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.

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Photo gallery from the Basque Country

My in-house camera man aka my husband has only recently been restored to the post after various misdemeanours at recent cycling events such as forgetting to recharge his camera’s battery, failing to insert the memory card and deleting a batch of photographs before they were saved. He is now on probation and, to get back into my good graces, has snapped away in all weather conditions down in the Basque country.

All the photographs were taken at the recent Vuelta al Pais Vasco, where you’ll note the weather worsens considerably as the race progresses. We’re starting with two ‘local’ boys – local to me that is as they both live on the Cote d’Azur – from BMC who were refining their form and teamwork ahead of the all-important Ardennes classics.

I wonder what's caught the eye of these two BMC boys, Amael Moinard and Philippe Gilbert?

I wonder what’s caught the eye of these two BMC boys, Amael Moinard and Philippe Gilbert? (image: Richard Whatley)

Another popular rider with the Basque public, RadioShack’s Jens Voigt, who’s already seen the weather forecast and is relishing the challenge. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that he was one of the 70-odd riders to finish the race.

Looking particularly imperious, the evergreen Jens Voigt trying to psyche out the opposition from the sign-on  (image: Richard Whatley)

Looking particularly imperious, the evergreen Jens Voigt trying to psyche out the opposition from the sign-on (image: Richard Whatley)

In order to win me over, my beloved took plenty of pictures of one of my (many) favourite riders, Samuel Sanchez …

It's defending champ Samu, aiming to peak at the Giro d'Italia (image: Richard Whatley)

It’s defending champ Samu, aiming to peak at the Giro d’Italia (image: Richard Whatley)

Here’s Giro d’Italia 2012 champ Ryder Hesjedal, whose name proved to be a bit of a tongue-twister for the Spanish announcers! He was working for young gun Andrew Talansky who had a nasty spill on Thursday just after the finish line in Eibar-Arrate.

Here's another boy dreaming of pink for May. He's still got the glasses from last year! (image: Richard Whatley)

Here’s another boy dreaming of pink for May. He’s still got the glasses from last year! (image: Richard Whatley)

Shy smile from Alexey Lutsenko, one of the younger riders taking part in the race.

Alexey Lutsenko under 23 World Champion, called the next Sagan by team manager Alexandre Vinokourov (image: Richard Whatley)

Alexey Lutsenko, under-23 world champion, called the next Sagan by team manager Alexandre Vinokourov (image: Richard Whatley)

Amets Txurruka, now with Caja Rural, spent most of the race out front and got a lock down on the mountains and sprint jerseys. Ironically the latter was sponsored by his former team Euskaltel!

Amets Txurruka always has time for his fans some of whom are even smaller than him! (image: Richard Whatley)

Amets Txurruka always has time for his fans, some of whom are even smaller than him! (image: Richard Whatley)

Amets, bittersweet experience to be back in orange (image: Richard Whatley)

Amets – a bittersweet experience to be back in orange (image: Richard Whatley)

A number of riders fell, losing time and sliding out of contention in the overall. Rein Taaramae was one of those!

Rein Taaramae, bloodied but unbowed after a tumble on stage one (image: Richard Whatley)

Rein Taaramae, bloodied but unbowed after a tumble on stage 1 (image: Richard Whatley)

Enigmatic smile from Mikel Landa (image: Richard Whatley)

Enigmatic smile from Mikel Landa (image: Richard Whatley)

I love how the various nationalities have a pre-race catch up, though of course some riders just prefer to collect their thoughts and think about the day’s challenges.

Pre-race catch up for the Basques (image: Richard Whatley)

Pre-race catch up for the Basques (image: Richard Whatley)

Time-trial world champion Tony Martin was there to win Saturday’s individual time trial. He succeeded despite it being on a parcours which didn’t favour him.

Tony Martin's worked up a bit of a sweat on those short steep climbs (image: Richard Whatley)

Tony Martin’s worked up a bit of a sweat on those short steep climbs (image: Richard Whatley)

Kristof Vandewalle hasn't seen the weather forecast (image: Richard Whatley)

Kristof Vandewalle hasn’t seen the weather forecast (image: Richard Whatley)

Much was made of the steep finish on Wednesday. Most of the boys were gratefully grabbed at the top by their soigneurs as they slumped exhausted over the handlebars.

Yes, it really was that steep. Just ask Alberto and Simon (image: Richard Whatley)

Yes, it really was that steep. Just ask Alberto, Simon and Samu (image: Richard Whatley)

The winner of that stage got a massive cup and one of those big, black, floppy Basque berets: txapala.

Henao wearing the txapala with pride (image: Richard Whatley)

Henao wearing the txapala with pride (image: Richard Whatley)

The local press felt that Sky had been disrespectful by failing to show up for the team presentation, bringing a team of six not eight riders and signing on late for the first two days! However, all was forgiven when they started winning stages.

Sky boys signing on late, again. But they redeemed themselves by animating the race (image: Richard Whatley)

Sky boys signing on late, again. But they redeemed themselves by animating the race (image: Richard Whatley)

I’m assuming Richie Porte handed his goodie box for winning straight to Sky’s chef  in a scene reminiscent of Ready, Steady, Cook. I have to wonder what Soren made with the enormous black sausage – obviously a local speciality – leeks, onions, potatoes and apples. Or was it a cunning Basque plan to slow Richie down in the following day’s time trial?

