What we know almost halfway through the Vuelta

The 67th Tour of Spain is nine days old and one thing is for certain: Nothing is for certain

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LEON, Spain (VN) – The peloton cooled its jets Monday on the first of two rest days in a Vuelta a España that’s been explosive, exciting and unpredictable.

Through nine stages, no singular favorite has imposed his domination on the race, though four men have emerged to take control of the GC fight.

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) carries a slender but significant lead to Chris Froome (Sky), Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) after nine days of racing. Those four have demonstrated that they are the riders who will be fighting for final victory when the 67th Vuelta ends September 9 in Madrid. But before they arrive the Spanish capital, the hardest and most decisive stages are still yet to come.

Wednesday’s 40km individual time trial will go a long way toward tipping the eventual winner, though a trio of brutal climbing stages in the mountains of northern Spain set for this weekend will likely see one rider take control of the leader’s jersey.

Here is what we knew as the Vuelta nears its midway point.

The Vuelta is more exciting

In the first week of racing, there were more attacks, more thrills and more suspense than three weeks combined at the Tour de France. Shorter stages, finish-line time bonuses and a varied parcours, which packed four summit finishes in the first nine stages, all added up for some gripping action. The Tour has become so big, so important and so traditionalist that the race has become controlled and almost predictable. That’s largely due to the stakes involved at the Tour and its importance for teams, riders and sponsors alike. All the best teams bring their top hitters and everyone on biggest squads is hitting their season peak in July.

One reason the Vuelta is wildly less predictable is that riders’ form is all over the place. Some are preparing for the worlds, others are winding down their season. Young riders get thrown into the mix with no tether holding them back while others are trying to salvage what might have been disappointment earlier in the year. The Tour will always remain the most prestigious, but the Vuelta has come a long way in the past half decade toward making it a race on par with its grand tour brethren. And the best is yet to come.

Degenkolb is fast

John Degenkolb was one of the many young sprinters that emerged from the former High Road stable with a star next to his name. The speedy German ace won big races in his rookie season last year, including two stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné, but it wasn’t until blasting his way to three stage wins in the first week of the Vuelta that it became obvious how explosive he truly is.

Granted, with 10 mountaintop finales, the sprinters’ field isn’t the deepest in this Vuelta, but winning one stage in a grand tour is often a big success. To win three confirms that the 23-year-old is pushing closer to the sharp end of the pecking order among the top sprinters. And it’s even more impressive with how he’s managed to win. Argos-Shimano has done a good job getting him in position, but he’s been coming off the wheels of other sprinters, and doing it with an explosive acceleration that is reminiscent of his former teammate, Mark Cavendish. He could well win again Tuesday.

The TT will reveal a lot, but not crown winner

Wednesday’s 40km time trial will be D Day for all the top GC favorites, but it will not crown the eventual winner. Unlike the Tour this year, which had three ITTs totaling more than 100km, the Vuelta’s lone individual time trial will position someone for final victory, but not likely prove the decider.

Here’s why. Wednesday’s route features a challenging third-category climb just past the midway point that is steeper than it looks on paper. And there’s barely a straight road in Galicia, meaning riders that are normally on the back foot in time trials, such as Rodríguez and Valverde, should be able to limit their losses against the likes of Contador or Froome. The TT will certainly change the dynamic, because it should put either Froome or Contador into the leader’s jersey. And that means everyone else will have only one tactical option: attack.

Talansky is the real deal

Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) is proving he’s the real deal through the opening nine days of racing. He was livid when Garmin botched the team time trial, with four riders crashing and causing him to lose 1:27 to Movistar on opening day in Pamplona. Take away that time loss and if Garmin had posted its typical TTT ride, Talansky would be sitting comfortably in the top 10. As it is, Talansky has taken the setback in stride and ridden within himself to limit his losses in the short, explosive finales to remain in solid position. Now 16th, a strong time trial ride Wednesday could catapult him back near or perhaps even into the top 10. Riding just his second Vuelta, Talansky is already confirming he’s a rider for the grand tours. At just 24, the future is now for Talansky.

Gilbert needed that one

BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert rode intelligently to win Sunday’s ninth stage for what was his first victory in nearly a year. The Belgian star was winless all season and the media back home was laying into him. Throughout the season, Gilbert was expected to ride well in the “next” major event after missing out on the flowers in the race he had just completed. That played out at the spring classics, the Tour and Olympics, when everyone expected big rides, but they never came. With his third career Vuelta stage win now in the bag, Gilbert’s “next” big goal is the world championships. The rainbow jersey would go a long way toward helping everyone forget what’s been an otherwise forgettable season for the once-prolific Gilbert.

