Having won nine times in his previous two Vuelta participations, John Degenkolb had to wait until the final stage this year to record his first victory, ensuring his Giant-Alpecin team finished on a high on the streets of Madrid after the disappointment of Tom Dumoulin losing red and sliding off the final podium altogether yesterday.
A break of six had given the peloton something to chase on the circuit around the centre of Madrid before first Iljo Keisse (Etixx-Quick Step) and stage 19 winner Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r La Mondiale) threatened to spoil the sprinters’ party. But there was to be no denying Giant-Alpecin, whose train positioned Degenkolb to hold off Trek’s Danny van Poppel and deliver his tenth career Vuelta win – and his eleventh grand tour victory in total, matching the tally of his teammate and compatriot Marcel Kittel.
Rider of the day
Not so much rider of the day or even rider of the race as a man for all seasons – or all grand tours, at least. Lotto-Soudal’s Adam Hansen may have finished only 55th on GC but he is Mr Grand Tour.
The Aussie veteran put in the hard kilometres to support the aspirations of sprinter Andre Greipel and GC man Bart de Clercq. He got in breakaways. Every now and then he even launched solo attacks of his own. But what he did more than anything else is what he always does: get to the finish. When he rolled across the line in the middle of the main pack this evening, he completed his 13th grand tour in succession dating back all the way to the 2011 Vuelta. No one has ever accomplished this feat before.
And he does more than just participate. He was a stage winner at the 2013 Giro – a long-range solo break – and again at last year’s Vuelta. He raced up Alpe d’Huez with a beer in one hand. He completed the Tour de France this year despite dislocating his shoulder on stage two, an injury severe enough that he rode the team time trial on a standard road bike as he was unable to adopt an aero tuck position.
Riders come and riders go – it’s the cyclical nature of any sport – but when Hansen finally hangs up his cleats, the peloton will have lost one of its great characters and one of its toughest men. But until then, what price grand tour number 14 next May?
Four things we noticed over the past three weeks
1. The curse of J-Rod. Joaquim Rodriguez must have kicked a black cat while walking under a ladder 13 times in a former life. In finishing as runner-up to Fabio Aru, the three-time UCI WorldTour champion recorded his fifth grand tour podium finish – and eighth top four – in the last six years. Another stage win took his grand tour tally to 14. But he has yet to savour the top step and, at 36, time is fast running out.
Even today fate frowned upon him. Holding the lead in both the points and combined classifications at the start of the day, he punctured before the intermediate sprint, which allowed long-time rival Alejandro Valverde to steal the green jersey away from him. It’s impossible not to feel sorry for Purito, isn’t it? One of the greatest riders ever not to win a grand tour.
2. Young guns. For all the fuss over the veteran star names who doubled up at both the Tour and the Vuelta – Froome, Quintana, Nibali, Rodriguez and Valverde – they ended up playing only peripheral roles in the narrative as the kids stepped up to the plate. Sure, Rodriguez was the runner-up, Valverde won a stage and Quintana ended up less than two minutes down in fourth, but those weren’t the names on our lips for most of the three weeks.
Instead 24-year-old Tom Dumoulin was the surprise sensation of the Vuelta. But he was not alone. Orica-GreenEDGE’s Esteban Chaves (25) finished fifth overall, won two stages and spent six days in red. Four other youngsters claimed maiden grand tour wins: Trek’s Jasper Stuyven (23) and Danny van Poppel (22), Orica’s Caleb Ewan (21) and Ag2r’s Alexis Gougeard (22). Caja Rural’s Omar Fraile (25) dominated the mountains classification.
And, of course, the latest addition to the pantheon of grand tour winners, Fabio Aru, only turned 25 in July. Victory here added to second overall at the Giro singles him out as the young gun most likely to join Quintana (also 25) in displacing the current generation of Contador, Nibali, Froome and others in the not-so-distant future.
3. The old hand. At the other end of the spectrum, Frank Schleck re-emerged for one final day in the sun, winning his first international race in nearly 4½ years. I’ve never been a fan of the brothers Schleck. But, with younger sibling Andy now retired, watching Frank grind his way to his win on stage 16’s HC summit finish brought a tear to my eye. Three wins for a Trek team without a recognised top-tier GC rider or sprinter and missing Fabian Cancellara from stage three represented a return that virtually every other team would have killed for. It’s not about who you have but what you do with who you have.
4. Next year’s man? The GC at the end of a three-week grand tour doesn’t lie. Or does it? Mikel Landa finished 25th overall, over 51 minutes down on his team leader Aru. Indeed, he wasn’t even the second-placed Astana rider. (Diego Rosa finished five places higher.) But he won the monstrous stage 11 and was generally the man Astana turned to in the mountains to turn the screws on Dumoulin and all Aru’s GC rivals. Indeed, on more than one occasion it was noticeable that Aru was being distanced as Landa tapped out an apparently easy rhythm on his pedals at the front of the group.
The same was true at the Giro earlier in the year, where Astana’s plan to back Aru forced Landa into the role of super-domestique. He won two stages and finished third overall.
If, as rumoured, Landa departs Astana for pastures new – Sky has been frequently mentioned as a possible destination – it will be interesting to see what he could do with an entire team to support him. A possible 2016 Vuelta contender? It’s worth an each-way bet, I think.
Stage 21 result
1. John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) 2:34:13
2. Danny van Poppel (Trek) same time
3. Jean-Pierre Drucker (BMC) s/t
4. Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEDGE) s/t
5. Tosh Van der Sande (Lotto-Soudal) s/t
1. Fabio Aru (Astana) 85:36:13
2. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +0:57
3. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) +1:09
4. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +1:42
5. Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEDGE) +3:10
6. Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) +3:46
7. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +6:47
8. Mikel Nieve (Sky) +7:06
9. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +7:12
10. Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka) +10:26
Points classification winner: Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
King of the Mountains winner: Omar Fraile (Caja Rural).
Combined classification winner: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
Team classification winner: Movistar.
Link: Official race website