Thing 1- I don't know if its just me but it usually seems as if the Vuelta takes longer to fully sort out the true GC contenders than the Tour or Giro. Take last year for example. Here was the top 10 on GC after stage 9:
- J-Rod +01
- Nibali +09
- Kessiakoff +18
- Van Den Broeck +27
- D Moreno +35
- Fuglsang +37
- Seeldrayers +42
- Zubeldia +42
- Cobo +46
- Froome +12
- Wiggins +1:39
- Mollema +2:03
- Menchov +3:48
- Monfort +4:13
- Nibali +4:31
- Van Den Broeck +4:45
- D Moreno +5:20
- Nieve +5:33
I am talking of course about the contest between Froome-dog on one hand and J-Rod, The Green Bullet, and The Accountant on the other. Obvious right?
Seriously though. Look back at the Live threads since stage 3, and what you see are a bunch of comments about how great this Grand Tour is compared to the Tour de France. The reason that's true is because-everybody together! -The Riders Make The Race. We have a really unusual situation where one of what seems like the four main contenders is basically unknown to the rest-and some of what's known is irritating to at least one of the others.
Its really very odd. Until last year's Vuelta, Chris Froome was never in even the wildest conversation as being a GC racer for even smaller stage races much less a Grand Tour. Last year before the Vuelta he finished on GC 61st at Murcia, 61st at Catalunya, 14th at Castilla y Leon, 15th at Romandie, 66th at California, 71st at Luxembourg, 47th at Suisse, and 85th at Poland. How about other years? Remember that 2010 Giro stage, the next to last one where Arroyo descended like a bat out of hell? Yeah, Froome-dog finished out of time. He did finish 9th at Haut Var that year and I mention that because as far as I can tell that's his best GC finish on any stage race ever before the Veulta last year. This guy has totally come out of nowhere in the three and a half years he's spent in the peloton.
I stress this because, to the other main GC guys at the race here, they really don't know what he''s capable of and they wonder if he can he keep it up to the end. Contador has never competed against him. Ever. Rodriguez? The only time he's seen Froome as a competitor was at last year's Vuelta and its eerie how the stage that J-Rod imploded (stage 9) was exactly the stage that Froome all of a sudden became competitive. Its like they were two ships passing in the night without any of the fun stuff.
Valverde? Missed Froome last year of course and this year? Just one time, the Tour, and its not hard to guess that it wasn't a totally fun experience for Alejandro. First, Valverde wasn't seriously competitive at the race, showing that it takes awhile for a guy to come back from an extended suspension. But remember stage 17? He won that one-and afterward, Froome told the press that he could have caught Al if he didn't have to stay near his team leader Wiggins. On two fronts, that comment was total mouth insert foot. Most obviously that was an ill-advised comment with Wiggins and his team, but also how do you think Valverde felt? Yeah-you in the back? The people who are totally rooting for Froome? You say that it wasn't a bad comment and that Valverde should just take it? You, my friends, don't understand how sports go. That was a direct shot at Valverde's pride and, guaranteed, Al has filed that comment away. Revenge is a dish best served cold....
And then, stage 4 happened, the Valverde crash stage possibly caused by Sky. Again, it doesn't matter what you, the fan, thinks. Its what Valverde thinks that counts and he is obviously pissed at Froome-dog. But now he has allies even among his direct competitors.
I can go on. Gesink in 5th place? Hasn't had a serious race against Froome. Roche? He's had the most contact with Froome, definitely more than Anton and Moreno. Mollema in 10th place currently has had the most direct racing experience-last year's Vuelta. So its not just the top three Spaniards we're talking about here. Froome is a cipher to most the GC heavyweights.
All of this is to say that the first week of this Vuelta was about, as Julie Andrews sings, getting to know Froome.
Getting to know you,
Getting to feel free and easy
When I am with you,
Getting to know what to say
Lots of fun at this Vuelta! Let's get to the poll..
1. Joaquim Rodriguez
How does he look so far? Very good. Not great though. Stage 8th final climb showed J-Rod being towed by Moreno for awhile. If the focus wasn't on Froome then he might have lost serious time.
Other than that he's look the best overall, but then the other climbs have been in his wheelhouse: short and sharp. That's gonna change soon.
What's the week ahead look like for him? Ahh, here is where he gets tested. TT on Wednesday. Big, big BIG climbs Saturday-Sunday-Monday before the 2nd rest day. He's got to limit his losses in the TT and come back strong in the big mountains. Also...
