It’s been a quality first leg of this year’s Vuelta, not to mention a long one — with 10 days in the saddle already, the riders have covered almost half the riding by their first rest day. The first ‘week’ ended with the monstrous especial climb up to the summit finish on stage 10, which might win our award for best stage of a tour this season — and we are quite serious about that. It was classic stuff, with a gap to a strong breakaway that stayed steadily between 4 and 5 minutes, but which gave the break just enough of a chance on the last climb that it wasn’t clear until the final few kilometres if they’d all get swept up. Cue a heroic ride by Robert Gesink, who stormed out of the break and ended up in second place on the day. Omar Fraile also held on for fourth, and the next best placed man from the break was Fabio Felline, in a quite remarkable 10th place.
What makes the performances of the best of the break so remarkable is the quality of riding we saw as the G.C. men picked up a gear. Etixx had been on the front for most of the day, but Movistar took up the reigns on the last climb, and they drove a fierce pace. It is unclear what the issue was, but Froome was clearly not enjoying the tempo, and Sky found themselves on the wrong side of a split in the peloton as the road really ramped up. It looked like game over for their G.C. hopes, as König had also held back to help his leader. Probably in the knowledge that Froome was off the back, Alberto Contador saw his chance to attack. He tore off the front of the peloton, and the only rider who could match his attack was Quintana — who did so with ease. The two worked away for a while, before Quintana shook off Contador with another powerful surge. From that point on, there was no bringing back the Colombian, who caught man after man from the early break, and went on to be the only rider who could catch Gesink — searing past him in the final few kilometres to take a great grand tour victory, and to reclaim the red jersey.
Meanwhile, Froome was pulling off a great comeback, as he somehow went from being behind all the favourites to being ahead of Valverde and onto Contador’s wheel. He took the time to look at Contador, to gauge if there would be a counter attack, before he sallied forth again in pursuit of Quintana. Having lagged 40-50 seconds behind the favourites at one point, he finished only 25 seconds behind Quintana.
Valverde also made a comeback, thanks to a tow from the revitalised Froome, and we also saw the Orica duo of Chaves and Yates regain ground. Chaves sprinted past Contador in the finale, and Yates was only a handful of seconds back on them both, securing a top ten G.C. placing for himself once more. However, David De La Cruz was (perhaps not unexpectedly) over 3 minutes down on Quintana, and now lies well off the podium. Here’s the top 10 going into the rest day, courtesy of Pro Cycling Stats:
Thus endeth the first chapter of this year’s Vuelta, with Quintana the first rider to take anything like an emphatic lead in the red jersey contest. And you’d have to think there might be no more changes at the top, unless he suffers from fatigue in the coming weeks — he has been, by some stretch, the best climber in the peloton this past week and a half. If he does hold on to the jersey from here until Madrid, that will put an end to a remarkable series of exchanges over the opening stages. We’ve seen the jersey change hands no less than six times, with seven different riders wearing it, on behalf of four different teams. So far, Atapuma’s been the only rider to have a chance to get comfy in it, with his three-day stint before Quintana’s first go. BMC, though, might be seeing their G.C. luck dry up now, unless Sammy Sánchez can pull of something special this coming week; Atapuma’s out of the top 10, and there are riders like Astana’s Scarponi who only seem to be getting better as the stages go on. Meanwhile, Orica and Tinkoff will both have to up their games if they want to get on to the podium, and Froome is going to have to fight hard to find any way past the Movistar duo of Quintana and Valverde.
Fresh from the rest day, the riders have 160km within which to warm the legs, before their first challenge back on the bikes. Stage 11 is a long and gently rolling trip along Spain’s north coast, until the riders arrive at the sting in the tail that is
the category 1 Peña Cabarga climb. It’s actually only a 5.6km ascent, so it’s not got much on stage 10’s finale, but don’t be fooled: at an average of 9.8% it will knock the wind out of the riders’ sails, and that’s an average that’s cut by a mid-climb plateau. There are a couple of sections that hit the 20% mark, with plenty of above 15% gradients along the way — in other words, it’s a proper Spanish climb.
Given that it’s been such a good week for breakaways so far this Vuelta, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was another one for opportunists. But actually, fresh from the rest day and with the first serious gap back to the G.C. men, it’s now looking like the red jersey contest has changed gear, and we can expect Movistar to keep things orderly. If a break lasts till the very end, it won’t be by a big margin at all. Instead, we’re looking at round 2 of the big summit finishes, and we should expect Nairo Quintana to do all he can to keep himself in the red jersey. In fact, we expect him to claw out further seconds on his rivals, but we don’t expect that to necessarily be the case for Valverde. He’s not been as dominant as his teammate, and he was a little off the pace on stage 10, meaning that both Froome and Contador could realistically hope to gain seconds on him here (and Froome only needs one). Could Chaves? Perhaps, but it’s a concern that he’s lacked the explosivity that has made him a key G.C. contender in the past. He’s been grinding his way up slowly, and whilst he’s not lost much time, he’s certainly not been winning much back, either.
It’s hard to know what Etixx will be hoping for now, and we expect De La Cruz will disappear from the top 10 after this stage. Will Brambilla make his way back in? It’s hard to say, though he didn’t have a great time on stage 10, losing a minute and a half. There are slow burners who are worth watching here though. Michele Scarponi rode brilliantly on stage 10, and has been sneaking up on the top ten unannounced. Actually, if you remove the breakaway riders from the stage 10 result, you get this:
….that says a lot about how well Scarponi rode his way up, especially compared to Contador, and we fully expect him to make another leap up the top 10 after this stage; in theory, if the results and gaps were similar to stage 10, he could leapfrog into 5th. He’ll be very motivated, that’s for sure.
However, we can’t necessarily rule out another breakaway win today, although, with the G.C. race hotting up, time bonuses at the finish will start to mean more. The KOM competition is also starting to gain pace:
Taking Quintana out of the equation, the rest of the top 5 of Omar Fraile, Thomas De Gendt, Alexandre Geniez, and Luis Ángel Maté will all be marking the others in terms of who (if any) makes it into the morning break and has their eye on shot at the only points on offer — the summit finish.
Two teams that have been quite active, but who have seen little return so far, are Cannondale-Drapac and Caja Rural. Whilst Andrew Talansky seems to have rediscovered his G.C. legs, with Davide Formolo close behind, Michael Clarke, Ben King and Pierre Rolland have all been visible in the breaks and finishes on the hillier stages. They also have the climbing talent of Joe Dombrowski. Time is running out for the team to take a big stage win in 2016, so any one of these four should be in the break here. Caja Rural are likely to go with Hugh Carthy or José Gonçalves. Both are well down on GC and the team needs some glory in their biggest race of the year.
It has to be Quintana for the win, but for the podium we’re looking to Scarponi.