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VeloVeritas mentor and soothsayer, Viktor maintains that if it's a 'road race' then it should be just that - a public highway, not a concrete track to nowhere. And the Bola Del Mundo certainly goes nowhere, there's nothing to do at the top but come back down again. But when you're up there, the sun is out, the fans are going crazy and you could reach out and touch Alberto as he grimaces past, you can't help but get bound up in the sheer wonderful madness of it all...
This Saturday, 13th of January, Unipublic revealed the Vuelta a Espana 2018 route that will take place between the 25th of August and the 16th of September. The Spanish tour will depart from the Pompidou Centre in Malaga, in another clear example of the organisation’s aim to combine sports, culture and innovative departures.
VeloVeritas's soothsayer Viktor would say; 'It's just a big hill!' But if you've ever been up at the Lagos de Covadonga then you'll know there's much more to it than that. High on the bleak moor which is skirted by the parcours, back in the year 722 AD the Asturian King, Pelagius defeated the hitherto invulnerable Moors (Arabs we'd call them now) who ruled Spain at that time at the Battle of Covadonga. We watched Carlos Barredo follow in the footsteps of Robert Millar on a day of low cloud, rain and cold.
Movistar top and tail la Vuelta as Italian Time Trial Champion, Adriano Malori has the weather gods on his side and rides in the dry whilst the GC boys look like they’re pedalling on ice around the technical circuit in beautiful and historic Santiago de Compostella. The last time I stayed in Santiago weeds were sprouting from the cathedral’s lovely facade, so that scaffold was no surprise – a face lift was long overdue.
Samuel Sanchez summed it up best in the BMC press release for Stage 20 to Ancares; "To understand how was hard it was, you only have to look at the riders' faces." That was certainly true of Chris Froome, his face ashen, skin tight on his skull, eyes popping, gasping for air like a dying fish.
VeloVeritas cycling sage, Vik hates those narrow bars Adam Hansen uses - they're to make him more aero and save those precious watts - but they certainly didn't do him any harm, today in Cangas de Morrazo. Not just a win; he's saved Lotto's Vuelta - it goes from 'Ligthart and Hansen enlivening the breakaways' to 'stage winning' and that's about a million miles. By good fortune we had a chat with the man just before this Vuelta kicked off...
‘Alberto defends lead in spite of heavy bombardment at Monte Castrove en Meis,’ says the Saxo-Tinkoff press release – with Chris Froome the man in charge of the howitzers. Christopher may not be stylish but the man is a bike racer – and that has to be respected. The tactic is simple, when the road goes up and the pace eases back a notch – attack! It nearly netted him the win today but Aru is young, hungry, skinny and pretty quick for a mountain man. But Froome did climb to second on the ‘virtual’ podium and claw back some time on Contador.
There was the chance that the break would stick; but with John Degenkolb’s Giant boys working themselves into the tar for him – and having done their homework by riding the stage finale on the rest day – and the likes of Ferrari and Matthews fancying their chances now that Bouhanni is back in France, not to mention Sky piling it on to keep Froome out of trouble, it was odds on to be a sprint finish.
My son reckons he’s on something and will, ‘get caught; there’s no way he could break his leg in the Tour and then be as strong as he is... Let’s hope (and pray) not; but my perspective is different – I think Alberto Contador is one of the greatest stage racers the world has ever seen and as such you can’t compare him to lesser mortals. People forget that Contador has been as close to death as a man can get and still survive.
Przemyslaw Niemiec wins today, but it’s just morbid curiosity which compels me to watch Chris Froome (Sky & Monaco/England/South Africa/Kenya) these days – he climbs like a stick insect with Saint Vitus Dance. It upsets me; but distressing or not, it gets him up them hills, albeit in his own mystifying style – off the back, off the front...
A good day for big Ryder Hesjedal – it looked for all the world like Zaugg was going to double his career wins with only one, the Tour of Lombardy.
Stage 13 took things back up a level but on a parcours which didn’t make for ‘The Bigs’ to do anything but mark each other. Unlike the Tour de France where there have been years where the honour of France has been saved by a single stage win by the likes of Sandy Casar, the Vuelta has always inspired it’s children with Spaniards well to the fore. When it comes to stage wins the ‘Home Boys’ always reach deep into their top hats to find a rabbit with Daniel Navarro at last giving Cofidis something to smile about.
We had a feeling that Quintana would find it very hard to continue in this Vuelta – whilst the man is hugely talented he’s not at the level he was in the Giro and to make up three minutes on Messrs. Contador, Rodriguez and Valverde was never going to be easy. His morale was in his boots anyway but then fate intervened, down he went on the stage from Pamplona and the Media can stop asking daft questions about imaginary feuds in the Movistar camp.