There is one day that looks good for him: Thursday, stage 12: 1.8km of final climbing hell. Average gradient 13.5%. And-get this-at the bottom is a section that's 30%. That's not a typo. That is a M.F. WALL. Have fun Purito!
Anything else? J-Rod looks to have the best domestique in the race in Dani Moreno and he could prove decisive.
2. Chris Froome
How does he look so far? Physically okay, but Increasingly lonely. This is not the Tour where Wiggins had Froome always by his side. Here, when business time comes, he's isolated and we can count on that continuing.
What's the week ahead look like for him? Good, at least with the TT. He should pass J-Rod and probably wil take first. Can he hold it next weekend? Can he survive being on the defensive the last nine stages? I can't see it: his rivals would have to crack. Possible though.
Anything else? The big question is if Sky can change their tactics, something that we've not seen evidence for this year. The Sky train performed beautifully for Wiggins all year but was shown to be too rigid in the Olympics for Cav. At this Vuelta we are seeing the Sky train falling off before the decisive moments happen. There are other strategies they could employ like sending a rider on a break to wait for their leader for instance. But can they change up? Do they have a Plan B? Would that be an admission of weakness in their eyes? In a week we will have answers.
3. Alberto Contador
How does he look so far? Fair, like he's warming up.
What's the week ahead look like for him? Pretty good, if he's getting his legs back. A nightmare if he isn't. The TT on Wednesday should be okay and possibly great for him. He hung with some pretty fast and on-form chronomen at the Eneco Tour a couple weeks ago and that was a flat TT course. I can't see him losing much time to Froome there and if his legs are back he could blitz the field. Or not.
Anything else? If Froome vs the Spaniards is one theme in this Vuelta, the other is, can Bert get his legs back in time? If he does, game over and the Vuelta practically gets boring. If he doesn't, its touch and go and its wide open. It looks like he's getting closer but until he does, you can't be sure. The Accountant is truly the wild card in this race.
4. Alejandro Valverde
How does he look so far? Pretty damn good. Much better than expected. Yesterday's finish in Barcelona was telling I think as we saw him mix it up with a a few sprinters while grabbing 3 seconds on Bert and Froome-dog. In the past, The Green Bullet racing sprinters was an indication of him being on form and winning races. Is he back?
The other thing to say here is that he's racing with a huge chip on his shoulder and that chip is directed directly at Froome and Sky. Its big enough that Contador and Rodriguez are sharing the load. Al is Angry and that's not a good thing if you are his competitor.
What's the week ahead look like for him? If his form is back then good. He should do well in the TT and not lose any substantial time. The big mountains are a concern to him even if he is on form but he's shown that he knows how to win a Grand Tour so he should be able to manage them. IF he is on form that is and there's a chance that he may just get too tired.
Anything else? Alejandro's position is like Contador's writ small. He's back from a much longer suspension and all season he's slowly been getting his legs back. In truth we haven't seen him this good all year. We also know that his historical ceiling is higher than anyone's by Contador's. If he can hold form he should beat Rodriguez and a weakened Contador and we know he's out for blood with Froome. But is he now back after a year of racing? The big mountains will tell us that. But then again he (and Froome) may just get tired after racing a full Tour.
5. Everyone else
Gesink, Anton, Roche and don't forget what I wrote at the top: a couple of riders currently outside the top ten wil sneak into it by race's end. The question here is will any of the Big Four crack and let one of these guys slip into a higher placing? Or better yet, might two of them crack? For me the answer is very possibly. All of the Big Four have Big Questions about their form, even J-Rod who's got a documented history of struggles in the TT and big mountains. The others may just poop out. Its hard to see anyone outside of Those Four winning, but podium? I give it a 35% chance.
A word about the Points competition
Can Degenkolb hold off the GC guys? We got 12 stages left. Obvious bunch sprint chances come on stages 10, and 21. Other stages, 13, 18, and 19 could be bunch sprints but also look like prime breakaway chances.
In other words: unlikely. Or the only way I can imagine it is if all of the Big Four implode, which is unlikely. Otherwise the GC winner wil pick up lots of points without trying in the big mountains. It would also be best if Degenkolb goes for intermediate sprints.
And a note on the KOM prize
So it looks like David Moncoutie is not feeling well enough to contest the spotty jersey and that makes me sad. He still could, but the big mountains will have the GC boys out to play and he needs multiple stage wins at this point.