There are some savvy minds working behind the scenes at La Vuelta this year. In fear of overexciting too much and too early in this year’s tour, they decided that stage 4 should be long, flat, and pleasantly soporific for the most part. With over 200km on the menu, and no tests or opportunities for points or seconds until the sprint at 175km, it was all going to come down to the little bump within the last two kilometres of the stage. Indeed, the commentators and Twitter alike were more attentive to bridges than bicycles for much of the stage. So let’s take a moment to reflect on this race before we hit that last climb.
We’ve lost some quality athletes so far in only a few days of riding. Stage 2’s brutal crash was worst for Przemyslaw Niemiec (a big loss to Lampre’s long-game plans), and IAM’s David Tanner. IAM also lost star sprinter Matteo Pelucchi that day. Suffering from the fall-out of that crash, Marcus Burghart pulled out late in the day yesterday, likewise Paolo Tiralongo, who held on bravely but eventually folded under the pressure of injuries. And now we’ve lost Cancellara; fabulous Fabian’s previous back injuries have been plaguing him of late, and staring down the barrel of three weeks under the Spanish sun was just too much for the strong classics rider.
Of course, we’ve also lost Vincenzo Nibali, a victim of his own firm grip on a bottle from the team car. However, we’ve yet to mention the controversy surrounding a similar grip-before-sip from Nacer Bouhanni. Bouhanni contested the sprint successfully yesterday, but also ended up contesting a fine, thanks to a sticky bottle of his own. He was hit with a personal €100 fine, with another €100 for his team, but went double or nothing by hurling abuse at the adjudicating officials. He lost that little flutter. And yet, you have to imagine that Vincenzo would happily cough up the requisite four-hundred bucks if it meant he could carry on with his own race. The ostensible inconsistency in play here leaves a sour taste in the mouth, and Boo-hoo-hanni seems to have dodged a bullet somehow.
Let’s get back to the race at hand. Six men went off early, gluttons for punishment on a long day which held little hope for a break to make it all the way. The gap opened up to over ten minutes, which gradually began to erode with 100km remaining. By 25km to go there was no break of which to speak, and the peloton rumbled along at pace, with all bespectacled eyes turned to the uphill finale.
Katusha took a lot of the sultry breeze along the last stretch towards Vejera de la Frontera, which, with both Rodriguez and Moreno seeking stage glory, was not altogether unexpected. All the key players, from puncheurs to general classification men, held good positions into the run up, and the pace was by now furious and frenetic. The first attack came with the first steep gradient — at around 18% — and it was a strong effort from Caja-Rural’s Pello Bilbao. Caja-Rural are putting on an extraordinary show this Vuelta, and their opportunistic do-or-die attitude is laudable — they’re riding in the style of Orica-GreenEdge when they’re lacking a specialist, who throw everything into a timely but risky move.
Bilbao couldn’t hold back the pack though, and was caught up in a wave of elite riders at around the 2km mark. The Katusha machine dragged their men towards the front of the race once more, and with them came Valverde, Nico Roche, Peter Sagan and others. The red jersey also lost no ground. Out of nowhere came an enormous, breathtaking effort from BMC’s Samuel Sanchez — a glow of former glory and a fine display of power, he took Nico Roche with him up the road. But it came down to the final kilometre and an uphill sprint: as Sanchez faded, Roche led a storming Valverde towards the finish, who in turn was towing a sprightly Sagan. Valverde made it around Roche with finesse; Sagan in turn tried to get around Valverde to make it a double, but he lacked the space, if not the power — today was Valverde’s day to shine. Taking the line just ahead of Sagan, he was defiant in victory.
Two questions linger as we turn the pages of the race guide from stage 4 to stage 5. One, what happened to Katusha? Given the man-power they put down today, and Rodriguez eagerly licking his lips for a finish that suited him, how did he fall to sixth place on the day? Moreno was Katusha’s best-placed, taking the third spot on the podium after he also elbowed out Roche, but it’s certain that the Russian squad won’t be fully satisfied after they left so much on the road today. And two, just who is in charge over at Movistar? Quintana managed ninth today and eighth on G.C., and is now 11 seconds and four places behind his teammate Valverde in a very tight top ten. You can bet he’ll go to bed tonight ruing the stage finish in Vejera, but dreaming of the high mountains of stage 11…
…until then, we look forward to another sprint stage tomorrow, and a probable reprieve from the G.C. battle. It feels like a good stage within which to keep your eyes on John Degenkolb, who is yet to take much from his Vuelta.