As the ‘latest’ – in terms of both age and position in the calendar – of cycling’s three Grand Tours, the Vuelta a España is often downgraded by casual fans because it comes so soon after the Tour de France (less than four weeks this year) and consequently tends to be missing many of the big names. However, I rather like it for that exact reason, as it often becomes a proving ground for rising new talent to emerge on to the big stage on a parcours which is typically far more adventurous than its French ASO stable-mate.
For instance, last year saw breakthrough wins on their Grand Tour debuts for sprinters Marcel Kittel and some Slovakian fellow named Peter Sagan. (Whatever happened to him, eh?) Juan Jose Cobo took a surprise overall victory, and Chris Froome emerged as a genuine three-week contender.
So who has caught my eye in the opening week of the Vuelta? Let’s run the rule over three riders who have seized their opportunity with both hands – or should that be both wheels?
Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar)
It was surprising enough that it was Movistar who won Saturday’s opening team time trial in Pamplona, but I doubt anyone would have guessed the identity of the Vuelta’s first race leader. Castroviejo was the first rider across the finish line for the team, and consequently claimed the red jersey ahead of defending champion Cobo and 2009 winner Alejandro Valverde.
With hindsight, we should not have been surprised by his impressive strength over the closing few hundred metres. The 25-year old Basque is that rarest of Spanish riders: a time trial specialist. Having spent two years with Euskaltel-Euskadi after two years in their feeder Orbea squad, he moved to Movistar this season.
His most notable victories prior to this year’s Vuelta have all come in shorter time trial/prologue stages. He took the 3.5km prologue at the 2011 Tour de Romandie ahead of notable names such as Taylor Phinney, David Millar and Geraint Thomas, and was an impressive ninth – just three seconds behind overall winner Cadel Evans – in the longer 20.1km individual time trial which followed later in the race. He has also won the opening ITT stage of the Vuelta Ciclista a la Comunidad de Madrid (in each case over 7.8km) two years running.
His form in recent weeks has also been impressive. A strong ninth in the Olympic time trial, he was tenth in the highly competitive 17.4km ITT at the recent Eneco Tour and showed he could climb a bit too by coming 13th on the concluding queen stage up the Muur van Geraardsbergen, which propelled him to sixth overall.
After taking the red jersey, Castroviejo seemed as surprised as anyone by his achievement:
The first goal of Movistar was to win the opening stage because of racing at home. This is a beautiful moment of my life. At the meeting this morning, we didn’t speak about who should cross the line first. We only mentioned that it was a very difficult finale with cobblestones. We thought it would be tight at the end, so we’ve given 100%. It’s marvellous.
Having safely defended the overall lead on stage two, he finished 1:52 down on the Alto de Arrate the following day, relinquishing the coveted jersey. However, it will have given him considerable consolation to have handed it over to teammate and compatriot Valverde. He will now go back to domestique duties for the rest of the race, but watch out for him on the stage 11 ITT, where he will be aiming for a high placing. I doubt we have seen the last of this talented rider.
John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano)
I’ve been following both the 23-year old German and his compatriot Marcel Kittel with interest since last summer, when both started claiming some notable scalps in major races. I was particularly intrigued to see who would emerge on top when Degenkolb joined Kittel at Argos-Shimano at the start of this season in the battle to be the next generation’s Andre Greipel. For much of this year, Kittel has shaded the intra-team rivalry, winning the semi-classic Scheldeprijs one-day race and being the Argonauts’ lead man at the Tour de France. But stomach problems knocked him out early on, putting the team’s Grand Tour aspirations for the year squarely on the broad shoulders of Degenkolb at the Vuelta.
Degenkolb has a large, powerful presence – not dissimilar to Greipel – which he is able to convert into prodigious explosiveness in the sprints. He first caught my eye at the Critérium du Dauphiné last year where, riding for HTC-Highroad, he took two impressive wins. With Mark Cavendish’s early withdrawal from the Vuelta he became HTC’s de facto sprinter, but could only manage a second, third and fourth.
His first half of 2012 lacked a marquee win but nonetheless produced some impressive Classics results – fifth at Milan-San Remo, sixth at E3 Harelbeke – and two victories each at the Tour de Picardie and Four Days of Dunkirk. But it is only in the past month that he has really hit the heights. A win at the Tour of Poland showed he was in fine fettle ahead of the Vuelta, where he has emerged as the dominant sprinter so far. He grabbed his first Grand Tour victory as he powered past Ben Swift and Allan Davis in the closing metres of stage two, and then added his second in similar style as he accelerated past Daniele Bennati to grab stage five and the lead in the points classification. Number three quickly followed two days later at Alcaniz.
I wouldn’t say Degenkolb is quite ready yet to challenge the likes of Cavendish and Greipel in a major bunch sprint. But he soon might well be.
Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE)
The 26-year old Aussie has paid his dues in the peloton and is now beginning to emerge as a rider in his fourth year as a road pro. His breakaway win in a two-up sprint against world time trial champion Tony Martin on stage four’s summit finish at Estación de Valdezcaray was his first as a professional – and his first of any description in over four years – but it was thoroughly deserved.
Clarke had earmarked the stage as his best opportunity before the race. He planned diligently for it, to the extent that he deliberately lost time the previous day to improve his chances of being allowed to slip away in a break, as he explained after the stage:
I really wanted to come to my first Grand Tour and win a stage. Knowing that I could only do it from breaking away, I took the opportunity to finish as far back as I could yesterday to give myself more chances to be free to go away from the bunch. I gave everything to make the break today.
With Tony Martin, we had to attack from the bottom [of the final climb] to get rid of the three other riders. I made sure that Tony would take the last corner in front of me. I waited for the last opportunity to outsprint him. I’m so happy to get my first win since I turned pro four years ago.
A former junior track world champion (in 2004) in the team pursuit, Clarke started his road career with the Australian Institute of Sport squad, with whom he took victories in 2008 at the San Vendemiano criterium and a stage of the Tour of Japan. In 2009, he moved up to the short-lived Amica Chips-Knauf team. After they folded mid-season, he was picked up by ISD-Neri (now Farnese Vini-Serre Italia) before joining Astana for 2011 and then GreenEDGE this season.
Often riding in support of more senior riders, he gradually accumulated a smattering of minor placings in mostly smaller races before achieving a seventh place at last year’s Vattenfall Cyclassics. 2012 has been by far his most successful campaign, finishing fifth at the early season Tour du Haut Var, second overall at the Tour of Norway and then bagging a brace of third places at the recent Vuelta a Burgos. So his strong form here came as little surprise. Now that he has finally tasted life on the top step of the podium, he’ll be hoping his maiden victory will be the springboard for bigger and better things.