Vuelta a España review: Round-table part 1 – The race and the riders

 

If we’re being honest, at VeloVoices Towers we’re still recovering from a magnificent Vuelta. Sure, some of those little speed bumps were a bit steep in places and the riders had to get a bit sweaty at times. But, honestly, they didn’t have to write 50-plus posts totalling over 30,000 words covering the race. Sheesh. Get a sense of perspective, fellas. We’re working hard here.

Anyhow, while the riders are enjoying a well-earned rest we’ve been reliving the last three weeks and discussing our highlights and lowlights from the race. With Panache satellite-linking to VeloVoices Towers from the Peloton Pentagon in Washington DC, here’s part one of our round-table discussion, starting with the race and the riders.

I think we’re all agreed that Alberto Contador was a worthy winner. But what are our thoughts about Joaquim Rodriguez?

Sheree: I thought Rodriguez had the race in the bag. He turned in his best performance ever in a time trial and then was able to respond to all of Contador’s stinging attacks and more, particularly on those three stages over the second weekend. His error may have been spending much of the second rest day in bed and not going for a ride. His legs would have been heavy the following day. He didn’t respond to Contador and Valverde’s initial attack, paving the way for Contador’s ultimately decisive race-winning strike. Katusha failed to appreciate the danger and responded far too late and with too few men – game over – on a seemingly innocuous stage. Tactical genius!

Three stages but no jerseys as Rodriguez fell just short (image courtesy of Katusha)

Tim: Poor Purito. For so long he has had to put up with people questioning his time-trialling and his stamina in three-week races. Having addressed the first issue, he got mugged on Fuente Dé by the brilliance of Contador. But where were his Katusha teammates? Contador was beautifully set up by his Saxo-Tinkoff team. Purito’s guys went AWOL when he needed them most. I fear his best opportunity to achieve a Grand Tour win has now eluded him. Is he destined to be one of cycling’s nearly men? A modern-day Poulidor?

Kathi: I really wanted Rodriguez to win. He put so much heart and soul into his riding. And the fact that he lost this year’s Giro on the last stage too. But Contador really wanted this to prove he’s back and as good as ever. I can’t believe Purito and Katusha didn’t see the danger of him riding away. That said, J-Rod’s attack on Saturday’s climb just made me admire him even more. It was gruelling and he wasn’t going to put enough time into Contador but he did want to get the better of Valverde. Shame he couldn’t get enough of a gap. But he certainly made this Vuelta one of the best Grand Tours ever.

Panache: J-Rod is an incredible rider and he’s had a heck of a season. What a joy it was to watch him, Valverde and Contador continually throw punches at each other. Contador, however, was always the protagonist, attacking on his terms. Meanwhile, Purito and Valverde seemed to be relegated to either matching Alberto or occasionally counter-attacking. This revealed that Contador was the strongest. I feel for Purito. His first two weeks were brilliant but he has yet to show he has what it takes to win over three weeks.

Jack: I agree with Tim, and am left fearing that Purito’s best chance of winning a Grand Tour has disappeared. He managed to stick with the best climber of the current generation in the mountains, and rode the greatest time trial he ever has. Quite simply, he lost this race on an off-day for not just himself but the entire Katusha team, who got their tactics so badly wrong. Nothing should be taken away from Contador though, as he was simply sensational on that stage. This race with so little time-trialling and so many steep finishes was close to ideal for Rodriguez. I’m not convinced we’ll ever see such a Purito-friendly parcours again.

Tim: It just goes to show that you can’t let your guard drop at any time in a three-week race, even on a ‘quiet’ day. The great Grand Tour winners leave nothing to chance.

John Degenkolb: was he really that good, or did he just look brilliant in a relatively weak group of sprinters?

Tim: Somewhere in between. For sure, the Argonauts have one of the best sprint trains out there, Degenkolb possesses great speed and timing, and he was clearly the best sprinter in the race. Plus he’s young and will only get better. But without Cavendish, Greipel, Sagan, Goss and co, Daniele Bennati was his only consistent competition. Hats off to Degenkolb, though. You don’t win five stages in any Grand Tour without having something special.

This became a familiar sight during the Vuelta (image courtesy of Monika Prell)

Panache: A huge part of being a consistently winning sprinter is developing confidence by dominating. Degenkolb just gained miles of confidence from this Vuelta. He didn’t choose his competition but he certainly dominated those who did show up. However, I agree with Tim. Because of the absence of the Manx Missile, the Gorilla, the Velvet Samurai and the Harley, it’s hard to evaluate how good Degenkolb really is.

Jack: As the cliche goes, you can only beat what is in front of you. There’s no doubt that Bennati, Swift and co are nowhere near the standard of the top sprinters, but nevertheless Degenkolb and his team rode an excellent race against much more experienced sprinters.

Sheree: Hats off to Degenkolb, for sticking with it and getting over all those monster climbs. He’s won himself more supporters with his charming post-race interviews and given his confidence a big shot in the arm with all those stage wins.

Kathi: I agree with Sheree. He may not have won that many stages against the bigger names but they weren’t there so who cares? His accomplishments – and the Argonauts in general – shouldn’t be dismissed. They animated the race on the day. His wins will also give him confidence against the bigger names when he does come up against them.

Like Rodriguez, in other circumstances Chris Froome could have won in two of this year’s three Grand Tours. What does he need to do to break his duck?

