Vuelta 2019 : A to Z, Part 1 – from Astana to Movistar

The Vuelta always seems to throw up excitement, whether it’s new riders breaking into the big leagues or legendary riders showing just why they are legends. And this year gave all that, piled high with drama, chaos and some downright lovely moments. Here’s part one of our A to Z of Vuelta 2019

A is for Astana

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Astana came into the Vuelta with one of the favourites – if not *the* favourite – to stand on the top step of the podium in Madrid. It did not turn out that way, although they got off to a rockin’ start by winning stage 1’s team time trial. This put the favourite, Miguel Angel Lopez, in the red jersey, but only for a day. This was a recurring theme throughout the race [See H is for How many times …]. Whether it was team tactics coming from the DS or Lopez biting off more than he could chew during some of the harder stages, as much as the aqua train tried to set him up for victory, it seemed he couldn’t finish it off. By the time they got to Madrid, the team went home with one stage win [See F is for Fuglsang], fifth overall for Lopez as well as the overall combativity award (although that one mystified a lot of fans), plus a war of words between Lopez and Alejandro Valverde [see U is for Unwritten rules].

B is for Bromance

Every grand tour has at least one beautiful bromance that captures fans’ hearts. Vuelta 2019 brought us something special with QuickStep’s legend Philippe Gilbert and young’un James Knox. Roommates for the race, Gilbert kept his eye on the enthusiastic Brit as Knox went through the highs and lows of grand tour racing as he made his way into the top ten in the last week.

But then, after a horrific crash in stage 19, Gilbert was there to encourage Knox not to give up as he rode every painful kilometre of stage 20, and give him a hug and wise words when he found him slumped in tears at the finishing barrier, having lost his top ten place. That display of kindness and spirit made many of us tear up … [See also G is for Gilbert, K is for Knox and Q is for QuickStep]

C is for Classification

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The final podium was: Primoz Roglic (Jumbo Visma); Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Tadej Pogacar (UAE Emirates). Roglic also took the Points jersey and Pogacar took the Young Rider’s Jersey. The KOM jersey was won by Ag2r’s Geoffrey Bouchard. The team classification was won by, of course, Movistar, who have won it in each of this year’s grand tours.

D is for Danger

Who would have thought that water would play such a major role in this year’s Vuelta? On stage one, a broken garden hose made one corner particularly slick and sent almost the entire UAE Emirates team into the barriers. A little while later, Jumbo Visma did the same thing in the same corner. Luckily, no rider in either team had to leave the race on the first stage, but it left Primoz Roglic 40sec down from his rival, Miguel Angel Lopez, putting Jumbo Visma on the back foot almost immediately.

It was also thought to be water on the road that caused a much more serious crash on stage 6, which took out Nicolas Roche, Hugh Carthy and, most seriously, Rigoberto Uran. The Colombian rider suffered multiple broken bones as well as a punctured lung that kept him in intensive care for weeks, finally leaving hospital on the 20th of September. We sincerely hope that Uran will be able to come back from his injuries next season.

E is for Echelons

If there’s a rogue wind blowing, you know that Deceuninck QuickStep will make the most of it. In stage 17, they put the hammer down from kilometre 0, blew the peloton apart from the start and it was full gas for the entire 220km stage. With an average speed of nearly 51kph, it was the fastest 200-plus road race in the history of cycling. An early sprint start by Sam Bennett gave the wily Philippe Gilbert the opportunity to sit on his wheel before launching his own attack, which won him the stage. It was a crazy stage in which Nairo Quintana catapulted himself from sixth place on GC to second. Echelons played a part in stage 19 as well and brought on a war of words between Miguel Angel Lopez and Alejandro Valverde over Movistar’s tactics [see U is for Unwritten rules].

F is for Fuglsang

It seems unbelievable that it took 14 grand tour participations for a rider of the calibre of Jakob Fuglsang to win a stage. But what a stage he won! Stage 16‘s mountain top finish at Alto de la Cubilla was the scene of a mist-shrouded victory for the Astana rider, who had been in the day’s break – certainly a break from Astana’s usual tactics of ensuring that the team was together and driving the pace for Lopez. It certainly was Fuglsang’s day to shine, however, with him ridding himself of Tao Geoghegan Hart and Gianluca Brambilla to take a wonderful solo win. (Check out Fuglsang’s interview at the end of the highlights reel above – he’s a cool customer and knows when to stick the knife in …)

G is for Gilbert

Speaking of cool customers, Philippe Gilbert has to be one of the coolest men on the road. He wasn’t selected for the 2019 Tour de France and he went to the Vuelta – his last grand tour with Deceuninck-QuickStep – with something to prove. And boy, did he prove it. The Paris-Roubaix champ won two stages – stage 12 and stage 17 [see E is for Echelons]- while helping the team take another three, including the final sprint in Madrid with Fabio Jakobsen. Add to that, his touching bromance with James Knox [See B is for Bromance] and being the talisman of the entire team. He truly is a legend of the sport. [See also Q is for QuickStep]

H is for How many times can you give up red?

