However much one might take issue with the route of this year's Vuelta a España (and the answer here would be "a lot"), it's still a grand tour and there are still some important messages to take away from what we just witnessed. Or at least, there'd better be, considering the €21 and uncounted hours invested. So let's take a look at who profited and lost out over the last three weeks, and how.
- Denis Menchov: Obviously the overall winner has lots to appreciate about the experience, but for Menchov this is a change in status. Despite his prior Vuelta title, Menchov was strictly B-list material at the Tour, and quickly fell off the pace this year, even faster than he did in last year's Tour. By the end, he had ceded control of the team to the Chicken, sold his own soul to that devil, and left in disgust. It was reasonable to assume that Menchov had become a dispirited version of his prior, non-winning self... on an express train to palookaville.
Eight weeks later, he's a grand tour champion in the truest sense. In 2005 he won by post-Vuelta fiat, fairly enough, but with little satisfaction and only time trial wins to his credit. This year he won in style, on the road, in the mountains, and with the unflagging consistency required in a three week race. The stages that mattered were 8, 9, 10, 19 and 20, and Menchov went 4th, 2dd, 1st, 3rd, 2nd. He won three jerseys and narrowly missed the fourth. Even more impressive, with the race long over, he still banged out a sweet time trial. That's class.
Now he's talking of Tours, as well he should: there's only one step up the ladder after Madrid. It's a huge step, but next time around maybe Menchov will come at it with confidence. Looking over the competition, there's no reason he shouldn't.
- Carlos Sastre: Well, he got the 4th-place monkey off his back, and without riders being kicked out for drugs either. And he placed about where he belonged. Arguably Sastre was as strong and animated as anyone, but there was no place for him to go get scads of time. In fairness, there were no impossibly long, flat time trials for him to concede huge gaps either, so Sastre shouldn't feel jobbed about second. On another parcours, maybe he could have won; surely Menchov was closer to his limit at times than Carlos ever was. But he'll get 1-2 more tries, and may even have the sense to give up on the Tour, so don't weep for him.
[Interesting aside: I see today that Unipulic's Victor Cordero is blaming the riders for the lack of action. Classy.]
- Sammy Sánchez: Like the two guys above him, Sam-(in)Sán(e) needed this race pretty badly. He was a late-blooming revelation last year in winning Zurich, second at Lombardia and La Flèche, stage wins at the Vuelta, País Vasco and Asturias, and second overall on the UCI Pro Tour. Needless to say, expectations were running rampant this year, and his paltry pair of stage wins at País Vasco and Catalunya weren't cutting it. But ripping off three stage wins in the final week to nab a podium spot have vaulted Sánchez right back into prominence, and paid off Euskaltel for their patience. His riveting downhill win on stage 15 was a true highlight, and his back-to-back wins in the final mountain and time trial stages augur very well for the upcoming worlds, if he's not too tired. Indeed, had this been a typically back-loaded grand tour, his third-week peak might have won it all. He'll be thirty this winter, but he's still in my top three favorite riders right now.
- Karpin-Galicia: Do my eyes deceive me or did Caisse d'Epargne actually win the team competition? Few things are as perplexing about the Vuelta as the minor awards: I get the points and mountains, but have yet to uncover the difference between the combined jersey and the maillot oro. And the team comp... all three weeks I kept thinking about what a stunning disappointment the Boys in Black were. Ah, well... anyway, I don't want to demean the continental riders by saying "oh, that's so great, Relax-Gam almost cracked the top ten!" The Spanish outfits are pretty solid bets to animate the Vuelta these days, and it was no shock to see Relax and Andalucia in front of breaks or bunch sprints or crawling over the mountains. But Karpin were clearly the best of the continental squads, led by Zeke Mosquera's podium challenge, placing two more guys on GC before the first Saunier Duval name shows up, and finishing seven riders for seventh overall in the team race. Team leaders Mosquera and Santos Gonzalez are older veterans (which may explain their solid work), but there's hope for the future too with 23-year-old Serafin Martinez, who was holding the mountains jersey when he departed the race after two weeks.
- Daniele Bennati: Paitence and a nice little turn of speed saw him take the points jersey home, not to mention three stages and an early maillot oro as a souvenir. At age 27, he has beaten Alessandro Petacchi enough times to stake his claim as Italy's top points sprinter, giving him something to prove next year at the Tour. As poorly as July started for him, we can see with his recent run of prestigious stage wins (including Paris and Madrid) that he has what it takes. And don't get me started about his work in the Classics... Good signing by Liquigas, they will definitely not regret it.