stage 20 came as a shock but only as we had become accustomed to him climbing with the best. It may take the Dutchman a long time to fully appreciate just how well he rode this Vuelta but recent comparisons to Miguel Indurain should ease the pain.
There was no luck for Tour de France stars Froome and Quintana as once again a Grand Tour double seemed out of reach. Neither will look directly to the Tour as an excuse, with Froome crashing out with a broken foot and Quintana reported ill in the first half of the race. Nevertheless, Froome had already been dropped on a climb he would have gobbled up in July and Quintana looked zapped despite finishing strongly and ending fourth. Both should enjoy their winter’s respite.
The race was helped by the fact it was contended by a crop of likeable young riders. Esteban Chaves seems a fantastic guy and gives some super happy interviews, making his days in red a joy to behold. Dumoulin, too, is a likeable character and got large parts of the cycling world behind him in just a few days of suffering. Aru looks every bit a star and is another capable of giving a great interview. It was hard to dislike his celebrations no matter who you were cheering and the Sardinian looks a good bet for future Grand Tours.
Away from the main race, John Degenkolb succeeded in his stage hunt but only in Madrid’s finale, waiting a good bit longer for a Vuelta stage than in previous years. There was also a win for Peter Sagan whilst MTN-Qhubeka were at it again with Kristian Sbaragli. Team Sky’s race was held together by Mikel Nieve (8th place) and Nicholas Roche (Stage 18 winner) with the Irishman far livelier than in his dogged Tour de France. The point’s jersey went to Alejandro Valverde with the sprinters having no chance to contest in a route this hilly. A Spaniard won the Mountains jersey too, Omar Fraile essentially tying up the competition in the first half of the race.
The best Grand Tour this year? No idea. I wouldn’t want it any other way.