Alejandro Valverde won the first three stages en route to his third consecutive victory at the 60th edition of the Vuelta a Andalucia-Ruta del Sol ahead of Richie Porte. However, this was as much a battle between Movistar and Sky as it was between Valverde and Porte, with the Spanish squad drawing first blood in what promises to be a season-long tussle at major stage races throughout 2014.
Movistar versus Sky
Although they didn’t win a grand tour, Movistar’s consistency across the entire WorldTour calendar meant they beat Sky to the number one team ranking at the end of 2013. They show no sign of relinquishing that title without a fight this year, outgunning Sky from start to finish.
That dominance started in the flat but technical 7.3km prologue, as the two teams occupied seven of the top eight places on the time sheets. Movistar’s Valverde, Jon Izagirre and Javier Moreno were first, third and seventh. Sky, who at one point sat one-two-three with Vasil Kiryienka, Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins, had to settle for fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth, with Porte fully 15 seconds adrift.
On the summit finishes of stages one and two, Sky put their team to work to try to grind Movistar into submission but Valverde, with Izagirre ever-present at his shoulder, soaked up the pressure and dominated the uphill sprints to complete a hat-trick of victories and seal his overall win.
Round one to Movistar. We still have the prospect of Porte versus Nairo Quintana at the Giro d’Italia and Valverde versus Chris Froome (who completed back-to-back overall wins in Oman earlier today) at the Tour de France. This battle’s going to run and run.
This time last year, Sky’s Bradley Wiggins was pootling around disinterestedly at the back of the peloton in Oman, finishing 74th overall. This week he ended up 71st, but at least he was keen to be seen to be taking part, putting in a decent performance in the prologue and taking his turns at the front of the Sky train.
Wiggo continues to be evasive about his objectives for the season, although consensus opinion currently seems to indicate a tilt at Paris-Roubaix, a race he has dreamed about since his junior days. He’s some way short of the level he will need to be at for that – his pulls on the front at the sharp end of stages this week were neither as long nor as smooth as at the Volta ao Algarve in the February of his Tour-winning year of 2012 – but equally Roubaix is seven weeks away, so he has plenty of time.
Can he regain something close to his 2012 form by mid-April? Yes, absolutely. Will he? The jury’s out on that one.
And, of course, even if he does hit his peak at the right time, he still has to beat the talent and experience of Cancellara, Boonen, Phinney, Stybar, Vansummeren … I could go on and on. I’ll say it now: the best Wiggins will achieve in the famed Roubaix velodrome is a lower top-ten placing.
If you’re looking for potential British successes in the spring classics, look no further than Sky teammates Geraint Thomas and Peter Kennaugh. Both took impressive long pulls on the front in the key final kilometres of both stages one and two. Thomas has the strength to go with attacks and then outsprint everyone, and surely cannot repeat the kind of ill fortune he suffered during last year’s classics, when he seemed to crash every time a TV camera pointed at him. Kennaugh, one of the revelations of last year’s Tour, is a turbodiesel on two wheels who might just do in 2014 what Ian Stannard did last year.
Jans does a Pozzato
Do you remember Pippo Pozzato crossing the finish line at Roma Maxima last year, thinking he had just won the sprint for first place rather than second? Then spare a thought for Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Roy Jans, who raised his arms thinking he had won a chaotic sprint on stage three only to discover two minutes later that reigning Milan-San Remo champion Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) had edged him out in a photo finish.
The 23-year-old Jans hasn’t had many opportunities to practise his victory celebration so far in his career – his first win came only last month at Gabon’s La Tropicale Amissa Bongo. Oh well.
Race at a glance
3 – Number of stages won by Alejandro Valverde, in addition to the overall.
3 – Number of consecutive GC victories in this race by Valverde.
3 – Number of non-Spanish winners of the race in the past 17 editions (Erik Dekker 2001, Joost Posthuma 2009 and Michael Rogers 2010).
42 – Age of the oldest rider in the race, CCC Polsat’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege and triple Fleche Wallonne winner Davide Rebellin. The Italian veteran is five weeks older than Trek’s Jens Voigt, who was also present this week.
Prologue: Winner – Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). Leader – Valverde.
Stage 1: Winner – Valverde. Leader – Valverde.
Stage 2: Winner – Valverde. Leader – Valverde.
Stage 3: Winner – Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka). Leader – Valverde.
Stage 4: Winner – Moreno Hofland (Belkin). Overall winner – Valverde.
1. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) 18:47:50
2. Richie Porte (Sky) +0:26
3. Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) +0:28
4. Jon Izagirre (Movistar) +0:33
5. Tanel Kangert (Astana) +0:44
6. Bauke Mollema (Belkin) +0:55
7. Thomas Degand (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) +1:02
8. Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) +1:06
9. Michele Scarponi (Astana) +1:13
10. Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis) +1:24