Confusion is the word that best sums up most of stage 16 of the 2011 Vuelta a Espana, a seemingly straightforward trek across the flatlands of northern Spain with a bunch sprint – a beast so rare in this year’s Vuelta it’s on the point of extinction – at the end of the stage.
That was the theory. However, the practice was slightly different, first of all thanks to a crash at 12 kilometres to go which saw Spanish star Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) lose over 11 minutes overall – he may end up abandoning – then a later intermediate sprint where Chris Froome (Sky) first gained two seconds time bonus overall then, thanks to the commissaires, lost them again.
Just to add to the fun, a roundabout 300 metres from the finish saw the leading three riders misdirected and finally a split in the bunch caused by the same roundabout allowed race leader Cobo gain two seconds on Froome and five on Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Bauke Mollema (Rabobank), third and fourth overall.
First off, the crash: Joaquin Rodriguez was one of the worst affected, suffering a possible fracture in his left wrist. Surrounded by his Katusha team-mates, the points jersey leader crossed the line eleven minutes down on the main bunch and what little he said to the press was basically that his arm was so painful that he had no idea whether he could continue racing.
Rodriguez is a long way down now, but it would be a pity if he went: already the winner of two stages early on he has always been one of the most spirited of the racers, and he could have been hot favourite for tomorrow’s short, steep mountain top finish at Peña Cabarga – where he won last year.
The next incident came at the intermediate sprint, where Chris Froome (Sky) tried to pull back time on Cobo. Initially placed third which enable him to pull back two seconds, Geox protested to the commissaires at the finish, and after re-viewing the tv images, the commissiares decided Maxime Monfort (Leopard Trek) had got third instead, so Froome’s time bonus went up in smoke.
This year, as Froome has pointed out, the time bonuses have been decisive, to the point where without them he, not Cobo, would be leader. (For the record, Cobo has taken a 20 second bonus on the Angliru, a 12 second bonus on the Farrapona and eight seconds on the Covatilla.)
The roundabout 300 metres from the finish then had two main consequences: at least three riders, including Heinrich Haussler (Garmin-Cervélo) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas) went the wrong way, and it also conclusively shattered the bunch, already in the process of splitting apart on the tricky run-in.
Haussler was furious, Sagan more philosophical (having two stage wins in the bag could help) and Haedo, who won the stage, admitted he had “got lucky.”
“It was total confusion,” he said later, “everybody braked but I managed to go round the right way.”
As a result, Haedo took Argentina’s first ever win in a Grand Tour by several bikelengths: on the same day that one World’s contender, Tom Boonen (Quick Step) failed to start because of his hand injuries, the 30-year-old sprinter’s victory now makes him a possible outsider for victory in Copenhagen.
The roundabout then helped to shatter the bunch definitively, with Cobo the last man in a second group across the line, and taking tenth. Both Froome, 13th, and Wiggins, 22nd, were almost equally well placed, but the splits saw Froome lose two seconds and Wiggins another five overall.
In some ways, they are small differences on a very technical run-in. Buut on a race which is being decided by minimal gains and losses – Cobo admitted today that it could be the time bonuses that win him the race overall – they could matter more than they ought to.