Vuelta review: Round-table (part 1)

The race and the riders

All the VeloVoices gathered on Monday to give our verdict on the 68th Vuelta a Espana. It may be the last of the year’s grand tours but it was in no way the least, and that’s saying something given how spectacular both the Giro and the Tour were. In the first part of this round-table we focus on the race and the riders, while in part two tomorrow we address some of the broader talking points from the race.

After last year’s edition and then an excellent Giro and Tour this year, the 2013 Vuelta had a lot to live up to. Did it deliver?

Kathi: Absolutely. Constantly surprising and the race was on from day one. No wasted stages.

Ant: Without a doubt. It had all the right ingredients: scenery, attacks, near misses, and tension. Lots of tension!

Chris: I think it surpassed all the grand tours this year in terms of drama. We didn’t know who the winner would be until the day before the final procession to Madrid! And surely this was the most difficult route of the three.

Spectacular scenery, spectacular racing (Image: Vuelta website)

Spectacular scenery, spectacular racing (Image: Vuelta website)

Sheree: Totally, from start to finish I’ve been riveted to my seat every single day. Pretty much none of the stages delivered the anticipated result and even the final podium was almost as unexpected. New stars were born, old ones reinvigorated and all the teams figured in the mix.

Jack: For me it was the best grand tour of the year, with even the stages that looked like they’d just be boring, flat transitions producing incredible racing. Bravo.

Tim: I guess we’re all in agreement then. The 2013 Vuelta not only delivered, but for me it was the best of the three grand tours in a year of exceptionally high quality.

What was your favourite stage or moment of the entire three weeks?

Ant: The delightful tension created by the 100-metre glass ramp at the start of the opening team time trial. Will they make it onto dry land in one piece? Will it crack? Will they all slither into a group pile-up? Excitement right from the off!

Chris: Watching Argos-Shimano’s Warren Barguil win his second stage against a much more experienced rider, Rigoberto Uran. It was so exciting to see him attack again and then have the confidence to get on Uran’s wheel and pip him at the line with a bike throw!

Sheree: How do I pick one from such a bevy of marvellous moments and stunning parcours? But if you insist, it has to be Euskaltel-Euskadi winning the team prize in their last grand tour together. The boys started the race with heads hung low but once news of Fernando Alonso’s purchase of the team was announced, they were transformed. Also, they were only one of two teams – the other was Astana – to finish with all nine riders.

Euskaltel-Euskadi departed the grand tour scene by winning the team classification (Image: Vuelta website)

Euskaltel-Euskadi departed the grand tour scene by winning the team classification (Image: Vuelta website)

Jack: There were so many great moments, so much so that I can barely remember what happened in the last few stages, never mind in the first couple of weeks! I’m going to nominate something still fresh in the memory – and a moment I won’t forget in a hurry – Kenny Elissonde crossing the line in tears and shrouded in mist at the top of the mythical Angliru. What a location to pick up your first grand tour victory, and after such a mammoth solo effort. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.

Tim: I’m going to say the finish of stage seven, where the sprinters’ teams were gazzumped and Zdenek Stybar edged out Philippe Gilbert in a photo finish. It was the first indication of Gilbert coming into the sort of form which would finally see him win his first race of 2013 on stage 12. And it was nothing less than Stybar deserved, after a collision with a spectator had robbed him of a realistic shot at Paris-Roubaix.

Kathi: All the young riders winning stages from a break.

Chris Horner – a worthy winner?

Sheree: Yes, he won it fair and square despite us all raising eyebrows that such a feat was unlikely for someone of that age. But he started late on, spent most of his career competing against riders who were doped to the gills and came to the Vuelta with fresh legs and bags of determination. The parcours suited him: steep climbs, few time-trialling kilometres. I asked a number of riders I know well who’ve ridden with Chris and they only had good things to say about him and all commented on his junk-food diet!

