Big names duke it out in ‘Vuelta everyone is hoping for’

Marquee names are battling in the opening stages of the Vuelta a España, delivering on the promise of the season's most exciting grand tour

Photo: Tim De Waele

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LA ZUBIA, Spain (VN) — The final grinding kilometers of the short but very steep climb up the flank of Spain’s Sierra Nevada saw the peloton’s top stars gritting it out, elbow to elbow, fighting for victory.

This is the battle the cycling world wanted to see earlier this summer at the Tour de France. What didn’t happen in July is unfolding with thrilling consequences in Spain’s summer heat at this year’s Vuelta a España.

Thursday’s mountaintop finale, the first of six in this Vuelta, delivered the goods in five short but explosive kilometers. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Sky) — two of the peloton’s elite — thrashed their legs for the win, each perhaps surpassing their own expectations after they crashed out of the Tour. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), a perennial Vuelta favorite, played his card as expected with a sharp attack.

Yet it was Alejandro Valverde, who has openly vowed his allegiance to Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana, who came out the winner, taking the stage and recapturing the leader’s jersey.

It couldn’t have been a better script for the opening salvo from what’s arguably the Vuelta’s best field ever.

“This is the Vuelta that everyone is hoping for, with Quintana, Valverde, Froome, and Contador locking horns, really fighting,” said Sky principal Dave Brailsford. “This is just great to see. It’s really exciting. It gets you off your seat.”

The first mountain stage of any grand tour is often more a litmus test of form rather than a race-breaker. It reveals just as much about who possibly can win the Vuelta as who cannot.

La Zubia, a cruelly steep road straight up the flanks of the sun-seared Sierra Nevada, proved a worthy backdrop. Though only five kilometers long, it featured ramps as steep as 10 percent, the ideal proving ground for podium contenders and pretenders.

Movistar took control of the final climb, with Valverde throttling the front, putting much of the peloton into the red zone at two kilometers to go. A week of excessive heat, with temperatures hovering in the mid-to-high 90s, only heightened the suffering.

Valverde insisted he was riding to set up Quintana, but the pint-sized Colombian just sat there when everyone expected him to pounce. At 1,300 meters to go, the ideal moment to punch the accelerator, Quintana’s poker face gave nothing away, but his legs didn’t have the gas. Everyone was waiting for Quintana’s attack that never came. Instead, Rodríguez jumped with 700 meters to go. Valverde, who’s been criticized in the past for botching tactics, knew exactly what to do.

“We were setting a hard, steady pressure, trying to eliminate as many rivals as we could. When Purito [Rodriguez] jumped, I went right with him, and I had the legs to finish it off,” Valverde said. “I’ve said all along I am riding for Nairo [Quintana] in this Vuelta. I’ve been in the wind, doing some work, but also I am protecting my interests, not losing time. Nairo’s still there [second at 15 seconds back], but who’s to say I cannot win a stage when my legs are feeling good?”

As Valverde suggested, Quintana will surely take flight in the longer, even steeper climbs waiting in the final week of the Vuelta. And although the Giro d’Italia champion clearly didn’t have the spark to challenge for the stage — he was fifth at 12 seconds back — he was right where he needed to be.

Even more ecstatic was Contador, who not only was able to stay with Movistar’s incessant rhythm, but followed the accelerations late in stage, crossing the line for a morale-boosting third.

“Alejandro won the stage, but this is like a victory for me as well,” Contador said. “I couldn’t imagine being in the top-10 today, and there I was fighting for the victory. I am very content.”

Following his horrendous crash at the Tour that left him with a fractured leg, Contador was a final-hour starter for the Vuelta. He was only able to train two weeks before the start of the tour, but Thursday’s result gave him much-needed confirmation that he can be a player in this Vuelta.

“I’ve been really suffering in these first few stages. It’s a huge surprise to be up there today. I am so happy I decided to come to the Vuelta,” he continued. “It was so hard to miss the Tour. I was in the best form of my life, and I didn’t want to sit home on the couch, and miss the Vuelta as well. My leg still gives me a bit of pain, but I am feeling better with each passing day. Can I win the Vuelta? Well, I keep focusing on taking it day to day, but if I have a chance, I will certainly try.”

Froome, too, was more than content with his performance, nearly winning the stage. Like Contador, the 2013 Tour winner came into the Vuelta short on training days, and unsure of where he stood. He was able to stay with the Movistar surge, and then follow the late-stage accelerations to second place, an encouraging sign for the Sky entourage.

“Chris didn’t know where he was at. Today has given him a lot of confidence,” Brailsford said. “The idea was to build coming into the race, rather than start at 100 percent. He’ll be very happy today.”

On the sharp end of the action, there were a few more surprises. Fabio Aru (Astana) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) both punched into the top-10 on the stage. Robert Gesink (Belkin), back from heart surgery, was also there, as was young French hope Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano), riding as GC leader for the first time in his career. Mikel Nieve was ninth, meaning Sky will have firepower to support Froome deep in the mountains.

More than a few big names were on the back foot. Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who came with high expectations, couldn’t match Movistar’s searing pace, and lost touch with about one kilometer to go, crossing the line 19th, 1:04 back. Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing) and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), two veterans, both lost more than two minutes.

Samuel Sánchez (BMC Racing) also ceded time he didn’t want to, crossing the line 15th at 47 seconds. The 2008 Olympic champion, who is close friends with Contador, said it’s no surprise that he’s going better than expected.

“I have said from day one that if Contador is here, he will be competitive, so it’s not a surprise for me,” Sánchez said. “The best riders stayed at the front in the last one-and-a-half kilometers, and I could not follow them. I preferred to continue at my own pace to limit my losses.”

Garmin-Sharp was riding hard on the approach to La Zubia, with Andrew Talansky taking big turns until about 2.5km to go, but Daniel Martin couldn’t finish off the work, losing contact, and crossing the line 18th at 59 seconds back. Ryder Hesjedal, after losing time in the crosswinds Wednesday, was 44th at 3:44 back, results that put a serious kink into Garmin’s GC ambitions.

The Vuelta is just starting, but it’s shaping up to be the kind of race people were hoping to see this summer in July, before crashes and the huge gains eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali won across the pavé took the air out of the race.

Froome and Contador are clearly up for a fight. The strongest team in the race backs Valverde and Quintana. Rodríguez, Aru, and a host of others still might have something to say about it.

Buckle your seatbelts. The Vuelta is just starting.

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