Wasn't it just before this Vuelta that everyone was saying it would have one of the strongest fields of any Grand Tour in recent memory? This was going to be the revenge of Jurgen Van Den Broeck for crashing out of the Tour, of Andreas Klöden for crashing out of the Tour, of Denis Menchov for a lackluster Giro and a Tour snub, of Igor Antón for crashing out of the Vuelta he probably would have won last year, the fruition of Joaquim Rodriguez, the continued confirmation of Vincenzo Nibali, the chance for Michele Scarponi to pull the double (let's be honest here), and....positively none of that happened.
Juan José Cobo has won the Vuelta? Who had him anywhere on their radar before the race? And same for Chris Froome, and arguably even Bradley Wiggins. A brief look at each of their careers.
Cobo does have a Grand Tour top ten to his credit - 10th in the 2009 Vuelta. But that was a race where combativity was practically a curse word. None of the top eight finishers that year won a stage. While the cast of names ahead of him that year was perfectly respectable - Valverde, Evans, Sanchez, Basso, Gesink, Mosquera, among them - that year's race was truly one of the most unremarkable ever. Eight of the eventual top ten had revealed themselves by stage 8, and only one road stage provided for any notable time gaps (stage 13). Cobo was just barely on the fringe of being with the best riders in this race, 19 seconds down on Philip Deignan in ninth but over two minutes behind any other riders. The only other stage race he has won in his career was the 2007 Tour of the Basque Country - certainly not an easy race, but one generally doesn't go from winning a week-long race to a three-week Grand Tour four years later.
Froome is, obviously, the major shock of this race. He had only previously entered three Grand Tours, finishing 84th in the 2008 Tour, 36th in the 2009 Giro, and failing to finish the 2010 Giro. He has one previous stage race victory to his credit, too, and I defy you to have even heard of it - what the heck is the Tour of Mauritius? Prior to his stage win in this year's Vuelta, the only races he'd even won were in something called the Giro del Capo and the...Anatomic Jock Race? Come on, that sounds totally made up. (Except it's totally not) To go from that to being a whisper away from being mentioned in the same breath as Merckx, Hinault, Contador, and Anquetil would be...shocking, to say the least. He's often been touted as an up-and-comer, and a future star, but he's never really shown anything anywhere close to this before.
Even the last man on the podium, the one who ostensibly entered the race as the leader of Froome's squad, Bradley Wiggins, is something of a surprise. Other than his completely-out-of-left-field fourth in the 2009 Tour, Wiggins' highest Grand Tour placing is 24th, and he's thrice finished in the triple-digits. He's proven to be a fairly good man for week-long tours, winning the Dauphiné and finding the podium in Paris-Nice this year, but his Grand Tour pedigree has never really been there, at least not when people had any reason to think of him as one of the first hundred guys they might suspect as a winner.
The whole top of the overall standings shows a pretty motley cast, too. Nibali and Van Den Broeck are in the top ten, but in positions you might expect from a Schlecked-up, Bertied-up, Evans'd-up Tour de France rather than the Vuelta. Menchov is also there, despite another pretty invisible three weeks, although in fairness to him it stopped being his goal to win anything after Angliru. The other names are all guys of whom you'd say "yeah, solid mountain goat," but not that you'd realistically think could crack the top of a Grand Tour leaderboard. Mollema, Monfort, Moreno, Nieve. I'm not saying any of them are bad riders or they don't deserve their positions, but who expected them to finish this high, especially at the expense of the names that came before the jump?
Luck had a little to do with it. Klöden didn't finish this race, either. If he weren't in really good position for a jersey, I tend to doubt Rodriguez would have. But what of Antón, and Scarponi, and Nibali? Does this race reveal them to be pretenders?
If and until he finally does put it together, likely at the Vuelta, I think Antón is going to have much the same stigma Valverde did - potential can't pay the bills. Antón is one of the very best pure climbers on a team where "pure climber" is practically a prerequisite to employment, but as far as Grand Tours go, he's only ever finished in the top ten once, at the 2007 Vuelta. I've never been much of a believer in Scarponi, but this was easily the best season of his career and since his return from being suspended he's become a legit contender at the Giro (and will probably go down in history as the winner of the 2011 Giro, much as I hate to say it). He lay in 5th after stage 8 of this year's race, but he lost a minute the next day to fall to 18th and then a whopping 20 minutes on stage 13 before abandoning the next day. There's...ample reasons this could have happened.
Nibali to me is the interesting case. Back-to-back podiums at savagely difficult Giri, once when he wasn't even leader of his squad, speak to his impressive consistency. He was never flashy - his one stage win over that time came on a rather lengthy descent - but he was the picture of consistency. He never went into the red to mark Contador, or Scarponi, or anyone. His ride to the win in last year's Vuelta was similar - when Mosquera first began to fly away on the Bola del Mundo, Nibali stayed within himself and rode the ride that delivered him to Madrid on the top step of the podium. And of course we can't forget that it took Antón's crash for him to even be in that position in the first place. It looked like this year's race was going to be much the same. After 13 stages, Nibali was just 4 seconds back, in second place. While a time loss on the Angliru could be expected of anyone, Nibali's bad day actually came the day before Angliru - 27th on La Farrapona cost Nibali between a minute and a minute and a half to the race's other elite riders, and he never mounted any challenge to recover from that deficit. Dropping another two and a half minutes, to Cobo, on Angliru certainly didn't help, either. Bad days like this just don't seem to happen for Nibali on climbs with the word 'Passo' in their names. He might drop a little time, but with fewer riders, and much fewer race elite, ahead of him.
So what do we take away from this race? Cobo is 30 - a bit late for arrival as a top-tier rider. It can be just about assured that he'll return to defend his Vuelta crown next year, but will he even be a favorite then? If he should start the Giro or the Tour, would he be considered a contender there? Has he ever really been considered a favorite for anything? It depends a bit on what invites the Geox team gets next year (Cobo seems committed to this team, having ridden for it every year since 2004, except 2010), but what's to say he wouldn't end up a support rider for Denis Menchov, unquestionably a more polished and accomplished cyclist, in next year's big tours?
And Froome? At 26, he's on the upper end of when you might expect a top-level rider to show his first flashes of brilliance (setting aside the fact that these were really Froome's first flashes of anything), but he's definitely got several more seasons than Cobo left in him. What can we expect of him going forward? If he stays with Team Sky and splits Grand Tour captaincy with Wiggins, he's bound to end up over his head sooner or later. If he should sign with a smaller team and be the unquestioned leader, he's unlikely to have a chance to prove himself against the best fields in the sport. It took the time trial of Froome's life to get him in this position - will he have those kind of chops going forward? Ironically, the effort that got Froome into this position may also have cost him the overall, as he lost 27 seconds to Cobo, among others, the day after the time trial.
What are your thoughts on a decidedly thought-provoking race?