Alberto Contador Velasco (Tinkoff & Spain) pulled on the red jersey, raised his bouquet to his adoring fans in Borja then offered his clenched right fist up to his chest. The man has a big heart in there, for sure – all that was missing was Kiss pumping on the PA, ‘Back in the New York Groove,’ the line which goes; ‘this place was meant for me!’
Stage Nine to Valdelinares; a horrible day after the baking heat of Andalucía - but joy at last for Lampre with Anacona after the Ulissi and Horner debacles. But where the hell is Pippo? Perfect tactics from Movistar; "we’ve got a man in the break, why would we chase?..." And they keep the jersey – and despite the best efforts of the Media to rustle up a feud, Quintana and Valverde seem to us to be working a perfect ‘one – two.’
On Stage Eight to Albacete, once the break got caught with around 20 miles to go it looked like standard sprinter stage fare – Giant, Lampre, F de J and GreenEDGE would control it for their sprinters, with Nacer Bouhanni prominent.
As Dario Cioni once told us; ‘sometimes it’s nice for the big teams to get it wrong and the break to stay away.’ Big Italian Alessandro De Marchi was originally a team pursuit rider and paid his dues for three years in the low budget but big achieving Androni squad before stepping up to the World Tour with Cannondale, last year.
Alessandro Valverde was hugely impressive – not the shadow of himself we saw in the last week of the Tour. It’s like Robert Millar said; ‘there comes a day when you have to stop dreaming.’ That day was yesterday for many as we were reminded of the savagery of professional bike racing at the highest levels. There were no interlopers – just the best of the best, all of the pre-race favourites trying their best to waste each other on that horrible grind to the line.
We have to start betting ‘each way’ – yesterday we said; ‘Michael Matthews’ and he was third, today we said; ‘Nacer Bouhanni’ and he was second. And much as we admire the wiry Frenchman, John Degenkolb was 100% correct when he said of Bouhanni’s complaint about the German shutting the door on him; ‘on the right side there was only the barriers.’
We weren’t so far away with our tip for the win in Cordoba, Michael Matthews the GreenEDGE Aussie was third and held on to his race lead; but we should slap out own wrists for not mentioning Germany’s Giant, John Degenkolb – the man to watch when gravity is involved and rains on the ‘pure’ fast men's parade.
We’re feeling a bit smug, this morning, on the eve of Stage Three we said; ‘It could be one for the breakaway but GreenEDGE may control it for Clarke and Michael Matthews – and maybe Yates?’ And they man they call ‘Bling’ due to his penchant for jewellery proved us correct. The 23 year-old from Canberra again proved that in an uphill finish, if his motivation is good – there’s a little question mark over his grinta - then he’s very hard to beat.
Stage Two had been hailed as one where the cross winds could blow things apart from the off but fortunately the Weather Gods remained benign and we were treated to a high speed finale where F des J and Nacer Bouhanni demonstrated again that they know exactly how to handle fast, technical finales. The wiry Frenchman was in a class all of his own after a beautiful lead out by his boys and in particular last man in the train, Geoffrey Soupe who rode a magnificent finale for his Capo.
Movistar win Stage One in Jerez de la Frontera – no surprises, then. Perhaps we could have expected more from reigning World TTT Champions, QuickStep but with Tony Martin just back after a break and a technical parcours where it would have been easy to pile up, the Belgian team took no chances and finished fifth.
Leo Lonig was with NetApp in 2012 and there was a TTT win in the Coppi-Bartali, a third on GC in the Tour of Utah and stage win in the Tour of Britain. But this year has seen him reach the highest level in the sport with stage wins in two World Tour races and sit eighth on GC in one of the World’s greatest races as the climax approaches. And that’s not to mention a stage and GC win in the Czech Cycling Tour along the way. VeloVeritas caught up with Leo on the Vuelta’s second rest day.
Degenkolb made it five; it was no surprise - we all knew the break was doomed. But it was good for the estimated 100,000 spectators around the course - and for the TV. It's never a chore to watch the best riders in the world hammer round the streets of a beautiful city. There were photo ops aplenty on the finish circuit; beautiful buildings, street cafes, fountains - not just 'boys on bikes.' And we won a watch with the finale; ambling onto a grandstand with 100 metres to go as the last lap desperation reached fever pitch.
The rain stings past the entrance to the ski lift at 45 degrees and tries its damnedest to puncture the metal sheets on the roof; thunder roars in and echoes around the concrete walls, lightning sparks across the dark sky, the air temperature has dropped from a pleasant Spanish summer's afternoon to January on Porty Prom. Welcome to the Bola del Mundo; they say it's the toughest climb in European cycling - we believe it. We've been up to Covadonga a time or two and the Angliru, plus most of the Giro and Tour 'biggies', but this is evil.
