Alejandro Valverde has still got it
You’d have thought that after 15 years in the pro peloton, and on the precipice of turning 37-years-old, that Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) might be beginning to show signs of decline.
There were no such signs at the Volta a Catalunya, however, where Valverde won three stages and the overall with consummate ease, even despite being penalised one minute along with the rest of his team after some riders were caught pushing during the team time trial.
If anything he looked even stronger than usual, sprinting to victory ahead of Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) with his familiar uphill kick on stage three, then skipping away from Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) – riders who typically get the better of him in the mountains – to win the race’s queen stage to Lo Port the following day.
With the general classification already in the bag, he even went out on the attack on the race’s final day in Barcelona to pick up another stage win, to cap an extraordinarily dominant performance.
The Spaniard has not won a Grand Tour since the 2009 Vuelta a Espana, but if he is capable of out-climbing two of the best in the world – and with the possibility of fatigue affecting his team leader Nairo Quintana’s Giro-Tour double bid – Valverde should not be written off as potentially becoming the oldest ever Tour de France winner.
Froome and Sky are still vulnerable to long-range ambushes
Chris Froome and the rest of his teammates must have felt a horrible feeling of deja vu early in the day on stage six, once the realisation had sunk in that they had lost contact on a descent with a large group containing all the other GC riders.
Last September, Froome was second overall at the Vuelta when he was caught the wrong side of a split at the very beginning of stage 15, and could do nothing to stop Nairo Quintana (Movistar) from riding away with the race.
This time the effect was even more damaging, as he not only lost any hope of overhauling race leader Valverde, but of finishing even anywhere near the top ten, as the gap ballooned out to over 25 minutes.
Sky will at least be pleased by Froome’s show of form on the preceding day’s summit finish to Lo Port, as well as the reasonable ride by Geraint Thomas. But, typically for a season which has fluctuated between highs and lows for the team, there will be concern with how the riders managed to get caught out in such similar circumstances as at the Vuelta last year.
One such catastrophic loss could perhaps be dismissed as an anomaly, but after two instances you can sense something of a pattern involving Sky being ambushed by such attacks – a pattern that his rivals will have clocked and could exploit in future races.
Marc Soler has bags of potential
It’s been a while since Spain produced a new, bona fide young talent.
Mikel Landa showed huge potential in coming third at the 2015 Giro d’Italia, but has since turned 27 without producing any comparable performances, while the old guard of Samuel Sanchez, Contador and Valverde are all now deep into their thirties.
They might have finally found a new star in Marc Soler, however. Having announced his talent by winning the Tour de l’Avenir two seasons ago, the 23-year old further advanced his career with a superb display in Catalunya, first instigating a bold move on a descent during stage four, then astonishingly riding everyone off his wheel apart from Valverde, Froome and Contador on the stage five’s summit finish.
His efforts were enough to ensure that Valverde was crowned champion, and that he himself sealed third overall – the kind of result that suggests he can already compete in week-long stage races, and soon, perhaps, Grand Tours.
Long team time trials can work in stage races
Heading into the race, there was a worry that the sheer length of the team time trial stage (43 kilometres) might mean the time gaps it produces would be too severe, and therefore have too great an impact on the GC.
Although it was true that certain favourites were all but put out of contention – Romain Bardet (Ag2r) and Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) lost over two minutes, for instance, while Cannondale-Drapac’s various GC hopefuls all lost 3-38 – but the top riders were still only separated by small margins, with Valverde, Contador and Froome all dueling on stage five’s decisive summit finish with only 28 seconds at the time separating them on GC.
The stage was an entertaining spectacle too, featuring the rare sight of one team (Movistar) catching and passing another (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij), while the aftermath prompted plenty of debate as the race organisers prompted Movistar’s wrath by penalising them one minute for illegally pushing.
Tejay van Garderen is still a shadow of his former self
BMC’s victory in the team time trial provided Tejay van Garderen the chance to kick-start his lacklustre start of the season, putting him in the overall lead heading into the mountain stages.
But the American again found his legs betraying him, as he was dropped by his rivals on Lo Port, eventually rolling nearly two minutes after stage winner Valverde.
It was the latest in a series of disappointing performances from van Garderen, who is failing to deliver on his early promise during what should be the peak years of his career.
His overall rank of fifth in Catalonia is his best in a while, but the 28-year old still looks a long way from the rider who, two summers ago, nearly defeated Froome at the Critérium du Dauphiné and came within days of podiuming at the Tour de France.