So, is this the most boring Vuelta ever, or just in the modern era?
With three contested stages remaining (and Sunday's parade), anticipation should be brimming over... or we should be celebrating the weekend's epic stages... or something. But here is what we have:
- The overall picture hasn't changed since the first day (of two) in the Pyrenees. That would be stage 9. Stage 10 was sorta the queen stage, except that most of the top stars finished together.
- The overall picture isn't likely to change anytime soon. Thursday's stage has some climbing, but the worst of it is over 100km from the finish. Friday's stage has two long cat-1 climbs, averaging a paltry 5.7% grade. And anything the climbers gain along this road, they're going to lose to Denis Menchov and Cadel Evans in the penultimate time trial... which itself is a pussycat, dead-flat 20km.
- The only real news from the peloton is Carlos Sastre's constant griping about the lack of action, alternating between suspecting collusion and bemoaning the course.
- The points competition is heating up... because the leader is quitting the race tomorrow. The mountains competition is being won by a Belgian and garnering exactly zero attention. The combined jersey has (theoretically) rested on the the shoulders of the maillot oro for 15 straight days, begging the question what it rewards that the gold jersey doesn't already?
Here's what CN said at the launch:
The final big mountain stage comes one day later. Stage 19 from Ávila to Alto de Abantos is just 138 kilometres in length but a glance at the profile shows it will be a hard day in the saddle; cat three, cat two, cat three, cat one, cat three and then a concluding cat one summit finish at an altitude of 1,650 metres spell problems for anyone who hasn't got his climbing legs on.
Hopefully they're right about the last part; maybe this thing isn't over. But Menchov has barely broken a sweat defending his lead for nearly two weeks, and it's not clear to me that he ever will. There's been a lot of talk about making races a tad easier to reduce the pressure to cheat, but this Vuelta demonstrates the dangers of such relatively baseless assumptions, if in fact that was in Unipublic's mind. None of the leaders of this race strike me as likely dopers; if anything I'd say this is a fairly clean race. Who knows? And yet, even clean riders can't force any selections over this course. Am I to believe that if they added some h.c. climbs this week these guys would resort to doping and finish in a gruppetto again? I don't think so; I bet you'd see some ashen faces and guys needing help getting off their bikes. And you'd see a race loaded with suspense.
Maybe the real problem is that the model of holding the big climbs in the first 10 days simply doesn't work. It takes two weeks of racing to soften up the legs to the point where the climbs can make much difference; otherwise these guys are just too good, and even the guys who drop off can limit their losses to mere seconds. Maybe if they ran this course in reverse, it would look different. Who knows?
All I can say for sure is that there is little to get excited about. Not what you should be saying in the last week of a grand tour.