The 2013 champion (Image: Vuelta website)

The 2013 champion (Image: Vuelta website)

Chris: Only time will tell but for now I have to give Chris Horner the benefit of the doubt and say yes. He attacked when he needed to and any man who can withstand that many shark attacks is a worthy winner. Horner’s past comments, team associations et cetera give us plenty of reasons not to like him, but his performance at the Vuelta was admirable and historic for many reasons.

Tim: I’m only marginally less suspicious of Horner than I was of Juan Jose Cobo in 2011. There’s a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest he may not be clean, but circumstantial is all it is. Until someone comes up with some definitive proof of cheating – and trumpeting guesstimated numbers as fact on Twitter is not proof – I have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Is he worthy? Yes, with caveats.

Jack: If clean, yes, though serious questions have to be asked.

Kathi: No comment.

Ant: At face value, yes – with suspicions shelved for the purposes of this – absolutely. It was a hell of a competition. He was pushed all the way and it was a hard-fought victory. It’s just a shame for the sport that there is so much suspicion, whether it proves to be misplaced or not.

Which rider(s) exceeded your expectations?

Tim: Too many to mention, not least the three French winners Barguil, Geniez and Elissonde. But the big one for me is Michael Matthews. It looks like Orica-GreenEDGE have found a young talent who combines the best qualities of Simon Gerrans and Matt Goss and could become a major force in both stage races and the classics.

'Bling' Matthews certainly made an impression, with two stage wins (Image: Vuelta website)

‘Bling’ Matthews certainly made an impression, with two stage wins (Image: Vuelta website)

Jack: Definitely the young French riders who showed so well. Elsewhere, I never thought I’d see Chris Horner win a grand tour, so he has certainly exceeded expectations, as has Nicolas Roche in picking up his first career grand tour stage win. Leopold Konig also deserves a mention – ninth in any three-week race is no mean feat, never mind in your first.

Chris: Gotta be the young Argonaut, Warren Barguil. I think I might have an Argo-Man-Crush.

Sheree: Blimey, not you as well!

Kathi: Vincenzo Nibali. Funny, because my expectation was that he would win and he didn’t so that should mean he was a disappointment. But his performance on Angliru was legendary. His heart exceeded my expectations.

Even in defeat, Nibali won many friends by giving everything he had (Image: Vuelta website)

Even in defeat, Nibali won many friends by giving everything he had (Image: Vuelta website)

Ant: I couldn’t agree more. I stupidly failed to put him in my fantasy Vuelta team because I expected him to be using the race to build for the Worlds, and perhaps not even to finish. Instead, he fought to the wire in a thrilling battle which had me screaming at the TV right to the end.

Sheree: If I’m honest Chris Horner never figured in my expectations and I’m definitely going to be following his dietary recommendations so see whether it has the same effect on me. But the rider who truly exceeded my expectations was Nicolas Roche. So often the nearly man, finishing just outside the top ten in a number of grand tours, he finally nailed it with aplomb, much grit, determination and, more importantly, belief. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Irish eyes are most definitely smiling.

And, conversely, who disappointed you?

Jack: No one really disappointed, though I’d hoped for more from Benat Intxausti after his great showing at the Giro, and Edvald Boasson Hagen still hasn’t delivered on the promise he showed a few seasons ago.

Sheree: No one ever disappoints me. Everyone who took part is a winner, particularly those who finished the race. However, I had hoped – and I’m sure he did too – that Samuel Sanchez would get a foot on the podium. Despite a month’s training in Sierra Nevada, he wasn’t at the right level during the first week or so. He’s obviously someone who doesn’t come quickly into form and when one looks at how he performed in the Giro and the Vuelta I would suggest changes to next year’s training regime. Just give me a call, Samu!

Tim: As you say, Sheree, they’re all heroes just for being there. However, I give you Tyler Farrar. Other than the final stage, did anyone notice him anywhere near the pointy end in any of the flatter stages? No, me neither,

Kathi: I was disappointed that Joaquim Rodriguez wasn’t more explosive and didn’t make the podium. But I’m not disappointed in him.

