The Vuelta is not just for climbers
The Vuelta a España has a bit of a reputation for being somewhat unrelenting if you’re not an absolute beast in the mountains. And even if you’re adept at cycling uphill, no-one looks good riding up 30 per cent gradients.
A look at recent winners, and indeed this year’s winner, will suggests that to win the Vuelta you absolutely need to be the best climber in the race. But a certain Tom Dumoulin almost proved that theory wrong by leading the race into its penultimate stage only to be derailed, ironically for this point, by a few mountains.
Granted, Dumoulin lost a fair bit of time on the two really mountainous stages (11 and 20) but he gained that back in the time trial and at other times across the two weeks.
He had the luxury of not really being considered a threat until the third week but his style of defending in the mountains and winning on the time trial – tried and tested by the likes of Miguel Indurain and Bradley Wiggins – almost paid off.
In the end, a pure climber won, followed by four other pure climbers. To an outsider, a sixth place finish for time trial expert Dumoulin is not that remarkable, but how he raced and conducted himself over the three weeks captured the imagination of fans around the world.
Mountain stages in the first week are a good thing
Looking at the route map for the first week of the Vuelta a number of riders – mainly sprinters – will likely have seen the first summit finish on stage two and been filled with dread.
Normally the first week of Grand Tours are made up of reasonably flat stages, giving the sprinters something to take an interest in.
After the abomination that was the opening stage team time trial – neutralised because it was too dangerous – the summit finish to Caminito del Rey on stage two was the perfect way to really start the race.
We saw a fascinating duel between Dumoulin, Esteban Chaves and Nicolas Roche for the stage win, with the affable Colombian, Chaves, taking control of the red jersey.
While there were a number of hills and mountains in the first week of the Vuelta, it was arguably less demanding than the first week of the 2015 Tour de France.
The Tour’s first week was a series of nine very distinct individual stages, where the sprinters and cobbles riders battled it out each day while the overall contenders simply tried not to lose time or crash out.
The Vuelta, however, gave us some good battles in the first week among the main contenders, while stage wins were shared out among sprinters and climbers.
Granted, the Spanish terrain allows organisers to chuck an mountain in whenever they want, while the French have to rely on visits to two distinct mountain ranges, but it’s something for the Tour organisers to think about.
Orica-GreenEdge have a bona fide Grand Tour rider
The Vuelta was not much different, really, but instead of the likes of Simon Gerrans or Michael Matthews taking the lead for a bit, Chaves looked a genuinely dangerous race leader – one who could have worn the jersey pretty much post-to-post.
Having worn the jersey for a few days, Orica riders generally give it up by the end of the first week and then battle it out for a few stage wins thereafter, but Chaves showed his stayability and rode to a well deserved fifth place finish.
What’s more, the 25-year-old Colombian looked genuinely delighted to be doing so well in the race, commenting on a number of occasions that he was proving that he was cut out to lead in Grand Tours.
Two stage wins and six days in the red jersey did his stock the world of good and showed that Orica are more than plucky overachievers.
He didn’t have much support around him in the mountains, but Chaves’s performance is hopefully a sign of things to come with the Australian outfit. With the Yates brothers following a similar path to Grand Tour maturity, the future is even more bright at Orica than we thought.
Watch: Secrets of the toolbox with Orica-GreenEdge
Joaquim Rodriguez designs really hard stages
A lot of riders were left shaking their fist at Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez after stage 11, with the Spaniard having helped design the brutal stage in Andorra.
Rodriguez, who finished second overall over the three weeks, lives and trains in the Pyrenean country and managed to pack in over 16,000ft of climbing in just 138km.
When asked to design a stage for the race, Rodriguez could have easily designed a simple pootle to his local café stop, where each rider will have been required to order a double macchiato, drink it and get back on their bikes to sprint back to the finish line. But no, Purito had other ideas.
He, himself, lost 35 seconds to winner Fabio Aru on the stage, admitting that the mountains even got the better of him once the Italian attacked. Dumoulin also lost over 90 seconds on the stage, which was dubbed ‘the hardest Grand Tour stage ever’.
We’re not going to argue with that…
Astana still divide opinion
Astana have never been far from the headlines this season and this Vuelta was no different.
Drug scandals, licence issues and Tour de France meltdowns all came before the end of July, with August and September dominated by Vincenzo Nibali’s Vuelta expulsion and Aru’s overall win.
Nibali was kicked off for holding on to a team car when chasing back from a crash and claimed that the decision to expel him must have been because of the public perception of his team.
He has a point, in that people don’t seem to like Astana. A cursory look at the comments section of any cycling media outlet outside of Kazakhstan will show you that people eye the team with distrust.
If Dumoulin hadn’t been in contention for the win as late into the race as he was, Aru’s victory would likely have been seen in a better light, but now, quite unfairly, it’s just seen as another reason not to like the team.
Aru’s win salvaged Astana‘s turbulent season but it’s likely everyone on board will be hoping for a bit more stability in 2016.