With two summit finishes in the first three days of this year’s Vuelta a Espana, all eyes were focussed on the top contenders to make an early statement and claim a psychologically-boosting victory. However, few would have predicted either of the victors on Sunday and Monday’s stages: Saxo-Tinkoff’s Nicolas Roche and RadioShack-Leopard veteran Chris Horner.
But should we have been surprised that so-called lesser names stood atop the two end-of-stage podiums? Not really. Here’s why.
Little to gain, much to lose
First and foremost, these are just the opening skirmishes of a three-week war of attrition, where the potential small gains carry too great a cost in terms of effort. There are three Important considerations to bear in mind.
1. No one wants to defend the red jersey – yet. As the saying goes, nobody ever wins a grand tour in the opening week – and none more so than this Vuelta with its 11 summit finishes. For the GC contenders these opening days are all about minimising both their own and their team’s energy expenditure.
So although Astana held the red jersey for the first two stages, they never had any intention of attempting to defend it throughout the entire race – an energy-draining and inevitably futile task given the massed ranks of Movistar, Sky, Katusha and others. The same goes for their key rivals who, without the burden of the race lead, can conserve energy for later in the race.
The ideal scenario was for Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali to give up the jersey to a strong climber with no realistic chance of overall victory, whose team would be willing to defend the lead for as long as possible. RadioShack and Horner fit the bill perfectly – a win-win which suits all parties, at least until a split in the bunch yesterday caused Horner to hand the lead back to Nibali. Back to square one for Astana!
2. Big efforts for small gains. While the two summit finishes were designed to create time splits, the gaps were always likely to be small. Neither was of the ultimate level of difficulty of, say, the Angliru (stage 20) or Valdepenas de Jaen (stage nine). There was no prospect of one rider being able to put a minute into his rivals and therefore little incentive to put in a big effort for just a handful of seconds.
3. Time bonuses. Finally, there is the additional wrinkle of time bonuses – ten, six and four seconds for the first three finishers. However, at this early stage where the top riders are more concerned with not losing time than gaining it, it actually suits them to allow an attack to swallow up the bonuses and allow them to roll leisurely across the line together and record the same time, rather than sprinting it out.
With those influencing factors in mind, let’s quickly review how Roche and Horner came to record their respective victories.
Stage 2: Patience the key for Roche
There has never been any question that Nicolas Roche – son of 1987 Giro and Tour champion Stephen – is a talented rider. But his first career grand tour victory finally arrived through a combination of right time/right place and the patience to wait to launch the winning move at the right moment.
Actually, Roche made three key moves, The first of these was a non-move: not responding to Leopold Konig‘s (NetApp-Endura) acceleration 1.4km from the summit. The Czech climber had won the queen stage at this year’s Tour of California in similar fashion, but here Roche patiently remained near the front of the lead group, waiting for the right moment.
That moment came about 50 seconds later as Daniel Moreno, the wing-man of Katusha leader Joaquim Rodriguez, surged forward, providing both Roche and Ag2r’s Domenico Pozzovivo with a wheel to follow as they made the junction to Konig under the flamme rouge.
Having bridged across with the minimum of effort, Roche sat third in line behind Konig and Moreno, biding his time for the endgame. In classic attacking style, Pozzovivo jumped from the back of the group with 500 metres to go, and Roche was ready. He wound up his own acceleration, quickly reeling in and passing the Ag2r man and speeding on to the finish to win by two seconds.
With Moreno and Pozzovivo mopping up the remaining bonuses, this meant all the GC contenders (excluding Samuel Sanchez and a hunger-flatting Sergio Henao) were able to cross the line together without any time differences. Job done, as far as they were concerned.
Here’s the video of the closing moments of the stage. Konig’s initial attack starts at 0:50.
Stage 3: Man-marking benefits Horner
Sometimes the difference between glorious success and valiant failure is equal parts timing and luck. Where Konig fell short the day before, Chris Horner rolled the dice and rode to victory, taking advantage of the favourites’ focus on man-marking each other to become both the oldest stage winner and race leader in grand tour history.
Cruelly described as a ‘flat’ stage, a concluding 4km climb at an average of 5% ensured this would be a classics-style finish rather than a first bunch sprint.
Horner’s decisive attack came just before the flamme rouge, launching himself on one of the steepest sections to chase down earlier solo attacker Ivan Santaromita (BMC). The 41-year-old easily passed the Italian national champion and made hay while behind him the big GC names kept their eyes firmly on each other, each refusing to make the first move in pursuit of the American, who crossed the line with a three-second cushion.
The one big difference versus the previous day, however, was the availability of the time bonuses for second and third place, ensuring a genuine sprint for the line to give us an initial indication of form. Valverde edged out Rodriguez for third to underline the strong legs they carried out of last month’s Tour, with Rigoberto Uran (Sky), Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) and Bauke Mollema (Belkin) in close attendance. Perhaps tellingly, Nibali was 11th, supporting his claims that he started this Vuelta with only 75% fitness as he looks to build towards his ‘home’ World Championships road race in Tuscany.
Here’s the video of the end of the stage. Horner makes his move at about 1:45.
Will we see more surprises?
Looking forward to the end of the week and the three consecutive summit finishes on stages 8-10, there is a good chance that either a breakaway or a late attacker could claim victory on any of those days.
As the first of the three, stage eight’s cat 1 finish at Alto Penas Blancas may see the GC men keep their powder dry, allowing another unexpected winner. Stage nine’s punchy finish at Valdepenas de Jaen, where the incline approaches 30% in places – Rodriguez won here last time in 2011 – will be spectacular but will result only in small gaps. And finally stage ten’s super-category finish at Alto Hazallanas is likely to end up as a pre-rest day shootout between the big names, but it’s also possible that a tired peloton in their tenth straight day of racing may allow a breakaway to chase the win and the glory of the red jersey, while the GC contenders slug it out some distance behind.
Even in the final week, as the GC battle comes to a head with a decisive three-day stretch finishing at the top of the Angliru, opportunities remain. After all, last year’s race featured four high mountain stages in its final eight days, but only one was won by one of the favourites, with the other three falling to non-contenders: Antonio Piedra at Lagos de Covadonga, Dario Cataldo on Cuitu Negru and Denis Menchov on Bola del Mundo. Indeed, it will only be a surprise if there are no surprise mountain winners at this Vuelta. That’s all part of the beauty of cycling, though.