No pity for Valverde

The peloton revealed its cruel side in stage 4 when a crash with about 30km to go sent race leader Valverde down on the tarmac. In the ensuing chaos, the peloton broke into four groups and no one waved off the leaders to stop riding once it became obvious that the red jersey had crashed with about a dozen other riders at the nose of the peloton. Movistar angrily accused Sky of not only causing the crash, but also then showing an ugly hand by attacking the fallen race leader.

Many wondered why Sky didn’t sit up. The crosswinds were not that strong and there was a first-category climb waiting at the finish line, still nearly 25km away. Sky defended its action, saying the team did not cause the crash and that once the race was on, there were too many moving parts to stop the inertia of the panicking group. It was interesting that Sky got all the flack when BMC and Katusha also collaborated right at the crux. And no one else among the top GC contenders made a concerted effort to try to ease up to allow the red jersey to regain contact.

It’s clear there is no patron in the peloton right now. And no mercy. That’s too bad for Valverde, who’s won two stages and looks to be on form for at least a podium spot and maybe more. Those 50 seconds he lost on the road to Valdezcaray surely will come back to haunt him.

Purito might have a chance

Joaquim Rodríguez just might be in with a chance to win this Vuelta. Through nine days of racing, he’s by far been the most consistent and the most savvy. Not only has he won a stage and finished second in two others, he’s also picked up valuable time bonuses that will certainly play a decisive role in the final order of the podium and perhaps the overall winner.

Rodríguez admits he’s not going to drop Contador and take a minute on a climb, but he’s been riding astutely to create a rather sizeable lead going into Wednesday’s ever-important time trial. In Sunday’s stage, for example, he pounced with Gilbert and gained 12 seconds on Froome and Contador, not to mention an eight-second bonus. Twenty seconds in today’s ever-tightening GC battle is a lot of time to gain over a third-category climb. As always, time trials will be Rodríguez’s Achilles heel. If he can limit his losses to Contador and Froome to around two minutes, he will only be about one minute off the lead. And then he can start chipping away again, and perhaps finally win a grand tour.

Contador is improving

One of the most surprising aspects of the first week is that Contador has yet to win a stage. It certainly hasn’t been for a lack of trying. At Arrate, in just the third day of racing, Contador attacked no less than seven times. Up the steepest lower flanks of the Valdezcaray climb the following day, Contador surged clear again and only Froome and the surprising Nicolas Roche (Ag2r La Mondiale) dared stay with him. At the Gallina climb Saturday, Contador seemed to miss-fire his attack and went too early, allowing Rodríguez and Valverde to surge around him.

It’s clear that Contador lacks the finishing punch he typically has, but it’s also equally clear that Contador looks to be getting stronger as the race unfolds. That was the plan with the Saxo-Tinkoff camp, especially with Contador only having six days of racing in his legs before the start of the Vuelta after completing his controversial clenbuterol ban. The “Pistolero” looks to be hitting his stride just in time for the decisive TT and the hellish trio of climbing stages waiting this weekend in Asturias that should all but crown the eventual winner. Contador looks locked and loaded; we’ll see if he can finish off the job.

Froome is fading

Although he is still in second place, Froome is sliding backwards, at least against Rodríguez, to whom he has given up 52 seconds since the end of stage 4. After peaking for top form in the Tour and Olympics, Froome himself is wondering if he will have the staying power to answer all the attacks that are sure to come next weekend.

Contador’s top fear is Froome and so far, his attacks have been directed at the Kenyan-born Sky leader. After looking strong out of the gates, Froome has faltered, both in the final kilometer of Saturday’s stage and again Sunday over Montjuic, when he was dangerously close to losing contact with the front group and ceding yet more time. Froome needs to hit it out of the ballpark in Wednesday’s time trial if he hopes to do as he wished when he started this Vuelta, which is to improve on last year’s second-place ride.

Nothing is decided

The only thing that’s clear after nine days of racing is that nothing is decided. Four riders are all stacked up within just over one minute of each other and all four have capacities to win. Wednesday’s time trial and Monday’s climbing stage up Cuitu Negro will make everything a lot clearer. And there is still another handful of riders that could attack from afar to surprise the leading four.

Rabobank has three riders in the top 10 and any one of them – Robert Gesink, Bauke Mollema or Laurens ten Dams – could spring a surprise if the Dutch team rides with some creative tactics. Riders such as Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Roche could still be within a shot of the podium if they have great time trials and ride outside of themselves in Asturias. The favorites are still Froome and Contador, but this Vuelta is on a slow boil.

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