By Gregor Brown
The 2016 Vuelta a España has produced four successful escapes so far in its first week, but riders say that is because the race is "insanely hard" and scaring the classification stars from showing themselves too soon.
Again today on the Alto del Naranco climb above Oviedo, for the fourth time in eight road stages so far, an escape succeeded and Spaniard David de la Cruz (Etixx–Quick-Step) won. The classification men, despite a few small bursts, held their fireworks display for another day.
With 10 summit finishes and only a handful of flat stages over three weeks, it seems the stars are "scared" too overdo it.
"It's insanely hard here," American Tyler Farrar (Dimension Data) told Cycling Weekly. "Everyone is just doing the math on how hard this race is as a whole, so [the stars] are afraid to commit too early in the first week. Teams are trying to conserve their riders in case they have the lead later in the race.
"That's what happens when you make the race this hard. Every time an escape goes, the GC guys think of the bigger battle and decide to just let it go."
From the group of favourites, lower-ranked stars like Peter Kennaugh (Sky) and Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx–Quick-Step) fired. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) followed a late move, but held his long-range attacks for the days ahead.
"I spoke with a lot of riders from the big teams like Movistar, Tinkoff and Sky, and they are all scared about the three weeks here in the Vuelta," Brambilla said. "If you keep a high pace every day through the first week, it'll be hard to keep going to the third week. They don't want to overcook themselves.
"In my opinion, it's not really good. I like to fight for the stage victory and the GC, but anyway, I'm happy because my team-mate won today."
Three-time winner Alberto Contador sped off directly to the team's hotel with his Tinkoff helpers arriving one-by-one to the neon yellow bus to shower. Italian Daniele Bennati shook his head when asked the reason for the number of successful breakaways.
"It's normal, we have to go over so many climbs that [Contador and the others] want to think about the final week," Bennati explained.
"It's useless for the organisers to keep making the races more and more difficult to just get to the last week with a nonexistent show because the stars are lacking the gas to put on one."
LottoNL-Jumbo Sports Director Addy Engels studied tomorrow's stage 10 – another summit finish – in his road book, but perhaps it was in vain. Yesterday, he kept Robert Gesink and George Bennett in the main group because he was certain that the escape would not succeed to the finish line and that his men would have their chance for a stage win if they waited. Instead, Sergey Lagutin (Katusha) won from a breakaway.
"It's difficult to make tactics for us because when we think an escape won't survive, and we don't put a man in it, and it does survive," Engels said.
"The parcours is also suitable to breaks, where in the Tour de France or Giro d'Italia, you get many stages that you know they will be sprints or other types of predictable finishes."
Engels stopped to think for a moment about the last time he has seen a grand tour with four successful escapes in the first week. "Maybe I'm wrong, but we haven't seen something like this happening in recent years."
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