Kitty: I might get into trouble because people will think I’m dissing Sky but I don’t care. I think Sky’s Plan A (with no Plan B) was incredibly arrogant – they just assumed they could boss the race like they did in the Tour de France with seemingly no understanding that the parcours was almost opposite that of the Tour and that the greatest Grand Tour rider in the peloton – Contador – was back and wasn’t going to be bossed around by anyone! They underestimated – for which, read disrespected  – the other riders. And they got a serious spanking. As for Froome, I have nothing against him, but he wasn’t up to it. If he’d won the Tour, he still wouldn’t have won this Vuelta. If he hadn’t ridden the Tour, he still wouldn’t have won this Vuelta.

A race too far for Froome the Vroom (image courtesy of Susi Goetze)

Sheree: I’m not sure it’s possible to win two Grand Tours, no one’s done it in recent times other than Alberto in 2008 (Giro and Vuelta) but even then it wasn’t in succession. Remember, even he failed to win the Giro and then the Tour in 2011. To win, Froome needs a not dissimilar parcours to this year’s Tour, one with plenty of time-trialling kilometres and long grinding climbs, he needs the A-team for support and a great wing-man. If he stays at Sky, at some point it’ll fall into place for him. Oh and he needs not to have to ride against Contador.

Panache: Sheree is spot on. Winning back-to-back Grand Tours with the type of ridiculous parcours we saw in this Vuelta is next to impossible. Have you seen Chris Froome lately? He looks like a depleted bag of bones. Thank goodness his girlfriend, Michelle Cound, has purchased a giant tub of Nutella to help him recover. We were all shouting #FreeChrisFroome but now we need to #FeedChrisFroome! Congratulations to him on an incredible season!

Jack: The key point is that he can’t ride two Grand Tours so soon after each other. There was no hope of him repeating his Tour heroics with a win here, and even on top form I highly doubt he could live with Purito and Pistolero on such a tough parcours. He needs fewer steep climbs and more time-trialling kilometres to be in with a chance.

Tim: Completely agree with all of the above, including Kitty’s assertion that Sky got it horribly wrong. Wherever Froome rides next year, he needs to be the undisputed number one in the team full stop – not just in this one race. That means the entire year’s calendar is built around him – as Sky’s 2012 was around Wiggins – and he has the best and freshest possible team when he needs it most, not just the post-Tour leftovers. Here Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao were excellent, but Richie Porte – who did some monster turns at the Tour – was cooked by the end of the first week. At his best and on the right course (for him), Froome is a match for anyone – except Bertie. Equally though, he’s not ten minutes worse than him as he was here. And if he can stay in touch, he will always have a chance.

Which rider or team surprised and delighted you during the race?

Panache: I’ve already doted on the three magnificent Spaniards, and I really can’t say enough about the team support of Movistar and Saxo. Brilliant stuff. I think the biggest surprise for me was young Andrew Talansky. He showed grit and determination (with little help from teammates) that bodes well for the future. Laurens Ten Dam, a.k.a. the Wolf Man, also impressed by improving his form after the Tour into the Vuelta.

Kitty: I’ve been for Purito the whole way, so I don’t need to talk about that. I would say, however, it was Contador that was the biggest revelation for me. I have always been indifferent to him but now that we’ve been through Grand Tours without him and one with him in great attacking form, my appreciation for him and his ability to bust a race wide open is off the charts. Oh, and I love those Argonauts! And PhilGil is back! Hurrah!

Sheree: Ha, I knew you’d eventually come to appreciate Bertie, though I realise you may never love him like the one and only Fabian.

Clarke was a revelation (image courtesy of Orica-GreenEDGE)

Jack: I love Alberto Contador, but while his performance delighted me I can’t say it surprised me. For that I’d say Alejandro Valverde, another rider I quite like despite his disappointing reaction to his doping ban. I was sceptical about whether he had what it took to compete at the top again – particularly in the Grand Tours – and he’s proven me completely wrong. A superb and fully deserved place on the podium. Elsewhere, a rider I love, Ten Dam’s eighth place was a superb result. Finally, a fond farewell for Grischa Niermann, a German who has been at Rabobank for almost his entire career. A loyal domestique, he’ll no doubt make an excellent addition to his team’s backroom staff.

Tim: There’s always something lovely about seeing a wild-card team mix it with the big boys and coming good. So the performances of Argos-Shimano and Caja Rural, with Antonio Piedra’s victory on the Covadonga, were particularly pleasing. But I would also single out Simon Clarke for his first pro win and Steve Cummings for what amounted to a 4km solo time trial to earn his victory.

Sheree: I always love it when someone wins from a breakaway, registers their maiden Grand Tour win or first professional victory. So I would also say Clarke, Piedra and Cummings – well done, lads.

And who disappointed?

No KoM title this year for the retiring Moncoutie (image courtesy of Cofidis)

Tim: I’m not so much disappointed by as disappointed for David Moncoutie, who was hoping to put the full stop on his long career with a fifth consecutive King of the Mountains title. But he was outgunned by the big names on the big stages, and outsmarted by Simon Clarke when it came to racking up the points. Sadly, he departed with more of a whimper than a bang. Adieu, David. Thanks for some great memories.

Sheree: I’m with Tim on this one and I blame his team for making him race the Tour, when he said he’d rather not. You may recall he crashed out on a descent and probably wasn’t in optimal form coming into the Vuelta, although mountain points have been hard to come by and one has to applaud Simon Clarke’s nous.

Jack: Agree with Tim and Sheree. Gutted for Moncoutie.

Kitty: I can’t think of anyone who has disappointed me, to be honest.

Panache: I’ve got to say Thomas De Gendt. I was hoping to see a repeat of his Giro magic. I waited and waited but it never happened. And Kitty is always disappointed by how hairy De Gendt appears.

Kitty: I’m always disappointed by bad facial hair, no matter who it’s on.

In part two tomorrow we’ll discuss the other key talking points from the Vuelta.

Link: Vuelta a Espana official website

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