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September 18, 2015
It’s hard to see where the recently-endedl Vuelta sits amongst the goliaths of its 70-year-old history. This wasn’t the most exciting edition, yet the final outcome wasn’t established until 24 hours from the finish in Madrid, meaning elements of excitement were obviously there. This Vuelta, without its superstar attraction of Alberto Contador, was never going to be the most popular one, yet the crowds turned out in force on all the major climbs of the route, eager to see if a Spaniard could fend of what was a mighty invasion of foreign talent. Certainly, this Vuelta was no masterpiece - the abandonment of too many ‘stars toned down the mood and left the race looking distinctly empty barely halfway through the race. Yet it is a Vuelta I’ll remember for many years to come because of the emergence of Tom Dumoulin as a grand tour challenger, and for the eventual enthronement of Fabio Aru as a grand tour winner.
Look back three weeks, and see the ‘stars that lined up in Marbella – with Froome, Nibali, Quintana, Majka, Aru, Rodriguez, Valverde, Talansky and Van Garderen the leading lights. Who would have thought back then that Aru, Rodriguez and Majka would make up the final podium, or that Dumoulin would be the most dominant rider in the entire race? Who would have expected Nibali to be disqualified on the second stage of the race?! Or that Quintana would fail to even make that podium with all the promise he’s displayed these past two years? What about the likes of Sagan and Bouhanni – at which point BEFORE the Vuelta did these sprinters have their exit strategy already worked out? Ok, Sagan had every right to walk away after being fined for aggressive behavior after an official Shimano motorbike had knocked him off. But Bouhanni didn’t even finish two days before quitting due to questionable crash injuries. Sagan and Bouhanni will return as bright as sparks in the up-coming World Championships in the USA, so it would have been nice to see them stay a bit longer in Spain.
I often think the Vuelta deserves more respect than it actually gets, even if its lateness in the season and proximity to the World Championships is an omnipresent weakness. There was nothing wrong, on race-day, with the route for the stage one TTT. Yet officials removed the stage from any G.C contention having judged its un-suitability a few days earlier (the sand they’d seen then on the course was gone on race-day, as had always been the plan). When Nibali was filmed by a TV helicopter taking a tow from his car, a crime that was 90-percent the fault of his Astana D.S, officials put him out, despite the organisers pleading for a huge fine and time penalty to keep him in the race for the good of the race. And when Peter Sagan was knocked off by a Shimano neutral-service moto on stage eight, he had every right to throw a fit (though maybe he shouldn’t have banged on the side of a doctor’s car that had stopped to treat him!). Yet the race-officials fined him 200 Swiss Francs, leaving Sagan no option but to walk away. From stage two to stage twelve, a steady trickle of Vuelta ‘stars had left the race. Some, like Fabian Cancellara and Chris Froome, were clearly sick or injured and incapable of continuing. Yet others, though I won’t name them, used a crash or a dodgy stomach to slip quietly away.
The plusses of this Vuelta were plenty. Its start-studded line-up, even if that only lasted a few days, set the Vuelta up with some serious bragging rights to use against its Giro and Tour cousins. Its exploitation of eight new summit finishes was exceedingly daring, yet it opened up some much-needed challenges for years to come. I just loved the new stage-finish at Benitatxell..! And in the Ermita de Alba, the Vuelta now has a recognized alternative to the nearby Angliru. The organisers brave attempt to turn the Andorran stage into an epic didn’t quite work out, but they deserve praise for at least trying – maybe that stage was just too hard? At least as a photographer, I found the route extremely photogenic, an important factor that all my colleagues enjoyed too – our stills imagery is almost, though not quite, as important as any TV imagery of the race. I actually produce my seasonal calendar during the Vuelta each year, and leave at least one blank page for a classic Vuelta scenery shot. This year, the designer placed one from stage four in ‘August’ and a cracker from stage twelve in ‘September’. But as the scenery got better and better in the last week so were those images replaced by even better ones.
