The big finale beckons
It feels like the entire race has been leading up to the next two stages of the Vuelta a España. Friday’s 37km individual time trial and Saturday’s final mountain stage will settle the general classification before the last flat stage into Madrid on Sunday.
Chris Froome (Team Sky) is ranked as the favourite among the GC riders to gain time on his rivals in Friday’s test against the clock. The Tour de France champion sits three minutes and 37 seconds behind race leader Nairo Quintana (Movistar) but it will be a very tall order to claw back that time in the TT alone.
If Froome still has aspirations of winning his second Grand Tour of the season, he must put in the time trial of his life on Friday and then attack on Saturday. It’s certainly not an impossibility that he could overhaul Quintana yet. The likelihood of Quintana and Froome finishing within seconds of each other when the race concludes on Sunday is high.
It’s hard to call which rider will be on the top step, though, but right now Quintana has the upper hand.
Orica-BikeExchange’s great Vuelta continues
Despite having two riders riding high in the general classification and all the collective team responsibility that brings, Orica-BikeExchange have still managed to grab stage wins along the way.
Magnus Cort Nielsen’s victory on stage 18 in Gandia was a great example of grabbing an opportunity, and once again shows that the Australian team’s young riders fear nothing. The 23-year-old Dane sprinted up the left-hand side of the road to spring a surprise on the more established Grand Tour riders and take a convincing victory.
It’s Orica’s third stage win in the Vuelta, with Simon Yates and Jens Keukeleire having won stages six and 12 respectively. It’s the first time that each of the three riders has won a Grand Tour stage.
With Esteban Chaves and Yates currently placed third and fifth overall for the team, this Vuelta has been a showcase for Orica-BikeExchange’s fresh new talent… no matter what happens in the next few days.
Slim pickings for the sprinters’ teams
With so few truly flat sprint stages in the 2016 Vuelta, it’s not overly cruel to suggest that the race does not include an ‘A’ list of fastmen. However, several teams have brought along riders with a decent quick finish. Etixx-QuickStep’s Gianni Meersman has been the biggest benefactor, winning stages two and five.
One thing that seems obvious is the lack of organisation of teams towards the finish of sprint stages, and this was evident on stage 18. Giant-Alpecin and Bora-Argon 18 had moved to the front of the peloton towards the finish, but were unable to place their nominated riders in perfect positions to take the victory.
Instead, it was the relatively unsupported riders that seemed to benefit from a lead-out from other teams: stage winner Magnus Cort Nielsen (Orica-BikeExchange) and Jempy Drucker (BMC) among them.
Cannondale-Drapac need a win
Time is running out for Cannondale-Drapac to claim a major victory, having so far come away from all three 2016 Grand Tours empty handed. Outside of Grand Tours, the American squad’s hit-rate hasn’t been much better with just nine victories for the entire season, none in WorldTour races.
Pierre Rolland put himself into the day’s escape group. The French rider has previously been touted as a Grand Tour contender, but currently sits over an hour down on race leader Quintana.
With the break scooped up by the peloton, there was no chance of Rolland to emulate the success of Jack Bauer in the Tour of Britain earlier the same day. As Rolland was riding in the escape in Spain, his New Zealand team-mate managed to win from the escape in Bath.
It’s not all bad for the riders in green. Andrew Talansky and Davide Formolo sit sixth and eighth overall. If Talansky can pull out a good time trial performance on Friday, he could move up the GC but a podium spot now seems like a big ask.
Has this year’s Vuelta been too hard?
Several riders have complained about how hard this year’s Vuelta a España has been, which begs the question as to whether the organiser has made it too extreme. Summit finishes make for good viewing and an unpredictable outcome, but for the riders at the end of a long season it’s proving too much for some.
BMC’s Tejay van Garderen pulled out of the race on Wednesday, citing fatigue, and Team Sky’s David Lopez is reported to have said that stage 15’s mass finish of over 90 riders outside the time cut points towards an extremely tired peloton.
It hasn’t helped that this season has included the Olympic Games, which filled the gap between the Tour and Vuelta with a tough race and a long flight for those who took part.
With hindsight, all of those summit finishes in the opening two weeks of the race did little to open up the general classification, with so many riders mindful of an even harder final week. Will the Vuelta serve up more of the same next year, or is a change overdue?