Hola ! It's a bit like being in a Vuelta sprinters' stage, this morning. Dry tundra, deserted low rise blocks to the left and right and all under a cloudless high plains sky. It just needs us to catch sight of David Moncoutie sitting at the back of the peloton. Yes, VeloVeritas is in Spain, headed for the Bola del Mundo.
Daniele Bennati saved his season and Radio Shack’s Vuelta with a perfectly timed sprint into Valladolid on Thursday afternoon. The perma-tanned fast man with the religious bent was just too quick for Sky’s Ben Swift who looked under-geared in the charge for the line. Sky got Swift’s lead out just right but ‘Benna’ was the smartest, freewheeling a few times in the finale to keep the heart rate down and then timing his bike through perfectly to pip Swift on the line.
There were no ‘pistolero’ gestures – it wasn’t a moment for playing to the photo opportunity. Just sheer joy of a man being back where he belongs – if you’ve taken the knocks and clawed back, then you’ll know that feeling. Alberto Contador Velasco has taken the knocks; he was close to death in 2004 when he suffered a cerebral cavernoma during the Vuelta a Asturias; in 2009 he had to fight not only the other 21 teams in the race but also half of his own Astana team as Lance made his ill-starred return; and he had to watch as his name was crossed off last year’s Giro result as a result of a controversial ‘positive.’ A slight, wiry man, simpatico and approachable, he’s not a seeker of the limelight off the bike – but on that Specialized he’s a ruthless, killer.
Dario Cataldo (QuickStep & Italy) took the biggest win of his life; Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM & Belgium) had his heart broken; Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha & Spain) took a huge step towards winning his first Grand Tour; Chris Froome (Sky & GB) realised you really can’t race the Tour and Vuelta to win in the same season and Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff & Spain) reminded us how champions race. Many are saying an ‘epic’ day – I’m not so sure; perhaps I’ve spent too much time with Viktor but the rush to find ever more dizzy climbs leaves me a little cold.
We’ve all had them, those days when the pedals just turn and the sensations are good – Antonio Piedra (Caja Rural & Spain) had one, today. The 26 year-old from Seville was part of a break which went away early; originally 19 strong it split on a climb, with 10 making it all the way to the 13 kilometre slopes which lead 1135 metres up to the glacial lakes of Covadonga.
It's been a while in the Vuelta since anybody won (at least) three stages whilst in the leader's jersey - in fact we reckon the last time was in 1995 when Team ONCE rider Laurent Jalabert won a total of five stages, four of them whilst in the race lead, on his way to dominating the event by winning overall, leading his squad to the Team Competition, as well as taking the Mountains and Points Classifications too. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) may well be intent on replicating that feat this year, as today he took his third stage, taking the race to the others and exploiting his amazing uphill sprinting abilities by out-kicking Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) at Puerto de Ancares, the first of three consecutive stage summit finishes.
‘It’s awfully early,’ I thought to myself when I saw Degenkolb’s Argos boys commit with 50 K to go. And so it proved, there was a lot of fire power in the seven man break; Italian fast man Elia Viviani (Liquigas), hard working Linus Gerdemann (Shack), harder than nails Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky), Giro podium finisher Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM), GreenEDGE flyers Cameron Meyer and Simon Clarke – the latter already a stage winner in this race. And a certain Mr Steve Cummings from the BMC Racing team.
A four minute lead for a breakaway with 20 K to go would normally be a pretty safe bet – but not when Katusha and Movistar go on the rampage. Mikel Astarloza (Euskaltel), Cameron Meyer (GreenEdge), Amael Moinard (BMC) and Kevin De Weert (QuickStep) weren’t pottering along, they were spelling hard and all of them were committed to the move.
How could we overlook Fred? He won the TT in the Tour of Switzerland - beating Cancellara in the process - then pushed TV hard for the polka dot jersey in le Tour. He says he's no 'pure tester,' but if there's a big climb and a technical descent then Fred's your man.
Degenkolb! He thrust four fingers into the air and that was that. Bouhanni was closer than he has been before, Bennati and The Shack didn’t do much wrong, but the Argos man has the head and the legs. And on this stage up in the far north west of Spain billed as, ‘the easiest of the race’ there wasn’t much doubt about who was going to win once it became apparent that it was going to finish in a bunch sprint.
Joaquim Rodriguez is building on the foundation of respect he laid at the Giro. The little Catalan isn’t sitting around waiting on Froome bludgeoning him in the ‘contra reloj’ on Wednesday; he’s riding like a champion, ‘la course en tete’ – at the head of the race. The TV camera doesn’t do the Montjuich climb justice, it’s seriously savage.