Whatever can be said about the good and bad of this Vuelta, we had a cracking battle to enjoy between Dumoulin and Aru in the last week. Dumoulin set out his stall of contention as early as stage 9 to Benitatxell and continued to surprise the experts all the way to the TT in Burgos where, so everyone believed, the Dutchman had established himself as the virtual winner of the race. Not so. Both Aru and Dumoulin had endured a roller-coaster of a race, with each man winning then losing time on the summit finishes. Yet Aru, perhaps because he started the Vuelta just a little below his best, had a fresher spring in his step on the penultimate day. Astana’s experience at grand tour racing proved to be a huge asset for Aru, and they certainly got their act together in a race-defining way that day. It seemed as if Giant-Alpecin had brought a Vuelta team to support John Degenkolb, not Dumoulin, and when things then went south on the Puerto de la Morcuera, Dumoulin was alone against five Astana strongmen. It was a classic ambush I’ve seen so many times in Spain, one worth photographing and remembering for a long time to come.
At some point in the Vuelta, Dumoulin would have had to make a choice between trying to win the race, or backing off and trying to become the next World TT Champion – it seems like he chose the former. A World TT title in the USA would make amends for losing the Vuelta, but I find it hard to imagine that Dumoulin can recover in time to beat race-favourite Tony Martin, a man who until 2015 always used the Vuelta to harden his leg muscles. The TT in Richmond will be more than a match for 2014 in Ponferrada, when Sir Bradley Wiggins won. Wiggins won’t defend his title this time, but in his place comes the most-popular Taylor Phinney on a comeback trail that may not see him win or even make the podium, but that will certainly win him even more fans. But I won’t mention the name of Rohan Dennis to either Martin, Phinney, Dumoulin or some other contenders like Adriano Malori and Alex Dowsett, for the Australian has to be an outside bet to win. Dennis was singled out as the reason BMC won this year’s Tour de France TTT by one-second from Sky. He’s that good!
Now, what about the flagship event in Richmond, the Mens World Road Championship on September 27th? For me, not having even seen the course, I’d pitch John Degenkolb as the race-favourite. Winner of the Vuelta’s last stage, Degenkolb comes to the Worlds as winner of the Milan San Remo and Paris-Roubaix classics too, and as such has the endurance and strength to be the fastest at the end of a 259-kilometre race. He has competition from fellow German Andre Greipel (who’d want to be Germany’s team manager!) but Degenkolb has just come into form whereas Greipel has been in form all summer-long. There’s also a slight rise to be climbed for 16 laps, and that too favours Degenkolb. Let’s face it, a flattish circuit makes it something of a lottery to choose a winner, especially in an event that has a nine-man German team (for Degenkolb and Griepel), a nine-man Belgian team (for Greg Van Avermaet), a nine-man Spanish team (for Valverde), yet only a seven-man team for both Norway (Kristoff) and Slovakia (Sagan). A worlds contender needs men to carry bottles, to pace him throughout seven hours of racing, and to chase down attacks and then lead him out as well. Their power says that either Kristoff or Sagan should win. But strength alone is not enough for such a long and tactical event. And there is one name I’ve not mentioned, an Australian within a nine-man team. For if I say his name he definitely won’t win – so I won’t, and therefore he might win!
The Richmond Worlds will be more than just a sporting challenge for its multinational entrants, be them junior men and women, U-23 espoirs, or the cutting-edge elites, both men and women, who act as our sport’s ambassadors. The Worlds are in fact an annual celebration of the sport, in all its forms and disciplines. There is no other event in the year that sees such a familial coming together of athletes, fans, officials, sponsors, organisers and media. The meetings – both official and un-official - that go on while the races are going on, will affect and dictate the near-future of our sport. And in this pre-Olympic year, even more scrutiny will be placed on the politics and politicians that run cycling – love them or hate them, the sport wouldn’t work without them. For me, and for the small family of media that follows cycling all year-round, the Worlds will also nudge us ever closer to the season’s end. Il Lombardia ends the full-on European season on October 5th, while the new Abu Dhabi Tour has paid for the right to close-out the season in a new and mighty way a few days later. But it will be the World Championships we remember the longest into this winter, I can’t wait to see who wins those Gold medals..!GW