Richie Porte, winner of stage 5, can't quite believe his luck (image: Richard Whatley)

Richie Porte, winner of stage 5, can’t quite believe his luck (image: Richard Whatley)

As the week progressed the boys started bundling up in frankly anything they could lay their hands on as the temperatures plummeted. On one day we had weak sunshine, torrential rain, hail and snow!

Igor Anton ordering extra cheese on his post-race pizza (image: Richard Whatley)

Igor Anton ordering extra cheese on his post-race pizza (image: Richard Whatley)

It was good to see Andy Schleck back in action, he even got in a break, and while he was a DNF, so were 70-odd others!

Andy thought Jens was kidding about the weather. He wasn't! (image: Richard Whatley)

Andy thought Jens was kidding about the weather. He wasn’t! (image: Richard Whatley)

At MotoGP glamorous scantily clad lovelies hold an umbrella over the heads of the riders before the start to spare them the searing heat of the sun. Cycling has to make do with a mate with a brolly. I have no idea what they were chatting about, admiring Koldo’s bike? I love that Igor Anton has tape around the top of his shoe covers in trying to keep out the rain. I should have checked with him whether or not it works.

Basque pre-race huddle (image: Richard Whatley)

Basque pre-race huddle (image: Richard Whatley)

No one from Argos-Shimano finished the race. I think it was because they ran out of clean dry kit! Tanel Kangert‘s soigneur told me that this kit was going straight in the bin as it would be impossible to restore it to its former glory.

Tanel Kangert eEstonian national time trial champion (image: Richard Whatley)

Tanel Kangert, Estonian national time trial champion, doesn’t look too happy (image: Richard Whatley)

It’s only fitting that the final photo is of the winner Nairo Quintana. Isn’t that a great smile?

To the victor the spoils (image: Richard Whatley)

To the victor the spoils (image: Richard Whatley)

Vuelta al Pais Vasco review: Colombian cheer

Vuelta al Pais Vasco logoIn a surprising turn of events Nairo Quintana took the overall, having won stage four atop Eibar-Arrate and finished runner-up in the concluding time trial. The 23-year-old wrested the leader’s and points jerseys from fellow Colombian Sergio Henao, with Tasmanian Richie Porte sandwiched in between. Local boy Amets Txurruka claimed the King of the Mountains and sprint jerseys while Movistar were the best team.

Final GC podium (l to r) Porte, Quintana, Henao (image: Richard Whatley)

Final GC podium (l to r) Porte, Quintana, Henao (image: Richard Whatley)

Race summary

Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) took his third victory of the season, winning the first stage’s reduced bunch sprint ahead of Peter Velits (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Angel Vicioso (Katusha) after the peloton had been split by a crash near the summit on the final ascent, just 7km from the finish.  Some of the leading contenders fell, were delayed or distanced on the fast, technical descent where Alberto Contador’s (Saxo-Tinkoff) aggression further split the leading group with 17, including many of the favourites, going clear in the last 5km. The two-man break of the day, Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural) and Laurent Didier (RadioShack-Leopard), had both been pulled back into the bunch well before the last climb.

Simon Gerrans wins stage 1

Simon Gerrans, victor on stage 1 (image: Richard Whatley)

There was a sense of deja vu on stage two as South Africa’s Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEDGE) repeated his feat of last year, taking the bunch sprint ahead of Astana’s Francesco Gavazzi (who had the consolation of taking over the leader’s jersey), with Vicioso third again. Txurruka was once more out front for most of the day hoovering up the mountain and sprint points. Orica-GreenEDGE kept the gap to a manageable distance, before Lampre-Merida’s Adriano Malori and RadioShack’s evergreen Jens Voigt time-trialled away from the bunch with around 30km remaining, catching Txurruka on the penultimate descent. But all the escapees were back in the pack with 4km to go and it just remained for Orica – specifically race leader Gerrans – to lead Impey to the finishing line.

That man Impey's won the second stage two years in a row!

That man Impey wins the second stage for the second year in a row! (image: Richard Whatley)

Sergio Henao (Sky) was the strongest in the Colombian shoot-out on stage three’s 167.7km stage to the top of the 7.4km climb La Lajana – technical and wickedly steep in parts – which left many slumped over their handlebars, exhausted. In a scene straight from Groundhog Day, that man Txurruka was out in the break again. The Astana-led peloton wisely didn’t allow them too much leeway and everyone was safely back in the bunch well before the final trial of strength. Movistar moved to the head of the peloton to set up their Colombian, Nairo Quintana, who eventually finished fourth. Ultimately it was Henao and baby-faced Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) who went mano a mano all the way to the line, with the former shading it in a photo-finish. Katusha’s Giampaolo Caruso was third. Henao’s victory saw him take the leader’s and points jerseys while Txurruka’s three straight breakaway days saw him build an unassailable lead in the sprint and mountain competitions.