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There’s that cycling ‘wisdom’ of not getting the leader’s jersey too soon because you would then have to burn your team out trying to defend it. But to be one of the favourites and have the jersey on three separate occasions and ride like the last thing you want is to keep in on your shoulders for another day has seemed daft in this Vuelta – yet that seemed to be Astana’s tactic. Miguel Angel Lopez held the jersey three times, for one stage each, in the first week. But that only ensured that his team would have to ride hard in order to … stay in the mix for the GC and … somehow get the jersey back at the end of the second and third week. Which never happened …

I is for Irish double whammy

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This year’s Vuelta was a showcase for Irish riders, with Nicolas Roche (Sunweb) taking the red jersey on stage 2 and holding it until the end of stage 5. It was an Irish double-whammy when Sam Bennett (Bora-hansgrohe) took his first of two stage wins in the Vuelta on stage 3, resplendent in the Irish national champion’s jersey. While Bennett went on to win stage 14, and place second in four stages (all of which were won by QuickStep riders), Roche had to leave the race after being injured in the horrific crash on stage 6 which took out a lot of big names, including Rigoberto Uran.

J is for Jumbo Visma

The Jumbo Visma team seemed to have learned a thing or two from the Giro in May, when their team leader Primoz Roglic put in an excellent performance, taking two stages and finishing third on the final podium. Bringing a solid team who could keep him safe on the flats (or what the Vuelta organisers consider to be flats) and stay with him for as long as possible on the mountains, the support that Roglic received from his team was key to his first grand tour victory.

With veteran rider Tony Martin policing the front of the peloton, to young riders George Bennett and Sep Kuss doing sterling work in the mountains, it all went the right way for the Dutch team. Not only did Roglic win a stage (stage 10), but Kuss took his first grand tour stage victory on stage 15. The entire team didn’t make it to Madrid, however, as both Tony Martin and Stephen Kruijswijk had to abandon the race due to injury.

K is for Knox

One of the reasons we at VeloVoices Towers love the Vuelta so much is that this is the grand tour that we meet some of the new faces of cycling. And one of those fresh faces this year was James Knox. The British rider joined QuickStep last year and was riding in his second grand tour (he started but didn’t finish the Giro in May). Surrounded by the versatile riders of the QuickStep team, he rode hard and, after coming in 4th on stage 16 and 10th on stage 17, he found himself 8th in the overall.

Could he hold on? It was the final mountain stage – stage 20 – that put paid to his dreams of a top ten finish, as he was riding with injuries from a crash on stage 19 [see B is for Bromance]. But he only just missed out as he rode into Madrid with 11th overall. But it wasn’t just his riding that endeared him to fans, but also his willingness to have a chat after the stage with the Eurosport team!

L is for Lacklustre

The ebb and flow of teams’ fortunes during a grand tour is always one of the most interesting things about racing. Big budgets, big stars, best track records don’t always guarantee the best performances. Below are the teams who didn’t win any stages, wear a jersey at any point in the race or place in the top three of the final classifications.

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Of the 22 teams that participated, two teams came away with nothing: CCC, Trek-Segafredo.

5 teams left with very little:
Dimension Data (Ben O’Connor, 9th best young rider; 9th in team prize)
Groupama-FDJ (Killan Frankiny, 7th best young rider)
Ineos (Tao Geoghegan-Hart, combativity stage 20, 5th in KOM, 6th best young rider; Wout Poels, 6th in KOM; David de la Cruz, combativity stage 8; 10th in team prize)
Lotto Soudal (invisible Carl Fredrik Hagan, 8th overall; Tosh Van der Sande, 9th points)
Mitchelton-Scott (Mikel Nieve, 10th overall; 4th in team prize)
Katusha (Ruben Guerreiro, 5th best young rider)
Caja Rural (Alex Aranburu, combativity stage 11)

M is for Movistar (again …)

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Once again, Movistar won the team classification, making it a clean sweep for the Spanish team in this year’s grand tours. They also won two stages – Nairo Quintana won stage 2, combativity award stage 17, spent one day in red, was in green seemingly forever until he wasn’t, and finished 4th overall; Alejandro Valverde took stage 7 and finished 2nd overall; and super domestique Marc Soler came in 9th overall.

But all of this doesn’t really tell the story of Movistar in the Vuelta. As seems to be the case in grand tours that involve no clear leader (or should I say, two or more ‘co-leaders’), the team tactics seemed to have been every man for himself. There was a constant push-me-pull-you between Quintana and Valverde and some bad feelings from Marc Soler after being told to wait for Quintana on stage 9 when the super-domestique was on a good chance to win a stage for himself. Add to that, attacking the red jersey after he crashed (see U for Unwritten rules) and you have a team that gave fans something to talk about every single day.

Header image: GETTY/Velo/Tim de Waele 

For part 2 of the A to Z, click here

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