Talking Tactics: Expecting the unexpected at the Vuelta

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.

Who can honestly say they predicted this? Not us, that's for sure ... (Image: Vuelta website)

Who can honestly say they predicted this? Not us, that’s for sure (Image: Vuelta website)

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.

Stage 2 profile

Stage 2 profile

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.

With about 800 metres to go, Roche is well positioned third in line (Image: Eurosport footgae)

With about 800 metres to go, Roche is well positioned third in line (Image: Eurosport footage)

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.

Vuelta 2013 Stage 3 profile

Stage 3 profile

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.

6 thoughts on “Talking Tactics: Expecting the unexpected at the Vuelta

  1. I’ve always felt this not protecting the leaders jersey in the first week thing is a bit of a superstition/old wife’s tale. If you’re prepared to lose the jersey (as Saxo-Tinkoff were) then it makes no difference when you get it as long as you have it on the last day. If you have a plan and end up “accidentally” taking the race lead too early, you can either just stick to the plan and let it go or try to maintain it. I’m pretty sure there’s no difference to winning it day 1, losing it day 2 then getting it back a week later than just getting it on day 8 or 9.

    Obviously sponsors love to see the jersey kept within the team but if your GC plan involves conserving energy, why would losing it matter? Surely an opportunistic stage win or two earlier on and later chasing the GC would be better?

    All that said though, cycling is a mass of superstitions so why should this one be anything unusual?

    • Did Saxo give up the jersey willingly, though? Roche lost it by virtue of Horner getting the 10-second win bonus, but it looked like all the contenders were battling for second and third at the end. I suspect they’d have been happy to hold on to the lead for a few more days, as they don’t really have a big GC favourite otherwise.

      I think there is an element of tradition or superstition behind not defending the jersey in week 1, but surely it makes logical sense too – particularly given how tough the parcours is? On non-sprint stages, the onus is now on Astana to set the tempo in the peloton (while Movistar and others hide behind them), a burden they could do without. I don’t see that the Astana team is so much stronger than, say, Movistar, Katusha or Sky that they can afford to expend energy willy-nilly – and particularly not if two or more of these teams start to work together, as Movistar and Saxo (stage 9) or OPQS and Saxo (stage 13) did at the Tour.

      Regardless of the validity of such tactics, the reality is that teams do seem to employ them, and those tactics helped to shape the outcome of these two stages. And, I suspect, we will see more of the same in both weeks 2 and 3 depending on how everyone is feeling. Having more stage winners beyond the handful of favourites just adds to the appeal of the race for me.

  2. atlaz says:

    My issue is not with the concept of not protecting the jersey it’s with the basic agreement within cycling that if you get the jersey you HAVE to defend it.

    It just seems to me that it’s either received wisdom that has passed its use-by date, lazy thinking on the part of the teams or lazy commentating to suggest that teams NEED to keep the jersey. If Contador had been riding the Vuelta and Roche had been allowed to go for, and win, the stage, there’s no logical reason for them to push so hard to keep the leader’s jersey within the team.

    If you’re Caja Rural for example (or Radioshack) then going all out for a day or two makes perfect sense but not if you’re a real GC contending team, in that case the teams would let it go and keep their powder dry for later in the race.

    • I think we’re in agreement. Most teams are fairly sensible about it these days – they’re all aware of the tactical implications of defending the jersey. If, as you say, you’re the team of a GC contender, there’s no need to defend the lead if someone else in the team has it. For instance US Postal did this at the Tour in 2003 (I think), when Victor Hugo Pena was in yellow but the team willingly gave it up without batting an eyelid. Similarly, in your hypothetical Saxo example, I’m sure they wouldn’t have felt compelled to push hard just because Roche had the lead.

      There is an old argument about not disrepecting the jersey by throwing it away, but I can’t think of anyone who has actually ridden hard to defend the overall lead purely for that reason. Ultimately everything still comes down to race strategy (if you’re a contender) or the added exposure of wearing the jersey (if you’re a lesser team). For sure, if you’re Caja Rural and you find yourself with the overall lead, you’re going to fight tooth and nail to defend it.

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