In the battle of the Colombians, Henao just shades it over Betancur (image: Richard Whatley)

In the battle of the Colombians, Henao just shades it over Betancur (image: Richard Whatley)

The following day was the turn of 23-year-old Quintana to take victory, as he soloed away from the leading group in the final 100 metres or so on the downhill dip to the finish, gaining two seconds on Henao and third-placed Contador. To the delight of the public who had braved freezing fog and pouring rain, a final spurt from Samu Sanchez moved him up the GC.

The day started with a dangerous trio including Andy Schleck (RadioShack) making an unsuccessful bid for freedom, with the main break established only after 46km of the 151,6km road to Eibar-Arrate. The Sky-led peloton never allowed the gap to grow much beyond five minutes, slowly reeling them in as they wound their way up and around Eibar. With under 40km to go, the break and the chasing pack fractured all over the first category Basque-lined Isua climb. Having regrouped on the descent, Sky slowly whittled down the gap and, at the foot of the ultimate climb, conceded responsibility for leadership to Movistar. In-form winner of the GP Miguel Indurain Simon Spilak (Katusha) led the charge only to be joined by the other contenders who matched one another up the climb until Quintana rode away.

He's getting the hang of those bottles! Nairo Quinata (Movistar) winner of stage 4

He’s getting the hang of those bottles! Nairo Quintana (Movistar) wins stage 4 (image: Richard Whatley)

On the penultimate day’s ten-climb test Richie Porte (Sky) clearly hadn’t read the script, as he disappointed the large Basque crowd who’d braved pouring rain, hail and near freezing conditions, by jumping away in the dying kilometres to overhaul defending champion Sanchez, who finished second, four seconds back, along with third-placed race leader Henao and most of the other contenders. The 166.1km route from Eibar to Beasain was punctuated with attacks which saw groups of riders spread all over the parcours and riders climbing off their bikes each time the pack came through the finish town – only 73 finished the stage!

However, Sky were always pulling the strings and anyone still in contention was in the leading bunch heading for the final ascent. Sanchez crested the summit first, pursued by the Sky boys and Spilak but sadly Samu failed to record his team’s first win of the season. None of the jerseys changed hands but only that of the leader still hung in the balance with Porte six seconds behind teammate Henao but four seconds ahead of Contador.

That wasn’t the only surprise of the day, though:

That's the look of a determined man! Four seconds ained for Richie Porte

That’s the look of a determined man! Four precious seconds gained for Richie Porte (image: Richard Whatley)

In the final day’s challenging 24km time trial, world champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) set the winning time of 35:05 early on. Overall favourite Porte was 40 seconds slower and, surprisingly, finished fourth behind Quintana – proving Colombians can time trial on hilly terrain – with Basque Benat Inxausti (Movistar) third.

Stage six winner Tony Martin, wearing the rainbow jersey of the reigning world TT champion (image: Richard Whatley)

Stage six winner Tony Martin, wearing the rainbow jersey of the reigning world TT champion (image: Richard Whatley)

Afterwards Quintana declared:

I’m super happy with this overall victory and time trial result, where I performed better than I expected. I’ve been feeling good these past few days and again today I had such a good feeling that I had to take advantage. It was a short time trial which favoured me and I managed my efforts well. It was quite slippery and I took risks on the descents. In fact, I almost fell on one occasion, but on the last descent I knew I’d done enough and could relax.

Analysis & opinion

Last year we proclaimed Colombians the must-have accessory in the mountains for those challenging in the Grand Tours. This year they’re the key piece in the season’s wardrobe. Messrs Betancur, Henao and overall winner Quintana, despite their youth and relative inexperience, have proved they can challenge the best over a difficult parcours, whatever the conditions, and deserve their plaudits.

Of course, Sky, Movistar and Ag2r won’t be the only teams leaving with smiles on their faces. Orica-GreenEDGE bagged two stage wins, spent two days in the leader’s jersey and Pieter Weening finished sixth overall. I suspect that both Saxo-Tinkoff and Euskaltel-Euskadi will be satisfied with the overall progress of their respective leaders given their forthcoming Grand Tour challenges.

Basque sensibilities were spared by Amets Txurruka who monopolised the mountains classification jersey and, ironically, the Euskaltel-sponsored orange sprint jersey earning plenty of press coverage and cheer for his new squad Caja Rural after being dropped at the end of last year by Euskaltel. Best placed Basque overall was Movistar’s Benat Intxausti in eighth – another former Euskaltel rider.

A number of teams such as BMC used the race to fine-tune form for the forthcoming Ardennes classics. Despite the high attrition rate, most teams finished with at least one rider, except Argos-Shimano who I suspect simply ran out of clean kit! On a final note, it was good to see Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) back in action after his serious fall last year.

Classification:

1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) 21:39:35

2. Richie Porte (Sky) +0:23

3. Sergio Henao (Sky) +0:34

4. Simon Spilak (Katusha) +0:35

5. Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) +0:54

6. Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEDGE) +1:18

7. Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) +1:19

8. Benat Intxausti (Movistar) +1:57

9. Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM) +2:47

10, John Gadret (Ag2r La Mondiale) +2:56

Links: PreviewOfficial website