It is with poetic vision that race organizers plan the final stages of their grand tours. Though hardly the most imaginative stages (nothing to rival Rodriguez’s efforts on stage 11…), the broad, long, flat, and smooth finishes, as twilight casts itself across the still-warm streets of continental capitals, are always a captivating sensory experience. And though it’s almost inconceivable for a break to last on such speed-worthy parcours, we are always treated to one anyway, before the purest of sprints brings three hard weeks to a close. So it was today in Madrid.
There was, though, one entirely remarkable feature to today’s stage. After 20 arduous and varied stages, only 2 points stood to differentiate Rodriguez’s first place and Valverde’s second place in the green jersey contest. With an undeniable turn of pace on him, there were whispers on the start-line that Valverde would be going all guns ablaze at the intermediate sprint to try to peel that jersey from Purito’s back. And so it was to be: the pace was slow for the first hour and a half of racing, as teams soaked up the atmosphere and posed for the press — it was a pace that the Marmeladrome riders could just about have managed, for once. But as no break went, this gave Valverde the sought-after chance to sprint for a point or two.
Valverde received a solid lead-out by Movistar, ensuring that first, second, and third places on the sprint went to Movistar, and Valverde (“Green Valley”) got his green jersey. But just as Aru’s red jersey came at the misfortune of another rider, Valverde’s sprint was uncontested by Katusha because Rodriguez himself had suffered a mechanical within a kilometre of the sprint. Rodriguez would have been in the depths of dismay as he stood roadside, watching a mechanic swapping a wheel on his bike as the flash of deep-blue skin suits disappeared up the road and led the peloton across the sprint. But no one could threaten his second place overall in the general classification, so he will nevertheless be all smiles tonight.
The race wound its way under verdant canopies along the broad boulevards of Madrid, with each tight u-turn bringing the riders closer to the conclusion of the tour. Several attacked, as if enjoying the privilege of finishing one of the hardest tours on the cycling calendar when riders like Froome, Nibali, and Sagan (for broadly differing reasons) had not. But no attacks stuck. As the bell rang for the last lap, it was Giant-Alpecin who took up the pace, with MTN-Qhubeka showing an interest at the front but not able to match the Giant riders’ combined power.
Approaching the line, the race was all together and led by Giant, proudly fighting for a win after the loss of Dumoulin’s red jersey. As the last rider peeled away just inside the 200m mark, Degenkolb went off like a rocket but looked to be losing ground to Danny Van Poppel. Well into the final 100m it looked like Van Poppel’s second win, but it could have gone to BMC’s Jean-Pierre Drucker, who was stage-right of the charging Van Poppel. What it didn’t look like was a win for Degenkolb, but as they sped through the final 50 metres, the German found something new in his legs and edged past both Drucker and Poppel: he took his 10th La Vuelta victory by a hair’s breadth. It was an outstanding sprint, from an all-out power point of view. Including Daryl Impey for Orica, none of the riders wavered off their arrow-straight lines, there was none of the messiness of Greipel’s ugly tactics which we saw in the Tour of Britain today, nor Cavendish’s wildly swerving lines. Rather, four men went head to head, side by side, and it went down not to trains nor tactics nor heavy elbow blows. It was about the strongest man on the day, and John Degenkolb was that man. It was a fine tribute and ending to an excellent tour.
And that was this year’s Vuelta. Aru (like it or not, Twitter) is in the red jersey for his first grand tour win; Rodriguez (like it, Twitter) is second, with Majka on his first grand tour podium in third. Valverde, of course, takes green. And though he missed out on the lead over all by maybe only the last two climbs of the tour, Tom Dumoulin deservedly takes most combative rider for the entirety of the three week race. Omar Fraile is still in the polka dots, having gained enough points to form his own mountain, compared to the foothills of the others in that contest. Movistar sit half an hour ahead of everyone else in the teams’ contest. It has been a tremendous Vuelta, one whose mighty peaks have cast a shadow over this year’s Tour de France, and one whose unpredictable nature has outfoxed the pundits, kept the bookies guessing, and kept us all entertained and enthralled for three exciting weeks. We will have a full retrospective for you coming shortly, and we’ll be offering our own candidates for the finest rides of this Vuelta; but for now, we’re off for a cerveza or three. Thanks for staying with us, see you soon.