Chris Froome lost more time to race leader Joaquim Rodriguez today, all in the final 500 metres, as Alejandro Valverde and JR jumped clear of him and chased after Alberto Contador, who had got a gap of 100 metres over the three, with just a kilometre to go. Valverde and JR caught Contador in the last few metres, crossing the line in that order, but Contador in third place only wanted to know where Froome was, waited and looked back to see the Sky rider arrive 15 seconds later - not good for the Brit but he's still in second place, so no disaster either.
Not for the first time, Vik took the words right out of my mouth; "You can’t have a bike race finishing on a motor racing circuit, it just doesn’t work!" And he’s right; too wide, too bleak, no atmosphere and almost no spectators. Degenkold was mightily impressive, again. For all the talk of watts and tactics, sprinting is a mental game – if a sprinter’s head is right, then everything else drops into place. It’s why Cav is so hard to beat – his self belief is total.
You have to be impressed by Sky’s riding. There was no show boating or ‘riding into the climb’ – they only went to the front when it really counted. Henao is strong, as I said in the PEZ Vuelta preview; ‘Ninth in the Giro, third in Poland and second in Burgos; those are solid results.
Argos’s John Degenkolb was ‘speechless’ about his second stage win; but did manage to say that the last K was crazy fast and his team did a great job for him – that sounds about right. I think his last lead out man was Koen De Kort - who delivered his German team mate perfectly.
Echelons formed, Froome turned killer, Valverde was ambushed, the podium shook itself into shape early and a nice guy won. If that sounds exciting – it was. The Vuelta may only be four stages old, but it’s shaping up to be one cracker of a race. A break of five cleared off early and whilst it slowly decomposed on the last climb, world time trial champion Tony Martin (QuickStep) and Simon Clarke (GreenEDGE) held on doggedly to contest the finish.
Sprinters? As my old work buddy, Sam Johnston used to reply, when asked what had become of his ‘hot tip’ for the 3:45 at Kempton Park; ‘they’re still out looking for it – with lanterns!’ Stage three was no day for the sprinters; what VeloVeritas had failed to appreciate was that ‘Arrate’ was as in ‘Subida a Arrate’ mountain race – as won by Luis Ocana, Marino Lejarreta, Francisco Galdos, Johan de Muunck and Raymond Poulidor. No big, bulging thighs among those names.
We’re so lucky with televised cycling in 2012. I returned from my 500 metre run back from the Dalriada Bar on Joppa sea front on the ‘fixie’ – having easily distanced Marlene on her Giant shopper – and there was the Vuelta TTT repeat on Eurosport. Perfect; I didn’t catch it live on Saturday night – that’s ‘pictures night,’ TTT or not. In case you’re wondering, we saw Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Notorious’ with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman at the Filmhouse.
The Rabobank boys sat on their "hotseats' for over 30 minutes, as team after team came close to their time of 19 minutes and 1 second for the opening stage of the 2012 Vuelta, but failed to surpass it. When Team Sky arrived and just missed the target time by a couple of seconds and then Bert's Saxo-Tinkoff boys were four seconds too slow, the relief on the faces of Dutchmen Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam was there for all to see.
Santander airport, the queues are horrible and we'll have another one for the Stansted to Prestwick flight, no doubt. After yesterday's grim weather we're bathed in beautiful sunshine today. The stage start was in GijÃ³n so we rattled up from Cangas de Onis for our last look at the 2010 Vuelta. We went for a 'last words' approach and trawled the bus park for quotable quotes - some of the buses were in 'lock down' mode, the riders only dashing out for the start...
Carlos Barredo's grandmother wells up, 'my God, my God' she keeps repeating as Carlos's amigo hugs her - the man himself hurtled past just seconds ago to join the immortals as a winner on the Lagos de Covadonga. They're standing beside us at the 150m to go mark, and in the mist and cloud once again, QuickStep have done the job. The break survivors limp by before a snarling Ezequiel Mosquera flashes past, intent on putting as much time into the other 'heads' as he possibly can.
It's 10:00 pm and we've just finished dinner in our 'local' at Cangas de Onis, we were here last night too. The Mahou is cold, the food is good and the wi-fi is free. It's a working dinner, words and pictures get dealt with in between patatas bravas and chorizo. 'Lagos de Covadonga' - one of the Vuelta legends.
'Why do you want to go further, nothing is there?' the cute park ranger asks us; she's guarding the last section of the fabled climb. We're beside Lago Enol, one of the beautiful Lagos de Covadonga and we need to drive the finale to complete our mission for the day. 'Two minutes?' we plead with her - 'you have ten and then I come looking for you!' she smiles. She's right, low cloud, grass, rock and no lightweight climbers - just a lone Asturian cow...
The Vuelta presentation was in Sevilla this year (normally Madrid), the start town of next year's race. Some of the old stars of cycling where in attendance; Thevenet, Olano, Hinault and introducing the show Pedro Delgado. Hinault pointed out that one of his hardest day on a bike was the stage to Avila in 1983 which he won stage and overall.
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