Chris: Carlos Betancur. He was the best young rider in the Giro, then he comes to the Vuelta and finishes over four hours down on GC. He was like an anvil to my fantasy roster, dragging me down into the depths of the middle table.

Ant: Yeah, I had Betancur too. I feel kinda guilty!

Sheree: Come on, the poor lad was ill at the start and one grand tour a year is enough for a young rider like him. You’re just sore because you’ve been beaten once more by my magic hat in the VeloGames Fantasy League!

All three wild card teams (Cofidis, NetApp-Endura and Caja Rural) fared pretty well. Which rider/team impressed you the most?

Tim: We’re spoilt for choice for once here, but I’m going to say Leopold Konig. who lit up the first week, winning a stage, and sustained himself to the end to finish ninth on GC. He’s no flash in the pan – whenever I’ve watched him race over the past couple of years he has shown his climbing ability. Look for more from him in the future.

Konig left a positive impression on all of us (Image: Vuelta website)

Konig left a positive impression on all of us (Image: Vuelta website)

Kathi: Cofidis’ Nicolas Edet. They finally made their wildcard worthwhile.

Jack: I’m going to say Konig, though Nicolas Edet really animated the race. Andre Cardoso of Caja Rural also did really well, finishing 16th overall. If the rumours linking him with a move to Garmin-Sharp are true, Jonathan Vaughters looks to have done some good business.

Sheree: On the basis that they won a stage with Leopold Konig, who also finished in the top ten overall, I would have to say hands down NetApp. But the other two teams also played their parts in animating stages. Nicolas Edet won the mountains’ jersey and Caja Rural’s Francisco Aramendia won ‘most combative’.

Chris: Yeah, I have to go with Sheree, Konig and NetApp were brilliant. Stellar TTT, a Konig stage victory, and aggressive riding the entire Vuelta made this the stand-out wild card team for sure. I love that Konig finished inside the top ten. Well deserved.

Ant: If there was an award for most improved team since the last grand tour it would go to Cofidis! NetApp-Endura can lay a robust claim to be the cream of the wildcard crop, and will be very pleased with their Vuelta, but Caja Rural will also be pretty happy.

Tim: Ahem, Ant, I think that qualifies as hedging your bets!

We tend to focus only on the winners in sport. So, excluding the top five, stage winners and jersey holders, nominate your unsung hero of this Vuelta.

Kathi: Adam Hansen. Seventh consecutive grand tour finish – and all with great humour and fierce joy.

We love us a little Adam Hansen, seen here winning at the Giro (Image: Lotto-Belisol)

We love us a little Adam Hansen, seen here winning at the Giro (Image: Lotto-Belisol)

Ant: It’s Amets Txurruka for me. He constantly seemed to be in on some kind of action, which is reflected in the fact that he outscored Kreuziger and Fuglsang in my fantasy team!

Chris: Juan Antonio Flecha. I don’t think there was a break or attack the he wasn’t a part of. I really wish he’d nabbed a stage.

Sheree: Sheree’s badge of distinction goes to Daniel Moreno, Joaquim Rodriguez’s faithful wing-man, who may even have been in better condition than Purito.

Jack: Tough question, with so many unsung heroes! However, I’m going to say Astana’s Tanel Kangert, who was such a valuable teammate for Nibali throughout the race. 11th at the Vuelta after 13th at the Giro is no mean feat, and it’s Kangert – rather than the once so highly rated Rein Taaramae – who is Estonia’s great hope at the moment.

Tim: Adam Hansen for me. Although I am little bit disappointed with him for breaking with tradition at this Vuelta. He finished 72nd at the Giro and 72nd at the Tour – what the hell was he doing up in 60th in Madrid?!?

Watch out for part two of our round-table tomorrow (Thursday).

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